Wujood-e-zan se haitasveer-e-kainaat mein rang
(The colours of the universe are there because of the existence of womankind)
— Sir Muhammad Iqbal
Did you know the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman? Of course you didn’t.
In recent years, on account of sustained negative stereotyping across the world media, the phrase “Muslim woman” might conjure an image of a demure and powerless woman oppressed by antiquated customs. Yet this image is not what our history records or what our present reflects.
Muslim men may fret that they lose when their women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. The al-Qarawiyyin university and its founder Fatima al-Fihri are crown jewels and powerful symbols of noble female aspirations in Muslim history.
Set up in 859 (almost a hundred years before the foundation of Al Azhar in Cairo) and nestled in the old medina of Fes, Morocco’s University of al-Qarawiyyin is acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest institution in the world operating as an academic degree-granting university.
Located within the compounds of a mosque that would in the coming centuries expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa — capacity 22,000 — the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificently influential city of Fes. Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus are some of the leading thinkers, theorists and writers produced by Al-Fihri’s university. Renowned mapmakers, astonomers, and historians attended as students. Al-Fihri’s sister Mariam built the Al-Andalus mosque.
From about 700 to 1700, many of history’s greatest achievers were to be found in the Muslim world. In Christian Europe the light of scientific inquiry had largely been extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. But it survived, and indeed blazed brightly, elsewhere.
From Moorish Spain across North Africa to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and all the way to India, scientists in the Muslim world were at the forefront of developments in medicine, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, chemistry, map-making and exploration.
Fatima al-Fihri migrated with her father Mohamed al-Fihri and sister Maram from al-Kairouan (al-Qayrawan) in Tunisia, to Fes in Morocco. She was well versed in classical Islamic learning such as fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (Islamic traditions based on the Prophet’s life). Fatima inherited a large fortune from her father which she used to build a mosque and university. Mariam, Fatima’s sister, was the sponsor of the Al-Andalus mosque, also in Fes.
Fatima was undoubtedly a pious woman with visionary and architectural acumen who was guided by a magnanimous heart and a perspicacious mind. She was endowed with a fortune bequeathed by her father. Far from reveling in wealthy pursuits, she used the resources very frugally to set up a mosque, university and library — the highest trinity of Islamic piety.
She personally supervised the entire gigantic enterprise, from putting up the foundation through to the functionalising of these institutions. When she embarked on her mission, she had lost her father, husband and brother — all primary sours of support and protection for a woman — any other Muslim woman would have retreated to the backwaters of domestic life. But Fatima appears to have been an extraordinarily inspired and determined woman. All her great achievements came during periods of loneliness and in situations when women normally shun the world and seek company with the home.
The original mosque was of modest dimensions but, having become in 918 the official mosque in which the sultan attended Friday prayers ,it was taken over by the state. From the Idrisis to the Awits the mosque has been continually embellished. Some of its architectural specimens show flourishes of Moorish architecture in Alhambra in Granada.
In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas.
The initial curriculum focused on the religious sciences and later covered other disciplines such as grammar, geography, history, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and astronomy. The university played a leading role in cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. The cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi (d. 1166), whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance, lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that he may have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.
The prestigious academic reputation transcended religious divisions. Popular tradition suggests that Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003), who would become Pope Sylvester II, credited with introducing Arabic numerals to Europe, was once a student at al-Qarawiyyin.
The university served as a bridge of knowledge between Africa and between the Middle East and Europe. When Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 13th century, many came to Fèz and to Qarawwiyin. They brought with them their learning of European and Moorish arts and sciences.
The most efflorescent period for the institution spanned between the 12th and 15th centuries when it was lavishly patronised by Almohades and Merinids.
Al-Qarawiyyin produced a number of high profile scholars who exercised a strong influence in the academic realms of the Muslim world. Among the great names, one can cite Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti (d.721 AH/1321 CE), Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi (d.737 AH/1336 CE) and Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, who led his generation in studies of the “Maliki” school of thought.
On the world stage, Al-Qarawiyyin played, in medieval times, a leading role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. Pioneer scholars include Ibn Maymun (Maimonids, (1135-1204), who was taught at Al-Qarawiyyin by Abdul Arab Ibn Muwashah. The famous Al-Idrissi (d.1166 CE) is said to have settled in Fez for a considerable period of time, suggesting that he must have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin. Sources also list a number of peers, such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 CE), Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan, all of whom are said to have taught in Al-Qarawiyyin. Some historic accounts also spoke of Ibn Zuhr (d.1131 CE) spending a great deal of time travelling between Andalusia, Fes and Marrakech.
Among Christian witnesses of the contribution of Al-Qarawiyyin is Gerbert of Aurillac (930-1003), famously known as Pope Sylvester II, who is credited with introducing the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe, and who studied at Al-Qarawiyyin. More recently the Belgian Nichola Louvain settled in Fes in 1540 and studied Arabic at Al-Qarawayyin, to be followed later by the Deutch Golius who also studied Arabic there.
The university boasts one of the world’s greatest libraries. Founded in 1349 by Sultan Abu Inan and completely restructured under King Mohammed V, the grandfather of Morocco’s current monarch, the Qarawwiyin library is one of the oldest and highly respected libraries in the world. For centuries, historians and scholars traveled to Fes to peruse the library’s shelves. The library fell into disrepair in the period of decline of Islam’s Golden Age. After centuries of neglect, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture recently restored the library. From calligraphic designs on the walls to ceramic patterns on the floors and wooden carvings on the ceilings, the fingerprint of almost every ruling dynasty since the 9th century can be seen in the architecture.
While the library is a pale shadow of what it must have been when the Merinid sultan Abu Inan stocked it with thousands of rare manuscripts that form part of the booty won from the Christian king of Selvile, it retains an important place in the pantheon of the world’s information powerhouses.
A special room with strict security and temperature and humidity controls the most ancient works. The library’s collection of over 4000 manuscripts include volumes from the SiratIbnIshaq, the earliest collection of Islamic and the famous Muwatta of Imam Malik written on gazelle parchment. There is a treatise on the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink. There is also a 12thcentury copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.
Another precious possession is a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin given to the university by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur Al-Dhahabi in 1602. The library has the original handwritten and signed copy of the historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s Al-‘Ibar, “Book of Lessons.” “Praise be to God, what is written belongs to me,” reads a line in Ibn Khaldun’s elegant handwriting and an original copy of Muqaddimah. It also has a treatise on medicine by the philosopher and physician Ibn Tufayl from the 12th century. “From baldness to corn on the foot, all ailments of the body are listed — in verse, to make them easier to learn. There is also a 12th-century manuscript — a treatise inastronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi — shows the course of the planet Jupiter, complete with drawings of astonishing precision.
History shows that early Muslim women reformers were authentic exemplars of modern economic and social philosophies that have become modern fetishes. More important, the early role models were altruistic whereas many of their present day peers are driven more by selfish impulses.
What’s important about Fatima al-Fahiri’s story is that she creates not only a sense of pride for younger girls, but also a sense of possibility. In her, they can see the story of women’s resilience and vision.