Categories: History & Heritage

Fatima al-Fihri’s Historic Moroccan University

A trailblazer from her time, Fatima Al-Fihri was undoubtedly one of the greatest pioneers the world has ever witnessed. Celebrated in Africa and beyond, Fatima not only revolutionized education but also left behind a phenomenal landmark in Islamic history. 

Whilst we may not have many details of her story, what we do know is what counts. Born in Kairouan in Tunisia in the 9th century, Fatima Bint Muhammad al-Fihriyyah al-Qurashiyyah also known as Fatima Al-Fihri – belonged to a rather privileged and wealthy family. What’s more, beyond wealth and reputation, young Fatima was raised among scholars, clerics and businessmen. This fact alone would go on to shape her thoughts, beliefs and decisions in the future when migrating to Fez, Morocco. 

Despite Kairouan being an advancing and evolving place to grow up, at the time, the vast majority of Muslims in Kairouan decided to migrate to Fez. Why? Well, the people of Kairouan were eager and enthusiastic to be in even better company. Whilst Kairouan was one of the more popular cities in Africa, a mass migration took place to Fez only because Fatima and her family quite liked the new ruling empire in Morocco at the time. 

Possessing high standards, devoted, righteous and God-fearing – these were only some of the qualities of the Idrisid Empire. Succeeding his brother, Yahya Ibn Muhammad Ibn Idris was the Idrisid ruler at the time. Described as a calm and successful individual, Yahya was fortunate to witness a huge expansion of his empire thanks to the large groups of migrants from Andalusia and other parts of Africa. 

Whilst the Moroccan city of Fez did go from strength to strength, Fatima’s legacy alone is what stands out in the narrative. 

Endowed with intelligence, passion and the constant thought of perpetual charity, Fatima made a decision that was uncommon for women in her position to make at the time. 

Losing her father and husband at a young age, Fatima and her sister Maryam were fortunate to inherit a rather large sum of money as they were the only children. Fatima was truly a product of the society she grew up in. Her piety, determination and constant worry for the future generation was a result of the many ascetic individuals she grew up with. Instead of mourning for an extended period or forsaking her aspirational endeavours, Fatima decided to be a trailblazer by doing the one thing no one was doing throughout the world. 

To benefit the masses, she decided to be strategic and utilize the money inherited to materialize – in a rather wonderful manner – her vision of expanding and facilitating education. By doing this, she exceptionally insured herself in this world and the next by embodying the prophetic tradition of perpetual charity. Realizing that the commodity of knowledge transcends the physical world and all that it contains, Fatima’s decision revolutionized teaching and learning. 

“When a man dies all his good deeds come to an end except three: Ongoing charity (Sadaqah Jariyah), beneficial knowledge and a righteous son who prays for him.”

Prophet Muhammad 

[Sunan Nasai]

Opting to go down this route, Fatima utilized all the money she had to establish a mosque and university that would go down in history as the most ancient university in the world. Founded in 859 (245 AH) in the holy month of Ramadan, the University of al-Qarawiyyin is recognized by UNESCO and Guinness World Records as the oldest existing university in the world. What’s more, the university continues to operate to this day and has been recorded as the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world.

For the next 18 years of her life, Fatima supervised the construction of the university whilst fasting every single day. 

Naming the university after the place she was born, both the university and mosque went on to become the largest in all of North Africa. Students were seen coming from as far as Europe and beyond, with many of them being notables such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Rushd. The university’s reputation reached far and wide with many Christian scholars from the West flocking here to study at this prestigious institution. Pope Sylvester II was one of the more reputable graduates. What’s more, the mathematician Jacob Golius also spent some time at the University of al-Qarawiyyin. 

The one thing that made the University of al-Qarawiyyin a pioneering place of learning was its diverse range of disciplines. Whilst the vast majority of students attended to study the Islamic sciences, the university also offered meticulously designed courses in astronomy, philosophy, medicine, logic and rhetoric. 

Founder Fatima continued to push beyond her limits when it came to her institution. At the old age of 59, she decided to enrol herself, leaving behind the essential message that it’s never too late to learn. 

The City of Fez

The ancient and remarkably designed city of Fez is a must-visit destination if you ever visit Morocco. Enriched with culture and heritage, the city of Fez is also home to the oldest medieval Medina in the world. However, there is no doubt that Fatima Al-Fihri’s landmark legacy – right in the centre of this exciting city – is the exceptionally superior part of Fez. 

By establishing the most ancient university in the world and the most ancient mosque in Africa, Fatima inserted the then-unknown city of Fez into history. Thus, it became a physical landmark that no one goes to Fez without visiting. 

Despite us not possessing many details about Fatima’s life and the construction of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, both her story and the university have become part of Morocco’s rich history. 

As the University of al-Qarawiyyin stands with pride, Fatima’s story does a fantastic job of teaching us a few lessons of wisdom. From endurance and sincerity to never forsaking the act of learning, Fatima portrayed the remarkable status of Muslim women throughout Islamic history. Utilising her wealth to develop something outstanding, Fatima’s name and reputation will forever be synonymous with learning, success, and asceticism. 

Image credit: Parker Hilton, Unsplash

Juber Ahmed

Juber Ahmed is our Digital Editor and travel enthusiast with a keen interest in Islamic history and heritage. He travels with his wife to various places around the world and writes about his experiences.   Juber's favourite Quote... "The World Is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only One Page" [Saint Augustine]

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