Let us play a guessing game. Think about an old university, more than 200 years older than Oxford University in the UK and more than 400 years older than Sorbonne University in France. This university, founded in 859 is cited in the Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating higher-learning institution in the world. What if I told you that this university is located in Africa? It is striking how many people are surprised by the answer.

The University of al-Qarawiyyin, located in Morocco, and more precisely in the Medina (the historical city section) of Fez, was founded 1161 years ago by Fatima al-Fihri. Originally, the university served as a mosque with a Adji "madrasa" - an educational institution. To this day, the University of al-Qarawiyyin is attended by students from all over Morocco and abroad to pursue studies in Islamic religious and legal sciences, History, and Arabic language.

To understand the history of this millennium-old institution, we need to look at its founder: Fatima al-Fihri. Fatima al-Fihri migrated with her family to Fez from the town of Kairouan (modern-day Tunisia) around 825. Fez was at that time the capital of the Idrisid dynasty, considered to be the founders of the first Moroccan state. Unfortunately, little is known about her life. She and her sister Maryam were the only children of Muhammad al-Fihri - a successful and wealthy merchant. Muhammad al-Fihri ensured that his daughters received a proper education. After his death, Fatima vowed to use her inheritance to build a place that would honor her father as well as serve as a major place of knowledge for her community. She supervised the 18-years long construction project of what would become the University of al-Qarawiyyin. It is worth noting that Fatima's sister, Maryam Al-Fihri, also donated her fortune to build the mosque of Al-Andalus which is neighboring the al-Quaraouyin mosque and university.

A notable feature of the university is it's associated library. Indeed, the al-Qarawiyyin library is among the oldests in the world. The library attracted some of the world's greatest scholars at the time, coming from different backgrounds and religions. Examples comprise but are not limited to:

  • Ibn Rochd (often Latinized as Averroes), a polymath considered by many of his peers as one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages
  • Ibn Khaldun, the father of modern sociology
  • Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides), one of the most influential Jewish philosophers of the middle ages
  • Gerbert d'Aurillac, who then became Pope Sylvester II
  • The geographer Al-Idrisi, creator of the Tabula Rogeriana, one of the most advanced medieval world maps, used by explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama for their discoveries and voyages.

In 2016, the library was renovated by a team led by another woman: the Canadian-Moroccan Architect Aziza Chaouni. Renovating and maintaining such an old building presented a great challenge. During the process, the team discovered a secret room that had a 12th century cupola made with intricate lattice wood. The library was later featured in TIME's list of World's Greatest Places in 2018.

Since its creation, the University of al-Qarawiyyin has sustained several transformations. In 1963, al-Qarawiyyin was transformed from a madrasa into a "modern" state university by royal decree under the supervision of the Moroccan ministry of Education. In 1975, general studies were moved to the then newly created Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, while al-Qarawiyyin continued to teach subjects pertaining to islamic sciences.

The legacy of Fatima lives on today thanks to the university and other initiatives. In 2017, the University of Kairouan in Tunisia created a prize in Fatima's honor. It rewards initiatives which encourage access to training and professional responsibilities for women. Moreover, an Erasmus Mundus Action targeting students from Europe and North Africa also paid tribute to Fatima al-Fihriya. She is also featured in The Dictionary of African Biography, a six-volume biographical dictionary published by Oxford University Press.

The al-Quaraouiyin university started as a place of worship and knowledge and then became a center of scientific exchange between scholars from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The university's history will remain linked with the amazing story of its founder, Fatima al-Fihri. If you visit Fez, do not miss to visit this architectural gem which is an example of the rooted African love for science, religion and culture.

Note by the author: Please note that information about the life of Fatima al-Fihri is scarce, many of it was collected from the works of Ibn Abi-Zaraa', Historians are still debating the reported information due to the extreme lack of diversified sources about the life of Fatima al-Fihri. For readers wishing to learn more about the history of the university and its founder, Moroccan renowned historian Abdelhadi Tazi published a long and detailed history of the university called “The al-Qarawiyyin Mosque" for his PhD thesis.

Recommended Reading:

[1] "Oldest higher-learning institution, oldest university". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 30 July 2020. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-university

[2] Medina of Fez https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/170

[3] Malika El Kettani https://www.lecourrierdelatlas.com/luniversite-al-quaraouiyine-et-sa-fondatrice-fatima-al-fihriya/

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/worlds-oldest-library-al-qarawiyyin/index.html

[5] https://time.com/collection/worlds-greatest-places-2018/

[6] https://www.baya.tn/rubriques/outside/culture/remise-du-prix-fatima-fihiriya-a-luniversite-de-kairouan-au-mois-davril-prochain/

[7] https://www.dw.com/en/fatima-al-fihri-founder-of-the-worlds-oldest-university/a-53371150

[8] http://www.european-funding-guide.eu/fr/bourse/6929-Erasmus-Mundus-Action-2%3A-Fatima-Al-Fihri

[9] Abdelhadi Tazi, Jamia al Qarawiyine, t. 1, Beyrouth, Édition Dar alkitab allubnani, 1972.

About the author

Redouane Lguensat is an IRD Research Engineer at IPSL Climate Modeling Center in Paris where he works on statistical modeling and machine learning for climate modeling applications, especially in the context of developing countries. Redouane received his PhD in Computer Vision from IMT Atlantique in France. He is the co-founder of the Morocco AI initiative.

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