Muslim philanthropist Fatima al-Fihri (800–880) founded the world's oldest continuously operating educational institution in 859 CE, according to UNESCO. Using an inheritance she received from her father, Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Fihri, she oversaw construction of the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque (Masjid Al-Qarawiyyin) in Fes, Morocco. This religious center grew over the next several centuries to become an important educational center.
Al-Fihri was born in 800 CE in the affluent city of Qayrawan (in present-day Tunisia). Her father, Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Fihri, was a successful merchant until political strife overtook Qayrawan. Moving his family to the city of Fes in Morocco, al-Fihri once again built up his reputation and prospered. Educated at home, Fatima al-Fihri lived according to the standards of a devout Muslim woman of the time, marrying and participating in household life. When she reached her fifties, her husband and father both died, and the latter bequeathed his considerable wealth to Fatima and her sister Mariam.
Aware that the growing Muslim population in Fes had outgrown the ability of local mosques to house all those requesting to worship, the sisters decided to use their inheritances to build two new, much larger mosques, viewing this as an act of devotion to Allah (Arabic for God) as well as a service to their community. In addition, Fatima founded and oversaw the construction of a madrassa, ensuring that this school of Islamic law and higher education would supply the scholars and other religious needed to serve the mosques of Fes. As the madrassa grew and became renowned across the ancient world, many important theologians, scholars, and scientists could be counted among the thousands educated within its walls.
Al-Fihri's family was part of a community of Shia Muslims (Shia is a major branch of Islam, the Muslim religion) who lived for many generations in the beautiful city of Qayrawan. As power struggles fomented among ruling factions within the city, life became difficult for those residents adhering to Shia. During a rebellion in 824, 2,000 Shia families—including the al-Fihris—were banished from the city, and most migrated to Fes. This new Moroccan city had attracted other Muslim immigrants as well, and each community settled into its own district. The al-Fihri family settled in the western district of Fes, and it was here that al-Fihri established her mosque, naming it after her birthplace in Tunisia. Her sister Mariam established her mosque in the district settled by immigrants from Andalusia in Spain, naming it Al-Andalus.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), al-Fihri's Al-Qarawiyyin madrassa is the world's oldest continuously operating degree-granting university. However, some scholars have questioned whether a madrassa founded in 859 should be called a university at all. The madrassa was a traditional school of Islamic theology, philosophy, and sciences rather than a university in the Western sense; European universities came into being starting in the 12th century and taught Christian theology, philosophy, and sciences. Also, other great schools had been founded in India (such as Nalanda in the state of Bihar) and elsewhere long before.
Whatever its modern claim to fame, the Al-Qarawiyyin madrassa grew in size and importance and was attended by scholars from all over the ancient world. At its height in the 14th century, the school boasted an attendance of over 8,000 students who came to study Islamic law, theology, Arabic language and literature, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and other subjects. Many of the school's lecturers and scholars were famous theologians or religious scholars, philosophers, linguists, mathematicians, and astronomers. Teaching at the school was future pope Sylvester II (946–1003), who, born Gerbert of Aurillac, is credited with introducing Arabic numerals—numbers as written in English today—to Europe.
After peaking in influence during the Middle Ages, Al-Qarawiyyin madrassa shrank, and by the 19th century it was a small, elite school catering to the Sultan of Morocco's family and government administrators. When the modern Moroccan state was formed in 1947, the madrassa was incorporated into the state public educational system, and in 1963 it was renamed the University of Al-Qarawiyyin. The university still emphasizes Islamic religious and legal studies, and classes are taught in the traditional style of a teacher surrounded by a half-circle of students, reading and discussing texts. Other subjects are also covered, including technology.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, editor, Dictionary of African Biography, Volume 6, Oxford University Press, 2012.
Kenney, Jeffrey T., and Ebrahim Moosa, Islam in the Modern World, Routledge, 2014.
Studia Islamica, number 32, 1970, George Makdisi,“Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages,” pp. 255–264.
UNESCO Courier, October, 1996, Genevieve Darles and Nicolas Lagrange, “The Medina of Fez: Crafting a Future for the Past,” p. 36.
Why Islam? website, http://www.whyislam.org/ (January 15, 2017).❑