The University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco is the oldest, amazingly still operating and degree awarding University in the world. It was founded in the years of 859 by Fathima Al-Fihri (a Muslim woman). This university represents the Golden Age of Islam. The fact that the founder of this university is a woman is fascinating because most of the history books left out such information from the text for whatever reasons, I don’t want to get into that debate. The founding of Al-Qarawiyyin marked an important milestone for women, education, and enlightenment of the world.
Most of the people have made the perception that the world oldest universities are Cambridge, Oxford but the oldest European university founded in the middle ages, was the University of Bologna in 1088, The University of Oxford was founded shortly after, in 1096. This university is impressively older than those mentioned above.
There is a debate on whether it could be called university or Madrasa, but in history most of the universities in history were focused on religion. Even Harvard University, which is founded in the 1600’s in the United States, was primarily a religious school. The concept of a non secular education is a recent trend in all cultures.
All though there were schools much earlier in Greek era, and other civilizations but Al-Qarawiyyin has the privilege to be the oldest university still operating till today. The Masjid at Al-Qarawiyyin is one of the largest in Africa, it has the capacity of 22, 000 worshipers.
It is interesting to put some insight on the founder and the university. Fatima Al-Fihri was born in the place now known as Tunisia. Her family migrated from the original home to the city of Fez in Morocco in 9th century. Fez at that time was one of the influential cities in the Muslim world. This was the city where Fatima’s family settled.
Furthermore, her family was blessed with prosperity, her father Muhammad Bin Abdullah Al-Fihri was a wealthy merchant. All her siblings were well educated. She had to go through the hard times when her husband, father and brother died. Fatima and her sister Mariam received inheritance from their father’s wealth, which did ensured their financial independence. Both the sisters were literate and visionary. They vowed to dedicate their wealth for the benefit of their community.
Observing that the local Masjids in Fez were becoming overcrowded with the growing numbers of worshipers, many of whom were refuges from Spain, Mariam Built the grand Al-Andalus Masjid in 859 while Fatima founded Al-Qarawiyyin Masjid. It was a large complex and within it a university was built, which is still part of the Masjid till this day.
Fatima directly oversaw the construction with keen interest. She planned all, buying property, proposing the structure of it. She spent all her wealth and time to complete the project. She was the most pious and devoted in worship and she made religious vow to fast daily, starting from the first day of the construction until its completion which took two years.
The university attracted scholars from all over the world. It produced great thinkers such as Abu Al-Abbas, Muhammad Al-Faso, and Leo Africanus a renowned traveler and writer. Other prominent names associated with this institution include Ibn Al-Arabi, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius).
The university played the role to bridge Islamic world to the Europe and beyond. The university attracted Gerber of Auvergne who later became pope Sylvester II, who introduced Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to medieval Europe. One of the university’s famous students was Maimonides, who is prominent Jewish philosopher, theologian, astronomer and physician.
The subjects were not limited to Religion other subjects included grammar, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography, foreign languages and also music. To conclude, the fact that the first university in the world was founded by a woman is fascinating. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) acknowledge the University of Qarawiyyin to be the oldest operational educational institution in the world.