Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (Arabic: فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية) was an Arab Muslim woman who is credited for founding the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world, The University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco in 859 CE.
Al-Fihri was born in 800 AD. She and her sister, Miriam, had attended school and each received an education. Mariam was the sponsor of the Al-Andalus mosque, also in Fes. Both were part of a larger tradition of women founding mosques.The family was part of a large migration to Fes from the town of Kairouan (Qayrawan), in modern Tunisia, which lent its name to the mosque and madrassa she would found.Although her family did not start out wealthy, her father, Mohammed al-Fihri, became successful as a merchant and gained wealth from his work in Fes. During her childhood, she learned the Islamic jurisprudence Fiqh and studied the Hadith, records and writings of the prophet Muhammed.
Founding Al Quaraouiyine
When Al-Fihri’s father passed away, he left his money to her and her sister. Al-Fihri used her inheiritence to establish The University of Al Qarawiynn. It started as a mosque with 22,000 worshippers, but later this place of worship grew into a place of education. The madrasa Al-Fihri founded is still in operation today as the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world and is sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest university, by being the first institution to award degrees indicative of different levels of study. The courses offered include Islamic Studies, mathematics, grammar, and medicine.The mosque is also still in operation, and is one of the largest in North Africa.
The library Al-Fhri founded at the university is the world’s oldest library. Canadian-Morroccan architect, Aziza Chaouni, restored the library and reopened it to the public in May 2016. The library’s collection of over 4000 manuscripts includes a 9th-century Qur’an and the earliest collection of hadiths.
Al-Fahri died in 880 AD at eighty years old. Her library and university had been running for twenty-four years.
Fatima Al-Fihri: Founder of world’s first university
The Qarawiyyin Mosque and University is considered by many historians to be the oldest, continually operating, degree-granting university in the world.
A very intellectual, smart and generous woman of her time, Fatima al-Fihri founded the world’s first university to continuously grant degrees, the University of al-Qarawiyyin, an institute that has provided education for many philosophers and scholars who went on to significantly contribute to the cumulative knowledge of humanity
Did you know that a Muslim woman founded the world’s first university? Maybe you did not. No popular sources beyond academic history books concerning the golden age of Islamic civilization have ever mentioned such a fact. Instead, people are generally inclined to think that Islam would never allow women to even attend classes in madrasas (schools), which were founded as early as the ninth century.
Actually, Muslim women were very active in the scholastic studies of early Islam. Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, was among the prominent Islamic jurists of her time. She was also involved in a number of political events after the death of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan. She was also the initial source of many hadiths thanks to her well-known intelligence and memory. There are other examples, like Umm Waraqa who knew the Quran by heart and was praised by the prophet himself, or al-Shifa “the Healer” bint Abdullah, the first Muslim woman to teach literacy and a folk medicine practitioner.
It is obvious that Muslim women did not stop learning after this first generation, though certain restrictions were applied to them by the feudal dynasties succeeding the Great Caliphs. On the other hand, during the feudal dynasties, the majority of rich men’s daughters and wives, though restricted socially to some extent, were allowed to receive educations, teach others and even sponsor educational institutions.
The lady from Qayrawan
Fatima al-Fihri was one of two daughters of a wealthy merchant named Muhammad al-Fihri of Qayrawan, now known as Kairouan, Tunisia. Qayrawan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its historical architecture dating back to the late seventh century. Founded by the Umayyad dynasty in 670, Qayrawan was a city of Islamic scholarship, culture and civilization. Many scholars were attracted to this earthly paradise of learning and prayer. The city also served as a military post for the conquest of al-Gharb in northwest Africa.
The Aghlabid dynasty ruled Qayrawan under Abbasid Caliphate during the eighth and ninth centuries. They brought peace to the region Ifriqiyya and conquered Sicily. Aghlabid palaces were also famous. In short, when Fatima al-Fihri left Qayrawan with her father for Fes in the west, it was like they were leaving one paradise in order to create another.
Indeed, we don’t know much about Fatima al-Fihri’s life. Her family was part of a community called the “Qarawiyyin” (the ones from Qayrawan) through the original citizens of Fes, which was the capital city of another Muslim dynasty, the Idrisids.
Fatima’s family migrated early in the ninth century from Qayrawan to Fes, which was then under the rule of Idris II, a respected ruler and devout Muslim. At the time, Fes was the center of attention in al-Maghrib and held the promises of fortune and happiness. After becoming one of the most powerful Muslim cities in the world, Fes boasted a rich combination of religion and culture, both traditional and cosmopolitan. This was the city, on the left bank of the River Fes, where Fatima’s family settled, and where she eventually married.
The heart of Fes: Al-Qarawiyyin
Today, Fes is among the most fascinating touristic destinations in the world. The old medina (city) of Fes, “Fes al-Bali,” is especially stunning. Resembling a labyrinth of thousands of crisscrossing narrow streets, foreigners easily stand out as strangers in old medina. The colorful and elegantly designed gates of the houses, the 14 fortress gates of the old medina including the famous Blue Gate, the primitive transportation through the streets and the local craftsmanship are enough to charm anyone.
However, the heart of Fes beats in al-Qarawiyyin. The name Qarawiyyin refers to the first university in the world, as well as the mosque neighboring it. The founder of both was Fatima al-Fihri.
After a lot of sweat and hard work, the al-Fihri family was eventually blessed with prosperity. Fatima’s father, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, became a hugely successful businessman. After the deaths of Fatima’s husband, father and brother in short succession, Fatima and her sister Mariam received a vast inheritance that insured their financial independence.
It was in this latter period of their lives that they distinguished themselves. Having received a good education, the sisters in turn hastened to dedicate all of their wealth to their community. After observing that the local mosques in Fes could not accommodate the growing population of Muslims, many of whom were refugees from Islamic Spain, Mariam built the breathtaking Andalusian Mosque in 859.
Fatima, in her part, founded the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University, considered by many historians as the oldest continually operating degree-granting university in the world. Historical references note that she directly oversaw and guided the construction process in great detail, certainly a testament to her inner dedication as she had no expertise in the field.