The Enduring Legacy of Fatima al-Fihri and Al-Qarawiyyin University -Abdul Wadud
In a time more than 1000 years ago, in the vibrant city of Fez, Morocco, a remarkable woman named Fatima al-Fihri left an indelible mark on history by founding what is widely recognized as the world’s first university—Al-Qarawiyyin. This extraordinary institution, which has stood the test of time, serves as a testament to the resilience, vision, and educational commitment of its founder, Fatima al-Fihri.
Fatima was born into an affluent family in Qayrawan, Tunisia. Her father, Mohammed Bnou Abdullah al-Fihri, was a well-educated merchant, and his emphasis on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and hadith laid the foundation for Fatima’s intellectual pursuits. Hence, her upbringing was steeped in a love for learning. However, when her family moved to Fez, Morocco, her life took a turn. His father and husband died untimely, and she inherited a substantial amount of wealth.
Fatima was deeply devout and passionate about education, so she felt a profound sense of responsibility toward society. Her unwavering dedication to providing educational opportunities for the youth of Fez made her famously known as “the mother of boys.”.
In 859 CE, Fatima al-Fihri established the al-Qarawiyyin mosque. It was named after her hometown in Tunisia. It was a historic endeavor because it had been nearly a century since the iconic Al Azhar was established. Even the University of Bologna was established around two hundred years later. Al-Qarawiyyin not only pioneered formalized education but also introduced practices that would shape modern academic traditions worldwide.
Fatima’s primary goal in founding the university was to serve the community, so she initially focused on Islamic theology and law. However, she expanded the curriculum after recognizing the evolving needs of society and included a diverse range of subjects, such as poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science, and mathematics.
As Fatima was committed to providing accessible education, all the courses were provided free of charge. This makes Al-Qarawiyyin more extraordinary. This commitment resonated through the centuries, earning Al-Qarawiyyin widespread recognition and respect among both Muslims and Christians.
The impact of Al-Qarawiyyin extended far beyond its walls. It played a pivotal role in the transmission of classical Greek thought to the Muslim world, with scholars like Ibn Rushd becoming influential commentators whose work continues to shape philosophical discourse.
Al-Qarawiyyin’s reputation attracted scholars from different corners of the world. Even figures like Maimonides and Gerbert d’Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II) are rumored to have studied within its hallowed halls.
European scholars from the 16th and 17th centuries, including Nicolas Claynaerts and Jacobus Golius, made pilgrimages to Al-Qarawiyyin to benefit from its wealth of knowledge. The university’s impact on Western classical philosophy and theology is immeasurable, creating a bridge between civilizations.
Remarkably, Al-Qarawiyyin University remains operational to this day, a living testament to Fatima al-Fihri’s enduring legacy. The university houses one of the world’s oldest libraries, boasting over 4,000 manuscripts. Visitors can marvel at the historical artifacts and witness firsthand the diploma awarded to Fatima herself.
In 880, Fatima al-Fihri passed away after leading a life of service, piety, and generosity. Her vision, determination, and dedication left an enduring mark on the world, inspiring countless individuals. Today, Al-Qarawiyyin University stands as a monument to Fatima al-Fihri’s enduring legacy of Islamic intellectual achievement—a beacon of enlightenment that continues to illuminate the path for future generations.