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Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of the world's oldest university

Talbi Ilham
May 8, 2020

In the Moroccan city of Fez, Fatima al-Fihri founded a mosque which developed into the famous al-Qarawiyyin university. Today it is recognized as the oldest existing university in the world.

Projekt African Roots

Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of the world's oldest university

Who was Fatima al-Fihri ?

Fatima al-Fihri was born in 800 A.D. She was the daughter of Mohammed Bnou Abdullah al-Fihri - a rich merchant who settled in Fez with his family during the reign of Idris II. Until this day, Fatima's life holds many secrets even to historians. One such mystery surrounds the date of her death, which may have been around 878.

During her lifetime, Fatima was called the "mother of boys". According to historian Mohammed Yasser Hilali, "this nickname probably stems from her charity and the fact she took students under her wing."

Why did Fatima al-Fihri decide to build a mosque ? 

Fatima was a strong believer. When she inherited a huge amount of money at the time her father and her husband died, she decided to use it to build a mosque which her Muslim community in Fez urgently needed, large enough to fit an ever-growing number of believers.

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After buying land from a man of the "Hawaara" tribe, Fatima started her building project at the beginning of the Ramadan month of year 254 of Hegira, that is to say 859 A.D.

From the 10th century the famous mosque of al-Qarawiyyin became the first religious institute and the largest Arab university of North Africa. It attracted a lot of students and renowned scientists.

Symposiums and debates were regularly organised there. According to the available documents, teaching chairs were established at the university and in other annexes throughout Fez. These same records mention the existence of a great number of libraries. 

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Why is the al-Qarawiyyin university so famous ? 

Fatima al-Fihri - MP3-Stereo

The university of al-Qarawyyin is considered the most ancient university in the world still operating, preceding the first European universities. This is according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records. The date of reference is the year al-Qarawiyyin was founded as a mosque, which implies that its educational character goes back to its beginnings. In this sense, it precedes the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (founded in 989 A.D.) by more than a century and the University of Bologna (1088 A.D.) by more than two centuries. 

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Its graduates include several poets, Faqîhs (muslim jurist), astronomers and mathematicians from all over the region. Famous names are those of historian Abdurahman Ibn Khaldun, the doctor and philosopher Abu Walid Ibn Rushd, the Andalusian doctor Musa Ibn Maimonou and Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II.

How is Fatima al-Fihri remembered?

Fatima al-Fihri herself is considered a saint and she is much respected among the believers especially in Fez. In 2017, a prize was created in Tunisia in her honor. It rewards initiatives which encourage access to training and professional responsibilities for women. Furthermore, an academic program and a scholarship given to students from Europe and North Africa pay tribute to Fatima al-Fihri.

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Lily Mafela, Ph.D., and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.