Fatima al-Fihri

(Apologies for the formatting oddities- I’m working on an iPad and it is not cooperating with me!)


Which universities do you think of when you think of the oldest institutions of learning in the world? Oxford? Bologna? Paris? The oldest university in the world is actually in Africa, and was founded by a woman.

Today I am revisiting a woman who I discussed briefly in my post ‘Decolonizing the University’ but who I think needs more recognition. This is Fatima al-Fihri, the Tunisian woman who founded the oldest degree-granting university in the world, The University of al-Qarawiyyin. Because it is the oldest university, it is also the oldest continuously operating library in the world, with over 4000 rare books.

al-Fihri was born in Qayrawan Tunisia, which was a city full of Islamic scholarship, and many came to study in that area. This was likely the reason al-Fihri and her sister were well-educated by their father and surrounded by learning from a young age. In the early ninth-century AD, her father decided to move with his two daughters from Tunisia to Morocco.

When their father passed away, the two sisters inherited a large sum of money, which they wanted to put towards something to support the community. Mariam decided that the area needed a larger mosque to support the large numbers of immigrants (especially refugees from Islamic Spain) and built the Andalusian Mosque in 859. Soon after, Fatima helped expand the mosque and added a university, naming it the al-Qarawiyyan University, after her birthplace in Tunisia. She made a vow that she would fast daily until the project was completed, which meant she fasted for two entire years!

The university started out by teaching the Quran and Islamic law, but then expanded to history, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, and Arabic linguistics. Everyone was welcome, because the university accepted Christian and Jewish students as well as Muslims, and the education was free, completely sponsored by Fatima herself. Along with famous scholars such as the Islamic jurist and Sufi Ibn al-Arabi, the school graduated Maimonides (a Jewish rabbi and philosopher), and Pope Sylvester II.

This university with its amazing history and architecture is still thriving to this day!


Further Reading




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