Since 2016, when the Moroccan public could finally see for themselves Aziza Chaouni’s restoration of Al-Qarawiyyin University’s ancient library, presses have printed hyperbolic headlines. Vice crowed: “The World’s Oldest University Was Founded by a Woman of Color,” noting that Fatima al-Fihri, who had donated the structure that became the educational institution, was also “a refugee.” The March 2018 edition of Girl Boss ran the story: “The Arab Muslim Woman Who Brought Higher Education to the Entire World.”
The story behind the story of Al-Qarawiyyin’s founding, however, reveals that in the flowering days of Islam, women were perhaps better educated and more powerful than is commonly believed.
Given that Moroccan women did not have the right to vote until 1963, and only in 2004 obtained the right to custody of their children after a divorce, these headlines have drawn skepticism. The story behind the story of Al-Qarawiyyin’s founding, however, reveals that in the flowering days of Islam, women were perhaps better educated and more powerful than is commonly believed.
As the story goes, the al-Fihri family—Mohamed, a merchant, and his daughters Mariam and Fatima — left their home in Kairouan, Tunisia, to settle in Morocco, in Fes where Mohamed became a successful merchant. Idris II, an Alawite sharif of Iraqi origin, had founded the city a few years earlier, and it was filled to overflowing with thousands of Muslims emigrating from Andalusia. After the death of their father, since the city lacked schools and mosques to accommodate its populace, Fatima and her sister Mariam donated their inheritance to build two mosques: Al-Qarawiyyin and Al-Andalus.
The foundation Fatima laid for Al-Qarawiyyin would become the platform for a great center of learning, not just in the Maghreb, but worldwide: famous graduates of different religious traditions include Maimonides (1135-1204), the Jewish philosopher, jurist, and physician, and Nicolas Clénard (1495-1542), a professor at the Christian university of Leuven in Belgium. The Al-Qarawiyyin library houses a 12th Century copy of the gospel of Mark in Arabic, and exchanges with Al-Qarawayyin are credited with having brought Arabic numerals in use today to Western Europe.
Although our source of information about Fatima al-Fihri comes to us through the much later account of Ibn Abi Zar’ (d. 1310), and thus is hard to substantiate, there is context to suggest that it was not unusual for a woman to envision a center of religion, education and community, and donate funds for it.
First, one of the hadith sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohamed, states “To acquire knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim, male or female.” (Günther 62). Patriarchal attitudes may not have existed in their most hardened state at that time, as Aristotelian logic and reason under-girded the vigorous ongoing debates among citizens of both Kairouan and Fes in Fatima al-Fihri’s day. (Julien 44-45)
Second, it would appear that, at least in Tunisia, girls were going to school at the time. The Arab jurist and qadi (judge) Ibn Sahnun (817-870 A.D.), who was based in Kairouan and whose life overlapped with al-Fihri’s, mentioned girls in his handbook, Rules of Conduct for Teachers. In discussing elementary education, Ibn Sahnun suggested that it was better not to instruct girls together with boys, since mixed classes corrupt young people. (Günther 63-70).
Fatima al-Fihri and her sister Mariam may be compared to the Abbasid leaders who commissioned buildings for the public good. When Fatima al-Fihri was born, the Abbasids of Iraq loosely controlled the Aghlabids of Tunisia. Both ruling houses valued science, industry, and the arts.
Abbasid women from caliphal families and the nobility frequently donated amenities for travelers to Mecca. One such, Amat al-Aziz (786-809 A.D.), wife of Caliph Harun al-Rachid, ordered an aqueduct and reservoir to be built after seeing the effects of a drought in the surrounding lands. (Atil, 48) The Aghlabids built the great mosques of Kairouan and of Tunis. The commissioning of these public works may have had an ulterior motive, however: the Aghlabids were taxing ordinary citizens in arrangements not warranted by the Qur’an, and mosque-building was an excellent public-relations move.
The un-Islamic taxes probably created the situation that caused Fatima al-Fihri and her family to leave Kairouan. Both the military of Kairouan and its everyday people, who were educated, pious, and legal-minded, objected to the liberties their Aghlabid rulers were taking. An outbreak of violence by the jund (the standing army) from 824-826 A.D., drove hundreds of noble families to make the 1600 km (1000 mile) journey from Kairouan to Fes. Fatima would indeed have been a refugee.
As for al-Fihri’s having founded a university, the earliest reference to halaqat (circles) for teaching and learning on the site may not have been until the 10th or the 12th Century. Although students were initially male, tradition has it that “facilities were at times provided for interested women to listen to the discourse while accommodated in a special gallery (riwaq) overlooking the scholars’ circle.” (Tibawi, 288)
The center of learning at Al-Qarawiyyin grew and flourished, with successive dynasties adding a minaret, expanding space for worship, and building fountains. It did not begin its decline until the 15th Century. Yet, after hundreds of years of decline, it was again thanks to an educated woman that the school (then an institute of religious studies) finally admitted its first cohort of women. Malika Al-Fassi, a Fes native, journalist, playwright, and activist in Morocco’s struggle for independence from the French in the 1940’s, argued that an educated woman made a better companion for her husband and a better mother.
Al-Fassi and other members of the Istiqlal (Independence) party used their status as freedom-fighters to pressure the French and Moroccan authorities to give access to girls in secondary schools. At Al-Qarawiyyin, they offered to pay the cost of the additional professors’ salaries themselves if the school would open a women’s section. They prevailed, and Al-Qarawiyyin opened to women in the late 1940’s. King Muhammad V made Al-Qarawiyyin officially a “university” in 1960.
All told, although Fatima al-Fihri would not have known the term “university,” it is quite conceivable that she founded her mosque with the intention of strengthening both learning and faith in her community. There was precedent, and Sultanas and Princesses to follow would later commission their own libraries and mosques. Yet in some ways, Al-Fihri’s story is remarkable. The fact that she and her sister Mariam were daughters of a self-made man from Kairouan reveals a society with social mobility and devotion to Islam, where ordinary women could and did invest in community-oriented building enterprises. These early Muslim women may well have envisioned the connection between learning and a peaceful society and seen themselves as a progressive force.
Yet even someone as provident and inspired as Al-Fihri could not have imagined just how significant her gift would be, fostering understanding between theologians of the three Abrahamic religions, and making possible the transfer of scientific knowledge from the Arabic world to the European.
As for Aziza Chaouni, the engineer and architect undertaking the restoration of the library of Al-Qarawiyyin, she had never known the library existed when she was a child growing up in Fes: it was all carefully guarded, decaying behind closed doors. Also, a bit like al-Fihri, Ms. Chaouni believed that the library ought to be enjoyed by the people of the city. Ms. Chaouni only accepted the project on condition that Al-Qarawiyyin’s library would again be accessible to everyone (not just researchers and tourists). “I’ll only sleep soundly when we have the official opening and I see people using it,” she told Mimi Kirk of Citylab. She got her wish: the renovated library with solar panels, a lab for digitizing the texts, and a café for the general public opened in December of 2016. Fatima al-Fihri would surely approve.
Atil, Esin, ed.. Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait: Rizzoli, 1990
Abu-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib: Cambridge University Press, 1975
At-Tazi, Abdul-Hadi. El Qaraouiyyine: La Mosquée Université de Fès (histoire architecturale et intellectuelle) cited in A.L.Tibawi, “Reviewed Work” in Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol.2 No. 3, Summer 1980 (pp. 286-288) jstor.org/stable/i40087958
Günther, Sebastian. “Be Masters in That You Teach and Continue to Learn: Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Educational Theory” in Islam and Education: Myths and Truths, Wadad Kadi and Victor Billah, eds.: Chicago University Press, 2007. (pp. 61-82)
Julien, Charles-André. History of North Africa, translated by John Petrie: Praeger Publishers, 1970.