Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of World’s First University, Library 1200 years ago

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An illustration of Fatima al-Fihri.

Muslim *female* achievement

Did you know the first university in the world was built by a Muslim woman approx 1200 years ago?

This is the story of Fatima Al-Fihiri (800–880 CE)

Fatima Al-Fihiri was the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The family moved from Tunisia to Fez, Morocco, during the rule of King Idriss II. When both her husband and father died, Fatima and her sister inherited a fortune.

They chose to spend their inheritance on building educational institutions.

In 859, Fatima built the Al-Qayrawan Mosque, decorated in the Andalusian style with Kufic calligraphy (early style) engraved throughout. At 3,000 sq ft, it can fit 22,000 people. 

She stacked it with Islamic works (Qur’an, Hadith collections, books on Fiqh, ie Islamic Jurisprudence, etc). 

Her sister Miriam built the Al-Andalusiyyan Mosque nearby, with its heavy ornate doors and courtyard of walnut trees. Both employed ‘embroidery’ engraving — exquisite floral + geometrical + calligraphic features.

Both mosques are examples of some of the oldest in the world. 

The mosques attracted people eager to learn not just religious instructions but Arabic grammar and music as well.

They talked, debated, drank Moroccan mint tea, and benefitted from generous financial gifts and grants by grateful sultans. 

To house the ever-increasing influx of reading materials, Fatima then built al-Qarawiyyin Library.

Now considered the world’s oldest library, it has over 4,000 rare old books and ancient manuscripts.

The most prized is a 9th century Qur’an, written in Kufic on camel skin.

With a warren of mazed rooms behind iron doors, renovations have revealed ever more treasures. 

It also houses the 8th century Imam Malik collection of hadith written on gazelle sheets, AND the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s book Kitab Al-‘Ibar (Book of Lessons), gifted in 1396.

Fatima wasn’t done. She soon built the 1st university in the world, Al-Qarawiyyin University.

It admitted students as young as from the age of thirteen. It remains the oldest continuously operating, accredited, degree-granting university in the world. The 1st degrees were carved on wood.

The University became a centre for political discussion and taught: 

Politics

Philosophy

Law

Natural Sciences

Rhetoric

Logic

Grammar

Medicine

Mathematics

Astronomy

Chemistry

History

Geography

and 

Music

Notable alumni included the great 12-13th century Jewish philosopher Ibn Maymun (Maimonides) … and the 1st sociologist and anthropologist, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 CE).

Muhammad al-Idrissi, a geographer and cartographer of the 1st world map (Tabula Rogeriana) in 1154, also studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.

As did the French mathematician and philosopher Gerbert of Aurillac who became Pope Sylvester II (946–1003), credited with introducing Arabic numerals and the use of zero into Europe. 

So when you think of Arab/African Muslim women, please think of Fatima Al-Fihiri and her sister, and her/their continually operating university, library and mosques – World firsts. Almost 1,200 yrs old.

Money VERY well invested over time!

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