Fatima al-Fihri is a 9th century woman credited with founding Al Quaraouiyine University, the oldest in the world. While her life is not recorded in detail, her legacy persists to this day. During Women’s History Month, she stands out as an early example of the powerful leadership role women have played in the Muslim world, both historically and currently.
Fatima was born to a wealthy family in the year 800 in Qayrawan, Tunisia. Her father, Mohammed Bnou Abdullah al-Fihri, was a well-educated merchant who passed his love of learning on to his children. He made sure they were instilled with knowledge of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and hadith (verified stories and sayings from the life of the prophet Muhammad). Though little is known of Fatima’s early life, her family moved from Tunisia to Fez, Morocco, when she was a child. Upon the death of her father and her husband, she inherited a large fortune and immediately set about to use her wealth for the benefit of society.
Deeply devout, Fatima understood that her talents and resources were a gift meant to be used in service. Her primary passion, instilled during her youth, was education. She was known as “the mother of boys,” probably due to her focus on cultivating learning opportunities for the youth of Fez. This pursuit culminated in the establishment in 859 of Al Quaraouiyine mosque, which she named after her beloved hometown in Tunisia. This university predates Al Azhar by nearly 100 years and the University of Bologna by nearly 200. Many of the practices established at Al Quaraouiyine are still practiced today in universities the world over: In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas.
She founded the institution with the intent of serving the community. The university focused heavily on Islamic theology and law; however, it expanded beyond these subjects. At its height, students were immersed in poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science, mathematics and other traditional areas of study. All of these courses were provided free of charge.
Al Quaraouiyine gained great fame among both Muslims and Christians. Many of its graduates are well-known scholars who deeply influenced Islamic history, among them, the philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). The Muslim world had inherited classical Greek thought from, among others, the philosophers Aristotle and Plato. In fact, Ibn Rushd became a famous commentator whose work is still invaluable to philosophers and students alike.
Scholarship that was produced at Islamic institutions such as Al Quaraouiyine influenced the development of Western classical philosophy and theology. Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher, and Gerbert d’Aurillac who introduced Arab numerals to the West and later became Pope Sylvester II (999-1003), are rumored to have studied there.” Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, European scholars such as Nicolas Claynaerts and Jacobus Golius visited the university.
The university is still in operation today, attracting visitors and students alike. It boasts one of the oldest libraries in the world with over 4,000 manuscripts and even has Fatima’s own diploma still on display.
After a life of service, piety and generosity, Fatima al-Fihri died in the year 880. Her tenacity, vision and commitment left an indelible mark on the world and continues to inspire countless men and women. Al Quaraouiyine University, a monument of Islamic intellectual achievement, fulfills this vital role thanks to the vision of one woman.