Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية) founded the world’s first university in 895 CE in Fez, which is now in Morocco. She is more usually known simply as Fatima al-Fihri and when she and her sister inherited their father’s wealth she used her share to found The University of Al Qarawiynn.
The university started as a large mosque and later grew into a place of education. The Madrasa (Islamic School) Al-Fihri founded is still in operation today as the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world and was the first institution to award degrees according to different levels of study, in Islamic studies, mathematics, grammar, and medicine.
The University of Al Quaraouiyine became a state university in 1963 and now awards degrees in Islamic, religious and legal sciences with an emphasis on classical Arabic grammar and linguistics and law. Interestingly, teaching is still delivered in a very traditional manner, whereby students are seated in a semi-circle around a Sheikh (Islamic scholar), who prompts them to read sections of particular texts, asks them questions on aspects of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points.
Adjacent to Al Quaraouiyine mosque and university is the world’s oldest library. The library will hopefully soon to be reopened after a massive restoration overseen by another woman; this time the architect Aziza Chaouni.
Chaouni grew up in Fez and recalls seeing the great locked doors of the library as a young child. Her vision is for the library to once more become a second home for the people of Fez, a living functional library, not just a tourist attraction. The, partially re-opened, historic 9th century (CE) library now includes an isolated drainage system to avoid future damage, and a lab to treat, preserve and digitise the oldest texts. It also houses, with the greatest possible security, temperature and humidity controls ‘a precious ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin vellum (parchment).
A survey by Al Fanar Media in 2018 showed that women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in many Arab countries, and make up a growing proportion of teachers at the primary and secondary levels of education. However, they are often missing from the upper ranks of higher-education leadership. Today, for International Women’s Day 2019, let’s remember how women contribute to scholarship around the world and be thankful for Fatima al-Fihri’s early vision and leadership in Morocco.