Fatima Al-Fihri: The Muslim Woman Who Built The World's First University


Siti Ayeeshah Zaki •  Mar 07, 2022

Did you know that behind many of the world's great inventions and ideas are Muslims? Algebra was created by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, surgery devices were invented by Al-Zahrawi, the first credible evidence of coffee comes from Ahmed al-Ghaffar... And the list definitely does not stop there. For International Women's Day this year, we're celebrating the Muslim woman who built the first university in the world: Fatima Al-Fihri.

The First University In The World

Credit: Heart of Morocco on Facebook

Born in 800AD, there's not much known about Fatima's life, beyond the fact that she was the daughter of a rich merchant, and that her family had fled Qirawan (modern-day Tunisia) after a battle against the regime began. Historians aren't even sure of the date of her death!

Despite the mysteries that surround her life, Fatima's memory still lives on in the many Muslims who visit the university she built, and the many Muslims who read about her.

Credit: Morocco Desert Experts on Facebook

When the battle in Qirawan (today's Tunisia) began, Fatima and her family travelled almost 1600km through deserts, to Fez, Morocco. But of course, left to their own devices away from home, Fatima and her family struggled against poverty and hardship.

Fortunately, Fatima's father's business eventually flourished. Fatima and her sister, Maryam, were brought up to focus on their education. And as the daughters of a wealthy merchant, they were not only known for their intelligence but also their generosity. However, it was then that their family would experience yet another unfortunate tragedy. Just as things were improving, Fatima's husband passed, followed by her father, then her brother.

Left to grieve with her sister, the duo decided to take their inheritance from their father and build a mosque and an associated school, known as a madrasa. The madrasa started off as a place for students to study religion. Many lessons centred around the Qur'an and religious lessons. But as the school grew and gained recognition, other studies began. From debates to lectures, the students were versed in history, mathematics, music, Sufism, grammar and even medicine! Awarding students degrees chiselled onto wooden boards once they had completed their studies, the mosque-madrasa compound had grown to be a hub for education.

Credit: Follow Your Heart Travel Experiences on Facebook

As the first university in the world, Al-Karaouine, or Al-Qarawiyyin was incredibly ahead of its time. Although it experienced a dark period many years later, where patriarchal, misogynist rulers refused education for women, its initial days had classes filled with both educated men and women discussing and debating topics. And fortunately, after the 20th century, female students once more graced the university's halls.

In 1947, the madrasa was integrated into Morocco's state education system, and courses like physics and foreign languages were introduced. 22 years later, Al-Qarawiyyin joined the modern state university system, and was officially renamed the ''University of Al-Qarawiyyin''.

Today, students, aged 13-30, from all over the world still come to study. In class, they sit around a sheikh in a semi-circle while reading and discussing texts!

Al-Qarawiyyin library

Credit: Simply Morocco on Facebook

It would be amiss here not to mention the library. After much expansion and preservation, the Al-Qarawiyyin library holds more than 4000 rare manuscripts from ancient scholars. Treasures such as a copy of the Qur'an from the 9th century, written in Kufic script on the skin of a camel still reside in this prestigious, ancient university.

It's 2022 and Fatima al-Fihri's legacy still lives on. From surviving tragedies to pioneering not only education for Muslims, but also education for women, Fatima al-Fihri was definitely more than just a refugee or a teacher - she was also a feminist and a leader. The first university in the world was built by a Muslim woman - let's tell the world.