Women in History: Fatima al-Fihri

In the year 850 CE there was no such thing as a university. By 859, there was— thanks to Fatima al-Fihri.

The cover of a children’s book about Fatima al-Fihri’s life by Maryam Yousaf, available on Amazon

Fatima al-Fihri was an Arab Muslim woman who, having received an education and understanding its value, established the first ever university in Fez, Morocco.

When her father died, he left his estate to his daughters, Fatima and Mariam, each of whom used the money to establish a mosque. Fatima’s mosque grew to hold thousands of worshippers while at the same time evolving into a place of learning that offered degrees for different levels of education in the subjects of Islamic studies, mathematics, natural sciences, music, medicine and grammar.  A library was also established,
providing the resources and documents
needed by students and teachers alike.

Image: Abdel Hassouni via Wikimedia Commons

The University was not exclusive to Muslim students, and attracted scholars from both Jewish and Christian traditions. One of those students went on to become Pope Sylvester II, who introduced both Arabic numerals and the idea of zero to Western mathematics.

By the time Fatima died at the age of eighty years old, The University of Al Quaraouiyine had been running for twenty-four years,
alongside the mosque from which it
had developed.

Image: Mike Prince on flickr via Wikimedia Commons

This makes the university more than two hundred years older than the oldest Western universities at Bologna (est. 1088) and Oxford (est. 1096).

Both the mosque and university are still running today. Both the University of Al Quaraouiyine and its library are the oldest of their kind in the world. The library contains many ancient documents, some of which  date right back to the 9th century origins of the library, and other texts and books written by renowned academics.

What an amazing and enduring legacy, and a testament to foresight and wisdom! 

WordyNerdBird’s note: 
Having grown up in Australia and enjoyed a very Western education, I had no idea until much later in life that the concept of the university was something that came from the Muslim tradition. 

Perhaps if we were taught more overtly and deliberately about the legacies that have come to us from traditions other than our own,  our places of learning and society in general would be far more respectful of those traditions and the people who still hold them. 

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