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Fatima Al-Fihri: Mother of Universities

Life Taufiq Sugeng 15-Jan-2020
Karaouine Mosque and University
Karaouine Mosque and University. Credit: Mike Prince . CC BY

Western portrayals of Islam often paint the religion as backwards and sexist. Indeed many mainstream western media outlets cover stories about Islam only when it concerns violence and has the word terrorism within it. We are made to believe that the west is the epitome of civilization, the most advanced civilization that is the source of all human rights, and the defender of all liberties. The same undertones used by colonial and imperialist masters that subjugated most of the world are still used today.

Indeed the portrayals of Muslims today are so subjected to it, they might as well call all Muslims savages and barbarians.

This portrayal, however, is simply not true. History has numerous examples of Islam as a source of enlightenment and progression for people. Indeed during the Abbasid caliphate (750CE to 1258CE and 1261 CE to 1517 CE) Islamic society was incredibly advanced. Literature, the sciences, philosophy and Islamic theology flourished. Much of Europe’s renaissance era advances were built on the backs of Islamic scientists from this period.

Much of this thought unfortunately not only exists in the minds of non-Muslims, but has also permeated the thought of many Muslims creating a self-critical dual mindset that we struggle to rationalize. If any person were to be asked to name the oldest university in the world, perhaps they would imagine an old European castle, situated perhaps in England, Italy or Germany. This however could not be further from the truth.

Fatima Al-Fihri was a young woman at the time she established the Al-Qarawiyyin university in Fes Morocco in 859 CE. This university is still open and has been recognized by global institutions including the UN as the oldest continually operating university in the world and the first academic institution to award degrees. Verily, she played a key role not only in establishing universities as an institution but also setting up the system that universities still use today.

Al-Fihri’s story is one that could inspire even the most hardhearted of people. She was born in what is now Tunisia during the 9th century. She was part of an upper class family and received a good education. Her family moved to Fes when she was a child in search of better opportunities and they were blessed as their family’s struggles paid off and they became successful merchants. This enabled Fatima and her sister, Mariam, to explore their curiosity of the world within the vibrant Fes. During this period, Fes was one of many vibrant centres of knowledge and culture in the Islamic world. The sisters had access to the flourishing arts and sciences as well of deep of knowledge of religious tradition.

Unfortunate deaths of her father, husband and brother during a short period of time left Fatima lost and searching for purpose. She and her sister quickly found it. Using the sizable inheritance they had received, Fatima and Mariam decided to put their new wealth back into the community in which they had grown up. This rejection of Dunya stemmed from their deeply devoted faith.

They had noticed that Fes was increasingly incapable of accommodating the influx of refugees from Islamic Spain. The sisters used their money to create spaces that could accommodate everyone from the refugees to the natives. Mariam dedicated herself into building the Andalusian Mosque, a mosque that you can still visit today, and be as astounded by it’s beauty as the people in Fes were more than a millennia ago.

Fatima on the other hand decided to pursue her love of learning. She was involved from the ground up, managing construction to set up a community center where people of all backgrounds could come and learn. Soon, the madrasa evolved into a Universities and was named after Al Qarawiyyin, Fatima’s birthplace.

Her university flourished while medieval Europe was going through it’s Dark Ages. It thought classes in all sorts of fields, from theology to rhetoric to music and literature. Her University even in it’s time was very inclusive. Non-muslim students flocked to Fez to earn a degree and were given a solid education. Notable alumni such as Ibn Khaldun, Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and diplomat and explorer Leo Africanus as well as Pope Sylvester II carried out the Universities influence.

The University is still just as important as it was during the Islamic golden age. It’s library holds some of the most important Islamic manuscripts and was a bridge of knowledge for people from all backgrounds. It still operates today and is part of Morocco’s state university system.

So next time you go to class, or attend university, take comfort in the idea that none of this would have happened were it not for a trailblazing Arab woman. Fatima Al-Fihri and her love of knowledge not only is a great example of an influential woman, but she also represents the anti-thesis to many western portrayals of Muslims. Not only is she a great role model, but she is also a great ambassador for Islam and we must celebrate her for all her achievements and make sure she does not die in the unturned pages of history.