Fatima Al-Fihri: The Woman Who Founded the Oldest University in the World

Karaouine Mosque and University
Karaouine Mosque and University. Credit: Mike Prince . CC BY

Karaouiyn University is the oldest university in the world, offering degrees for formal education on a variety of subjects, which still survives and has enlightened people through continuous education. Established in 659, the university has offered degrees to millions of students for 1,171 years. The founder of this university in Fez, Morocco, is a majestic Muslim woman- Fatima Al-Fihri.

Fatima al-Fihri was born around 800 in the city of Kairouan in Tunisia. Her family had migrated to Morocco in search of a change of fortune and took shelter in the city of Fez. It was the beginning of his father’s fighting career, and he became a successful businessman through hard work. Fatima al-Fihri learned Classical Arabic, Islamic culture, and Hadiths with her sister Maryam al-Fihri.

Fatima was married to a very decent family. But within a few years, their fortunes changed dramatically. Her husband, father, and brother died within a few years. Only the orphaned sisters Fatima and Maryam are left. They have inherited a large amount of property left to their father.

Even more wealth at a young age could not lead them away from the path of Allah. Instead of spending money on luxury, they decide to spend money on religion and the welfare of humanity. They’re going to try to develop the future of people.

They decided to build two separate mosques with their father’s property. In the vicinity, the two sisters built two separate mosques at roughly the same time. Mariam built the Andalusian Mosque, and Fatima built the Karaouiyn Mosque.

Fatima built a madrasa (university) on the extension of the mosque, after the completion of the construction of the mosque. It started to teach grammar, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, history, chemistry, geography, and other subjects in a short time, in addition to Islamic education.

Fatima’s Karaouiyn University continues to be the main centre of Islamic education in Africa. The famous Maliki judge Ibn al-Arabi, the historian Ibn Khaldun and the astronomer Nuruddin al-Bitruji were involved in teaching at different times.

Not only Muslims but also many famous medieval Jewish and Christian scholars have graduated from this university. One of its students was Pope Sylvester II, who learned the Arabic numeral system from here and spread the knowledge in Europe and introduced Europeans to the concept of the first zero (0).

Karaouiyn University Library is also considered to be the oldest library in the world. Even though a large number of manuscripts were destroyed by fire in 1323, it still contains some 4,000 ancient and rare manuscripts. These include a ninth-century Qur’an, a collection of hadiths, Imam Malik’s book Muwatta, and Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet (PBUH), Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab al-Ibar, and al-Muqaddima’s original manuscript.

This majestic woman died in 880. But the Karaouiyn mosque, university, and library she founded still stand proudly today. Millions of students have graduated from his established university in the last millennium. Fatima’s contribution to the enlightenment of her countrymen, the Arab world, the Muslim world, above all, the human community, and the enrichment of world knowledge is immeasurable.