The Oldest Standing University in the World*
By Kerry Sullivan
Although many people would imagine that the oldest university in the world is in Europe or China, it’s not. The oldest standing university on Earth is in Morocco. Founded in 859 AD, Al-Qarawiyyin is recognized by UNESCO and the Guinness World Records as the oldest existing, continuously operating university, as well as the first institution to issue educational degrees. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin is located in the city of Fes, once a leading spiritual and educational centre of the Muslim world. A fact that makes Al-Qarawiyyin all the more unique is that it was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, a young princess from Tunisia.
Founding the Institution
Over 1200 years ago, Mohammed al-Fihri and his family moved from Qayrawan (modern-day Tunisia) to Fes. The al-Fihris were just one of many migrants moving across North Africa to the prosperous cities of Morocco. The al-Fihris and other ‘Qayrawaniyyins’ formed a community in the western district of the city. Mohammed al-Fihri, a wealthy merchant, had two daughters – Fatima and Mariam. Both were well-educated and brought up to be devoutly religious.
When their father died, Fatima and Mariam came into an enormous inheritance (unlike in Europe, in Islamic countries women were able to inherit). Fatima accepted the unique gift of such sudden wealth by attributing the windfall to the blessing of Allah. She vowed she would spend her entire inheritance on building a mosque and learning centre where the Qayrawan community could glorify Islam. Little else is known about Fatima or the other al-Fihris. However, her story sheds a great deal of light on the role women played in Islamic society at the time. Moreover, Fatima was not the only woman to found a mosque – hers is just the oldest still operating.
The Oldest Library Too
The library at Al-Qarawiyyin was an essential part of her enterprise for both religious and scholarly pursuits. Today, that library is also recognized as the oldest in the world. It contains over 4000 manuscripts, some of which date back to the 9th century. Of particular note is a collection of hadiths which are thought to be the oldest copy of the of the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings still in existence.
The university embodies the spiritual learning that was at the very heart of the Muslim civilization in the days when the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to India. Although located at the far edge of the empire, scholars and artisans would come to Morocco from all over the known world. Al-Qarawiyyin was originally founded as a mosque with a madrasa (Islamic school) so that the community of Fez could practice their faith while expanding their knowledge of spiritual matters. From the instruction of the Qur’an, the madrasa expanded to teach Arabic grammar, calligraphy, mathematics, music, chemistry, legislation, Sufi mysticism, medicine, astronomy, history, geography, and rhetoric.
The renown of the educational aspect of Al-Qarawiyyin quickly outpaced the reputation of the mosque itself. Al-Qarawiyyin became known the world over as a place for great discussions and debates on religious, scholarly, and political matters. In addition to a wide variety of topics, the university attracted some of the highest quality teachers of the era.
Applications for admission flooded in. As a result, the administrators had to put in place a vigorous selection system. Some of the conditions of entry are still in place for those hoping to study at Al-Qarawiyyin today, for example, applicants must have memorized the whole Qur’an if they are even to be considered for admission.
With such acclaim, the university naturally attracted a number of sultans and wealthy merchants who hoped to give their children first-class educations. They became patrons of the Al-Qarawiyyin and lavished wealthy subsidies, gifts, and treasures on the institution – especially books and manuscripts, which were in short supply in the 9th century.
The university produced a number of “high profile scholars that exercised a strong influence on the intellectual and academic realms in the Muslim world. Among the great names, the list includes Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti (d.721 AH/1321 CE), Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi (d.737 AH/1336 CE) and Abu Madhab Al-Fasi who led his generation in studies of the “Maliki” school of thought.” (The Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilization, 2016)
Flourishing Muslim Scholars
While Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages, Islamic society flourished. It is thanks to the Muslim scholars that the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans were preserved and translated. Indeed, it was the close proximity of Morocco and Spain that ultimately allowed European states to absorb the wisdom of Islamic and Greek scholars. “Among Christian witnesses of the contribution of al-Qarawiyyin is Gerbert of Aurillac (930-1003), famously known as Pope Sylvester II, and who is credited with introducing the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe” (The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, 2016)
Despite the abundance of knowledge clearly visible at Al-Qarawiyyin, Europeans still looked down on the African institute. When the French conquered Morocco, they even sought to ‘civilize’ the university. Thankfully, their efforts failed and today one can still see the 9th-century buildings, as well as scholars studying and discussing the Qur’an.