To read more stories about the forgotten legacy of powerful Muslim women from history, check out our series on Iconic Muslim Women. 

Over 1,000 years ago, the dedication and vision of one Muslim woman laid the foundation for the world’s first higher learning institution that continues to grant degrees to this day. Fatima al-Fihri is the founder of the world’s first known university – as acknowledged by the Guinness World Records and UNESCO – the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. 

Courtyard of University of Al Qarawiyyin founded 12 centuries ago by Fatima al Fihri
[Image Description: Courtyard of University of Al Qarawiyyin founded 12 centuries ago by Fatima al Fihri] Via Quartz
Born in Tunisia at around 800 AD, very little is known about Fatima’s early life. But it is said that sometime in the early 800s AD, Fatima migrated with her father and sister, Mariam, from Qayrawan (also known as Kairouan) in Tunisia to Fez in Morocco, a flourishing city considered a center of Islamic faith that overflowed with thousands of migrating Muslims from Africa and the Middle East.  

Fatima’s father, a wealthy merchant who valued education, encouraged his daughters to study. Both Fatima and Mariam were well-schooled in subjects like architecture and science and devoutly religious.

Upon the death of their father, Fatima and Mariam both inherited a large fortune. The sisters wanted to invest the money to benefit the Islamic community and the city of Fez, their adopted home. With large numbers of Muslim refugees engulfing the city, the mosques in Fez couldn’t accommodate the increased number of worshippers.  

The sisters were compelled to act. They wanted to provide the people of Fez – many of whom were immigrants as they had once been when they arrived in the city with their father – new spaces to worship and learn. 

With Mariam’s half of the inheritance, she built the Andalusian Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Morrocco. In 859 AD, Fatima used her half to financially invest and oversee the formation of the mosque and educational institution that would benefit the occupants of Fez. Gradually, the establishment developed into the University of al-Qarawiyyin, naming the establishment after Fatima’s home town in Tunisia.  

At the start, the educational part of al-Qarawiyyin offered courses in religious instruction and the Qur’an, but its curriculum later diversified its content to teach Arabic grammar, natural sciences, languages, mathematics, music, medicine, and astronomy, with Fatima herself enrolling. This new intellectual hub attracted students from all over the world to study the array of subjects the university offered.  

Throughout the university’s history, the institution has educated many notable Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. It is said that even Pope Sylvester II studied at al-Qarawiyyin, and it was he that introduced Arabic numerals to the rest of Europe.

The university is also home to one of the world’s oldest libraries, housing a collection of 4,000 books and ancient Arabic manuscripts written by renowned scholars of the region, including a manuscript of the Qur’an dated back to the 9th century. The library was recently restored by Candian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chouani, with a wing now open to the public. 

Corner of a library at University of Al Qarawiyyin, with books on shelves and stacks of books on tables
[Image Description: Corner of a library at University of Al Qarawiyyin, with books on shelves and stacks of books on tables] Via Quartz
Fatima al-Fihri was wholeheartedly committed to establishing an institution for higher learning that has set the framework of university education we recognize today, advocating the importance of intellectual thinking. With the University of al-Qarawiyyin still considered a leading and respected religious and educational institution in the Muslim world, Fatima al-Fihri’s legacy is one that should be admired and respected. 

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  • Rebecca Azad

    Rebecca Azad works in the creative and charity sector in project and event management, communications and as a content writer. She runs her own sustainable fashion blog. You'll usually find her in a cosy corner of a coffee shop sipping a latte whilst reading a novel or writing a new article for her blog or publication.