Fes, a city in Morocco, houses what many deem to be the oldest university in the world. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 C.E.; it was initially part of a mosque built by Fatima Fihriya, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Fatima decided to use all of her inheritance to build a mosque; later, the university was established. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest continuously operating degree-granting university and the focus of this post, the latest in a series on important sites in Islam.
One of the central messages of the Qur’an is that what distinguishes human beings from God’s other creations is our intellect. In the Qur’an, human beings are repeatedly commanded to use their minds. Seeking knowledge is a duty for every believer. This is exemplified in two hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever seeks a way to acquire knowledge Allah will make easy his way to Paradise.” (Sahîh Muslim)
It was also related by Anas b. Malik that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” (Sunan Ibn Mâjah)
Thus, Muslims since the rise of Islam have taken that command seriously. It is therefore not unusual that the oldest university in the world would have been established as the Islamic Empire grew.
Many subjects have been taught at Al-Qarawiyyin, including Qur’an, Islamic jurisprudence, rhetoric, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, and music. Moreover, the university has not only served as a place for instruction, it has offered a space for political discussion. By the 14th century, there were 8,000 students studying at the university.
Al-Qarawiyyin has produced several prominent scholars. Among the well-known names is Abu Imran Fasi, an important theorist in the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, and Leo Africanus, a traveler and writer. The university also played an important role in the cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe during the Middle Ages.
Al-Qarawiyyin still continues to exist, having been transformed into a modern university in 1947. This university is significant because it represents the early period in Islamic history when there was an incredible drive to study and learn.
Have you visited the University of Al-Qarawiyyin or the mosque? What was your experience? Why do you think Al-Qarawiyyin is important? How do you think institutions like Al-Qarawiyyin influenced other universities? Please share your comments below.