Fatima Al-Fihri: The Woman Who Established The World’s First University

What do graduation caps and gowns have to do with Muslim women? The answer is a lot. There is a unique and intriguing connection between the age-old graduation costume we know today and a Muslim woman called Fatima Al-Fihri. Fatima hailed from a well-educated and wealthy family in Tunisia. Not much has been preserved about her early life, but it was believed that the Al-Fihri family migrated to the city of Fez in Morocco in the early 9thcentury. When her father died, Fatima used the fortune to build a mosque and educational institution for the benefit of her local community. Overtime, the educational institution became the University of al-Qarawiyyin – a world first.

Established in the year 859, the University of al-Qarawiyyin was the first degree-granting educational institute in the world (as recognised by UNESCO and Guinness World Records). It became a notable intellectual hub and taught a range of subjects including history, linguistics, theology and astronomy and more

Throughout history, Fatima Al-Fihri has become a symbol for Muslim women’s place in academia. She was a testament to one of the fundamental messages of Islam: to encourage believers to seek knowledge – both men and women in the same regard.

Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 224, Grade: Hasan

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The university library underwent a recent process of restoration in 2016. The official reopening was celebrated in mainstream news, bringing Fatima’s story to centre-stage once more. Influential media such as The Guardian, the Smithsonian, TED and Quartz asserted that this was the oldest continually operating library in the world, and that Fatima herself had founded it. It’s also important to note that the architect who oversaw the the design of the library was also a Muslim woman: Aziza Chaouni. The is collaboration of old and new, woman to woman, is a deeply poignant moment in modern Islamic history.

There are many myths and folklore around Fatima Al-Fihri’s life, but nevertheless her story is a beacon of light to Muslim women everywhere who dare to dream of pioneering change and seeking ilm (knowledge) despite the obstacles.

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