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Not Oxford or Bologna, but al-Qarawiyyin is the world's first university. Still functioning today in the Moroccan city of Fes, it was a place bursting with knowledge and multiculturalism even as early as the 9th century.

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Al-Qarawiyyin - the World's First University

Al-Qarawiyyin - the World's First University

The Middle East and North Africa were blazing with the light of knowledge over a thousand years ago, while Europe was still suffering from the Dark Ages. The entire region was a beacon of hope throughout the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 AD), radiating cosmopolitanism, with cities from the Levantine region to the coastlines of modern-day Morocco proudly housing various cultures and traditions.

In 859 A.D., a young Muslim lady named Fatima Al-Fahri founded the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, during this period known as the Golden Age of Islam. Al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest university in the world that is still in operation, according to the United Nations, Guinness World Records, Manchester University Press, and other reliable authorities.

Two to eight centuries later, prestigious institutions like the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, and Columbia University were founded.

Al-Qarawiyyin, like modern universities today, occasionally sponsored discussions, symposiums, and housed a number of libraries in both its main building and outlying annexations.

Fatima's original diploma is on display at the historical library, which is still open to visitors, on a wooden board. Also, it has 4,000 or more manuscripts on a variety of topics. There is also access to Ibn Khaldun, a renowned Muslim polymath and historian, and his 14th-century work, Muqaddimah.

The university had begun to deteriorate by the late 20th century, and until recent years, no one had attempted to rescue it. Aziza Chaouni, an architect based in Toronto, was engaged by the Moroccan government a few years ago to give it the much-needed facelift.

Sadly, some precious manuscripts were destroyed by the many years of accumulated decay. Some of them had been authored by the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages, such Ibn Khaldun, the historian who is regarded as the father of sociology as we know it today.

What makes Al-Qarawiyyin so important today?

3345 oldest university in the world

The keeper of the library at al-Qarawiyin, Abdelfattah Bougchouf, told Al Jazeera in 2016 that he receives visitors from all over the world who merely want to verify information about the collection of antiquated manuscripts.

The university has significantly shaped worldwide study and the course of human history.

The idea of higher education as we know it now served as the foundation for the university. Al Fihri's vision for the Middle Ages was to establish a location where brilliant philosophical and scientific minds might come together to develop learning and share their knowledge with the rest of the world. That's exactly what took place. The university left a blueprint, and as a result, handed on a framework for education that Europe's oldest institutions in succeeding centuries, such as the University of Bologna (established in 1088) and the University of Oxford, have imitated (founded around 1096).

Sequential Construction

Al Fihri was born in 800 AD in Tunisia. She was descended from a wealthy family that valued science, reason, and logic. She had already relocated to Fes, a lively cosmopolitan city at the time, by the time she discovered she had inherited a sizable wealth following her father's passing. When she arrived, she used a significant chunk of her riches to establish a mosque and a school. Her goal was to return the favor to the neighborhood that had embraced her family.

They left the Tunisian city of Kairouan when she was a small girl (the namesake of the mosque and university). The mosque, which still has space for 22,000 worshipers, served as the center of attention at first. Both men and women are permitted to enroll in the institution, but as the cultural emphasis placed on education has grown in recent years, so has the number of female students. There is a widespread misperception that the university solely accepts male students.

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Fatima Al Fihri is the founder of the oldest university (Photo:

She continues to motivate Moroccans. Al Fihri was a visionary, according to Abdul Majid al Mardi, the imam of the university's mosque, one of the oldest buildings in the complex. "She left a lasting legacy. This structure serves as a science landmark. The influence of this university on other civilizations and cultures was enormous. That was a time of great creativity "In 2016, he explained to Al Jazeera.

After buying a plot of land from the El-Hawara tribe in 859 AD, Al Fihri began work on the institution. She named it Qayrawan after her hometown in Tunisia, and the cornerstone was placed during the holy month of Ramadan.

In addition to producing prominent Muslim philosophers and scholars like Ibn Rushd, the university also produced graduates of other faiths. Some people think that Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, and Gerbert of Aurillac, better known as Pope Sylvester II, were among its foreign graduates. According to, several historians assert that he was the first to introduce Arabic numerals to the rest of Europe.

Today, as you go around Al-Karaouine, you can appreciate the building's modest yet elegant style, which is adorned with Andalusian art and framed by Kufic calligraphy. Historical copies of the Qur'an are among the priceless manuscripts housed in the university library.

The importance of al-Qarawiyyin

The University of Al-Karaouine developed into a significant religious and academic hub in the Muslim world throughout the years. The madrasa initially concentrated on teaching religion and memorizing the Qu'ran, but it gradually included classes in Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy.

The school wasn't actually included in the state education system until 1947; physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were added in 1957; it entered the contemporary state university system in 1963; and in 1965 it was formally titled "University of al-Karaouine" rather than just "al-Karaouine." According to, the school's student body drastically decreased in the early 1900s as elites started sending their kids to Morocco's brand-new Western-style institutions.

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