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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Photo: FezGuideAdvisor.com

al-Qarawiyyin - the world's first university

Over a thousand years ago, when Europe was reeling from the Dark Ages, the Middle East and North Africa were shining with the light of knowledge. Under the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258AD), the entire region represented a beacon of hope, radiating cosmopolitanism, with its cities from the Levantine region, to the coasts of today's Morocco proudly home to different cultures and traditions.

During this era, dubbed the Golden Age of Islam, a young Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fahri, established the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, in 859 AD. According to the United Nations, Guinness World Records, Manchester University Press and other credible sources, al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest university of the world still in use today.

Prestigious institutions like the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna and Columbia University, came two to eight centuries later.

Like today's modern universities, al-Qarawiyyin periodically hosted debates, symposiums and housed several libraries in its main premises and outside annexes.

Indeed, its historical library is still open to the public, and it exhibits Fatima’s original diploma on a wooden board. It also boasts more than 4,000 manuscripts on a range of subjects. The 14th century text, Muqaddimah, written by famous Muslim polymath and historian, Ibn Khaldun, is also available there.

By the late 20th century, the university had started to decay and until recent years, no one had undertaken the task to save it. A few years ago, the Moroccan government finally rose to the occasion and hired a Toronto-based architect, Aziza Chaouni, to give it a much-needed face-lift.

Regrettably, the several decades of accumulated rot proved destructive enough for some rare manuscripts. Some had been written by the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, such as Ibn Khaldun, the historian widely seen as a forerunner of today's sociology.

What makes the university so important today?

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Photo: AncientOrigins.com

Abdelfattah Bougchouf, the library curator at al-Qarawiyin, told Al Jazeera in 2016, that people come to him from all over the world simply to check facts on the collection of old manuscripts.

The university has had a far-reaching influence over global scholarship, reshaping the future of humankind.

The university was established on the concept of higher education as we know it today. Al Fihri's idea was to create a space where bright philosophical and scientific minds could assemble for advanced learning and spread their knowledge throughout the world in the Middle Ages. That is exactly what happened. The university left a blueprint, and as a result of it, passed on a structure of learning that has been emulated by Europe during the founding of its oldest institutions in successive centuries, including the University of Bologna (founded 1088) and the University of Oxford (founded around 1096).

Step by step construction

Al Fihri was born in Tunisia in 800 AD. She was heir to a financial dynasty who believed in science, the power of logic and reasoning. By the time she inherited a large fortune after her father's death, she had already moved to Fes, a bustling cosmopolitan city of the time. When she arrived, she invested a large portion of her wealth in founding a mosque and an educational institution. Her intention was to give back to the community that had welcomed her family. They immigrated when she was young from the Tunisian city of Kairouan (the namesake of the mosque and university). The mosque was the initial focal point; with enough room for 22,000 worshipers, it remains the largest in Africa. Both women and men can attend the university, in recent years the female student body has grown as the culture’s value of education has increased. It is a common misconception that the university only allows male students to attend.

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Fatima Al Fihri is the founder of the oldest university (Photo: TheIslamicworldinPerspective.com)

She still inspires people in Morocco. According to Abdul Majid al Mardi, the imam of the university’s mosque, which is one of the oldest structures in the compound, al Fihri was a visionary. "She left behind a great legacy. This building stands as a beacon of science. This university had a huge impact on different cultures and civilizations. It was a spring of innovation," he explained to Al Jazeera in 2016.

Al Fihri started the university's construction in 859 AD after purchasing a piece of land from the El-Hawara tribe. The foundation stone was laid in the holy month of Ramadan and she named it after her birthplace – Qayrawan – in Tunisia.

Besides giving birth to towering Muslim scholars and intellectuals such as Ibn Rushd, people from other faiths also graduated from the university. Some believe that among them, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was one of its foreign alumni, as well as Gerbert of Aurillac, who is better known as Pope Sylvester II. Several historians say he was the first to introduce Arabic numerals to the rest of Europe, according to trtworld.com.

Wandering around Al-Karaouine today, you can admire the institution’s simple yet beautiful design, decorated with Andalusian art bordered with Kufic calligraphy. The university library is home to numbers of precious manuscripts including historic copies of the Qu’ran.

The importance of al-Qarawiyyin

Over the centuries, the University of Al-Karaouine became a key spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world. In the beginning, the madrasa focused on religious instruction and Qu’ran memorization, but later expanded into Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy. However, it was not until 1947 that the school was integrated into the state education system; in 1957 physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were introduced; in 1963 it joined the modern state university system; and in 1965 it was officially renamed “University of al-Karaouine” rather than simply “al-Karaouine.” The school’s student body shrank dramatically in the early 1900s when elites began sending their children to the new Western-style institutes in Morocco, cites atlasobscura.com.
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