Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri

Did you know the first institution granting academic degrees in the world was founded by a Muslim woman? Of course you didn’t.

Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri’s university, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is still in operation today. It is the world’s oldest institution of education to continually operate, and after its construction in 859, the university quickly became one of the leading education centers in the world. Conveniently located within the compounds of a mosque that would in the coming centuries expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa–capacity 22,000–the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificently influential city of Fes. Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus are some of the leading thinkers, theorists, and writers produced by Al-Fihri’s university. Renowned mapmakers, astonomers, and historians attended as students. Al-Fihri’s sister, Mariam built the Al-Andalus mosque.

Both sisters were known to have been extremely pious. Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri, despite having no experience in architecture, oversaw the construction of the mosque and the university in great detail and with great dedication until the project was complete. Non-Muslims were attracted to the mosque as well, and the university played a pivotal role in the cultural and intellectual interactions between the Middle East and Europe. A variety of subjects were taught at the university, including Islamic law, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, and–gasp!–music.

Although Al-Fihri was a wealthy woman and contributed considerably to her community, little biographical information has been written or preserved about her. Women who inherit their fathers’ fortunes, you see, give grandly, live quietly, and vanish from the face of the earth while the universities they establish are associated with a patronage of sultans– and their extensive biographies. Al-Fihri, instead, will be (and has been) renowned instead for her modesty and her charitable nature–the “sacrificial Muslim woman (TM)” who gives unthinkingly to her community–and not for her great leadership.

10 thoughts on “Islamic History and the Women You Never Hear About: Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri

  1. Ibtisam

    I’ve heard many “non-feminist” Muslims use the example of Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri to compare how Islam is inherently and historically more fair with respect to equal rights between men and women, given that women in the US only had access to university education in the 1800s. However, is it not true that the university built by Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri was exclusively for the education of males?

    That doesn’t take anything away from your point of the post, women patrons’ biographies certainly have been closeted. It irks me when people (men) pull out the Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihris when it furthers their interests.

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    1. Ibtisam–absolutely. I didn’t include that in the post to keep myself from going off in an outraged rant!! Was going to use it for another accumulative one. =P Unfortunately, it’s a theme.

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    1. Hey ;) I already know about your wordpress. =) Nice to meet you.

      Actually, I’ve wanted to add you to the blogroll before but wasn’t sure if you identified as an Islamic feminist (otherwise your link would appear under “other Muslim-y stuff”) and didn’t want to misidentify/characterize you. Let me know if you have a preference.

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  2. So, like, when I was in Morocco, I went to Fez only and entirely and specifically and especially and just to visit this university founded by a woman, a Muslim woman, and reconnect with this remarkable woman and tell her that her time period was far more progressive than mine is today. So when I get there, a group of men wouldn’t let me enter because–and get this, k–“women aren’t allowed to enter this university; it’s only for men.” Me: “Wait, but … a woman founded this uni in the 10th century; how can you forbid a woman to even ENTER it in the 21st century, goddam you?!” They go, “We don’t make the rules.” I go: “Who’s in charge then? I need to talk to someone about this.” Other men came forward and I… yeah, I chickened out and left because the city in anger ’cause I didn’t think anyone would take my side in case it was to get real and serious and shit.

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  3. Niaz Ahmad

    Hello, and thank you for posting this article.

    As far as we know, there were no restrictions put on who could enter the Qarawiyyin for study when it was first established. Unlike modern universities which require official registration and the like, it would make full sense, given the early history of Islam, that lessons were taught freely, and that women were given equal right to learn the various sciences at the Qarawiyyin, especially given the venerable tradition of female education and scholarship, especially in early Islamic history.

    With respect to modern times, In 2006, the Qarawiyyin was allowing women to come to classes as auditors. They had free access to the scholars, who welcomed their presence and interest in learning. I myself brought several guests from the West as visitors, and in one case, for a visiting female professor from Spain, a special session was set up in Arabic for her (with myself as a translator) for her benefit in the adjacent Bab al-Guissa madrasa.

    Many women attended the Qarawiyyin for scholarly learning throughout its history, and a discussion with any of the older scholars who teach, and have taught, at the Qarawiyyin would reveal to curious inquirers that that was definitely the case.

    As regards the decision by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to formally allow only men to officially study at the Qarawiyyin and even, for a few years, forbid the presence of women (this was about 2008 or so onwards), this is a blight on the record of the administration and an embarassment, given the special history of the university. This was not a decision made by the scholars who teach at the mosque. More pressure needs to be applied for this to be changed – to the extent that it is still in existence. Much, much more could be said about this, particularly with regards to the changes that have taken place ever since the government encroachment over various aspects of the Qarawiyyin since the 1930s, roughly, but that’s for another, perhaps longer piece.

    One good piece of news, though, is that within the last 2 or 3 years, the Qarawiyyin (meaning here and for all of the above comments as well, the 12-year mosque program) has opened its doors officially to allow women to enter as full students. The only requirement – as with all applicants – is that students should have memorized the Qur’an as a prerequisite. There are not many, but nevertheless, there are some women who have applied and recieved acceptance into the Qarawiyyin. Unfortunately, the first 9 years of this program – for young men and women – are taught somewhere outside the historic mosque-university, very far away in the New City of Fez.

    This is the latest that I have heard up-to-date, as someone who partook of classes there from 2006-2011. Wallahu A’lam.

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