Fatima Al-Fihri (800 AD - 880 AD)
After years of being told the first schools of higher learning were founded in Bologna, Italy in 1088, followed by the University of Oxford, England in 1096, I recently discovered otherwise. Both Unesco and Guinness World Records recognize that the first school of higher education opened its doors in 859 AD and it was founded by a woman.
Fatima Al-Fihri was born about 800 AD in what is today the country of Tunisia. Unfortunately, quite little is known about this visionary paragon. We do know that Fatima was born to a home of modest wealth. During her youth, her father became a very successful and wealthy merchant and dedicated himself to educating his children in the study of the Qur'an and Islamic jurisprudence. The family moved from Tunisia to the bustling city of Fes, Morocco. Fatima married, but shortly after the wedding both her husband and her father died. Because females under Islamic law were able to inherit money, Fatima and her sister Maryam became very wealthy. Both pious women decided to use their great inheritance, which they considered a gift from Allah, to build mosques in order to give back to their community. Fatima, valuing her own education highly, desired to build and establish a madrasa, or school for higher learning, next to the mosque.
The al-Qarawiyyin mosque and university took 18 years to build. During that time Fatima supervised the construction of the project and fasted and prayed daily. On the day that the construction was completed, it is said that she entered the mosque and thanked Allah for her blessings.
The university was opened to people of all ages, faiths and social classes. It was the first to offer scholastic degrees, to perform tassel and gown graduation ceremonies, and to require students to defend their thesis. Studies included astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, philosophy, literature, music, religious and Islamic studies. The university graduated Muslim scholars as well as Jewish and Christian scholars. The library at Qarawiyyin is also the oldest in the world and houses over 4000 rare documents from antiquity.
Education and furthering the mind is of great value in the Islamic faith. According to a female student at the university, “The first word Allah said to the prophet was “Iqra” or read.” Although Fatima graduated with a degree from the university, women were not admitted into the university in any great number until the 1940’s. The strict entrance requirements including the complete memorization of the Qur’an, made it difficult for women to enter as the majority of women were illiterate at the time (men too). However, over the last 70+ years as literacy has risen, female student admissions to the University of Al-Qarawiyyin continue to rise.
For the opportunities she gave others to expand their minds, Fatima was known as the “mother of the (intellectual) children”. She is highly respected in Morocco and in Muslim communities for her foresight, piety, perseverance and kind heartedness.
Questions to ponder while you allow Fatima’s story to sink into your depths…
I love the fact that Fatima was called the “mother of the children.” Fatima’s short marriage did not produce any of her own children, yet she symbolically 'birthed' a mosque and a university and became a mother figure to the students. How can we use our innate, feminine instincts towards creation to build things that benefit our communities?
Fatima persevered and made sacrifices to see her vision through to its end. What can we learn about foresight, patience and faith from her actions?
With her great religious faith and her inheritance, Fatima turned her grief and her probable suffering over the loss of her husband and father into a beautiful legacy of love and wisdom. How can we follow Fatima's lead and create beauty in the space that our deceased loved ones used to occupy?
For more information on the life of Fatima, see the links below.