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Wednesday's Women in STEM: Fatima Al-Fihri

Fatima Al-Fihri was born in Tunisia and became the founder of the first university in the world. Hailed from a well-educated family, she utilized her inheritance and created a school that taught religious as well as secular studies. She invested her wealth in founding a mosque and many educational institutions for the benefit of her local community. Gradually, the establishment blossomed into the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, named after Fatima’s birthplace, Qayrawan, in Tunisia.

Fatima Al-Fihri was born in the vicinity of what is known as Tunisia today. Her family migrated from their original home to the city in Morocco in the ninth century and Fatima’s family was blessed with prosperity. Her father, Muhammad bin Abdullah Al-Fihri, had become a successful businessman in Morocco, and Fatima and her sister, Mariam, were both well educated. After the deaths of Fatima’s husband, father, and brother in short succession, Fatima and her sister received a sizable inheritance from their father’s wealth, which ensured their financial independence. Fatima and Mariam were visionary women. Observing that the local mosques in Fez were becoming overcrowded with the growing population of worshipers, many of whom were refugees from Islamic Spain, Mariam built the grand Al-Andalus Mosque in the year 859. Fatima founded Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which was the largest mosque in North Africa. The mosque she built was a large complex and within its walls, a university was built, which is still a part of the mosque to this day.

The University of Qarawiyyin, created by Al-Fihiri, is considered by historians to be the oldest continuously operating, degree-granting institution of higher education in the world. The Universities of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries and continued the Muslim tradition of granting degrees to students who deserved them, and using it as a judge of a person’s qualifications in a particular subject. The university was regarded as one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world and the location of the university within the compounds of the mosque attracted scholars from far and wide. The university produced great thinkers such as Abu Al-Abbas, the jurist Muhammad Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus, a renowned traveler, and writer. Other prominent names associated with the institution include the Maliki jurist Ibn Al-Arabi, the historian Ibn Khaldun, and the astronomer Al-Bitruji, also known as Alpetragius. The university played a leading role in cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. The university’s outstanding caliber attracted Gerber of Auvergne who later became Pope Sylvester II and went on to introduce Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to medieval Europe. One of the university’s most famous students was the Jewish philosopher, theologian, astronomer, and physician, Maimonides. Alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), other subjects that were also taught at the university included grammar, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography, and music. Gradually, a broader range of subjects was introduced in the university, particularly natural sciences, physics, and foreign languages.

Al-Fihri was a trailblazer who established the concept of a university as we know it today. Her idea for an educational hub that provided opportunities for advanced learning spread throughout the world in the Middle Ages, resulting in the founding of Europe’s oldest institutions in the following centuries, including the University of Bologna and the University of Oxford.


BY: Tauba Ashrafi



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