By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
04 April 2017
Hai Tasveer-e-Kainaat Mein Rang,
(The colours of
the universe are there because of the existence of womankind)
-- Sir Muhammad Iqbal
In recent years, due to the global
socio-political climate, the phrase “Muslim woman” might conjure an image of a
demure un-empowered woman sheltered by her Burqa. Yet this image is not what
our history records or what our present reflects.
Muslim men may fret that they lose when their
women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances.
No one will believe that the first
institution granting academic degrees was founded by a Muslim woman?
in 859 (almost a hundred years before the foundation of Al Azhar in
Cairo) and nestled in the old medina of Fez, Morocco's University of
al-Qarawiyyin is acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records as the
oldest institution in the world operating as an academic degree-granting
Fatima al-Fihri migrated with her father
Mohamed al-Fihri and sister Maram from al-Kairouan (al-Qayrawan) in Tunisia, to
Fez in Morocco. She was well versed in classical Islamic learning such as Fiqh
(jurisprudence) and Hadith (Islamic traditions based on Prophet’s life) Fatima
inherited a large fortune from her father whom she used to build a mosque and
university. Mariam, Fatima's sister, was the sponsor of the Al-Andalus mosque,
also in Fes.
Fatima was undoubtedly a pious woman with a
visionary and architectural acumen who was guided by a magnanimous heart and a perspicacious
mind. She was endowed with a fortune bequeathed by her father. Far from
revelling in wealthy pursuits; she used the resources very frugally to set up a
mosque, university and library-the highest trinity of Islamic piety.
She personally supervised the entire
gigantic enterprise, form putting up the foundation through to the
functionalizing of these institutions. When she embarked on her mission, she
had lost her father, husband and brother –all primary sours of support and
protection for a women -.any other Muslim woman would have retreated to the
backwaters of domestic life. But Fatima appears to have been an extraordinarily
inspired and determined woman with steely grooves .All her great achievement s
came during periods of loneliness and in situating when women normally shun the
world and seek company with the home.
The original mosque was of modest
dimensions but was expanded in the following century. Having become in 918 the
official mosque in which the sultan attended Friday prayers ,the mosque was
taken over by the state .from the Idrisis in the century to the Awits in the present the
mosques has been continually embellished .,some of its architectural specimens
show flourishes of Moorish architecture in Alhambra in Granada.
most efflorescent period for the institution spanned between 12th and 15th
centuries when it was lavishly patronized by Almohades and Merinids, the
university quickly became one of the leading education centres in the world.
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 has a marvellous architecture.
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– music.
In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of
Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such
as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and
obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral
defence, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced
back to the practices of madrasas.
The initial curriculum focused on the
religious sciences and later covered other disciplines such as grammar,
geography, history, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and astronomy. The
university played a leading role in the cultural and academic relations between
the Islamic world and Europe. The cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi (d. 1166),
whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that
he may have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.
prestigious academic reputation transcended religious divisions. Popular
tradition suggests that Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003), who would become Pope
Sylvester II who is credited with introducing Arabic numerals to Europe, was
once a student at al-Qarawiyyin.
The university served as a bridge of knowledge between Africa and
between the Middle East and Europe. When Muslims were expelled from Spain in
the 13th century, many came to Fèz and to Qarawwīyīn. They brought with them
their learning of European and Moorish arts and sciences.
Among its alumni were, Leo Africanus,
Andalusian diplomat and renowned traveler and writer, and Rabbi Moshe ben
Maimon. Ibn Rushayd al-Sabti Mohammed
Ibn al-Hajj al-Abdari al-Fasi, Abu Imran al-Fasi, a leading theorist of the
Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence, Leo Africanus, a renowned traveller and
writer. The famous Jewish physician, philosopher and theologian, Maimonides who
introduced articles of faith to Judaism, And Fatima al-Kabbaj, one of the first
women to have studied at the University;
Pioneer scholars such as, Ibn al-Arabi, Ibn
Khaldun, Ibn al-Khatib, Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius), Ibn Hirzihim, and Al-Wazzan
were all connected with the madrasa either as students or lecturers. Among
Christian scholars visiting Al Quaraouiyine were the Belgian Nicolas Cleynaerts
and the Dutchman Golius and Gerber of Auvergne
who later became Pope Sylvester II and went on to introduce Arabic
numerals and the concept of zero to medieval Europe
The university boasts of one of world’s
greatest libraries .Founded in 1349, by Sultan Abu Inan, and completely
restructured under King Mohammed V, the grandfather of Morocco’s current monarch
,the Qarawwiyin’ library is one of the oldest and highly respected libraries of
the world. For centuries, historians and scholars travelled to Fes to peruse
the library’s shelves. the library fell
into disrepair in the period of decline of Islam‘s Godden Age .After centuries
of neglect, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture recently restored the library.
From calligraphic designs on the walls to ceramic patterns on the floors and
wooden carvings on the ceilings, the fingerprint of almost every ruling dynasty
since the 9th century can be seen in the architecture.
While the library is a pale shadow of what
it must have been when the Merinid sultan Abu Inan stocked it with thousand of
rare manuscripts that form part of the booty won from the Christian king of
Selvile, it retains an important place in the pantheon of world’s information
A special room with strict security and
temperature and humidity controls houses the most ancient works. The library's
collection of over 4000 manuscripts that include volumes from the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, the
earliest collection of Islamic and the famous Muwatta of Imam Malik written on
gazelle parchment, There is a treatise on the Maliki school of Islamic
jurisprudence. Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny
immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink. There is also a
12th-century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.
Another precious possession is a
ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin given
to the university by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur Al-Dhahabi in 1602.The library has
the original handwritten and signed
copy of historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s Al-'Ibar “Book of Lessons.” “Praise be to God, what is written belongs to
me,” reads a line in Ibn Khaldun’s elegant handwriting and an original copy of
Muqaddimah. It also has a treatise on
medicine by philosopher and physician Ibn Tufayl from the 12th century. “From
baldness to corn on the foot, all ailments of the body are listed – in verse,
to make them easier to learn. There is
also a 12th-century manuscript – a treatise in astronomy by philosopher
Al-Farabi – shows the course of the planet Jupiter, complete with drawings of
History show that early Muslim women
reformers were authentic exemplars of modern economic and
social philosophies that have become modern fetishes .more important the early
role models were altruistic whereas many of their present day peers are driven more by
What’s important about Fatima al-Fahiri’s
story is that she creates not only a sense of pride for younger girls, but also
a sense of possibility. She is someone
that young girls can identify with.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a
Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four
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