As unlikely as it might seem, Morocco is the home of the oldest university in the world – it was established by a Muslim woman in 859 AD.
Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez is recognised by UNESCO and the Guinness World Records as the oldest university on the planet. Still in existence today, it was also the first educational institution to award students with degrees, and boasts the oldest library in the world.
Tunisian immigrant Fatima al-Fihri is credited with establishing Al-Qarawiyyin, after she inherited a large sum of money following the death of her wealthy father. As a keen scholar herself, she wanted to build a mosque that would also serve as a religious learning centre.
Although Al-Qarawiyyin originally functioned as a mosque, it quickly became renowned as a place of learning, where scholars and artisans from across the globe would come to take part in religious, spiritual and political debates.
The revered reputation of the institution not only attracted the very best teachers, it also became a sought-after place for students from far and wide. As applications surged, strict entry criteria were enforced, which included the requirement for students to memorise the entire Quran. Wealthy Muslim families were so keen to get their offspring educated at such a prestigious establishment, that they gifted money, manuscripts and books to the university.
Central to the teachings at Al-Qarawiyyin was – and still is today – the library. Holding more than 4,000 manuscripts, some of which are very rare and can be traced back to the 9th century, the library is also home to the oldest copy of Prophet Mohammed’s words and deeds.
Although education was centred around Islamic teachings, it extended to cover other subjects including Arabic grammar, legal sciences, Maliki law, French, English, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, calligraphy, medicine, geography, history and rhetoric.
The university today
All these years later, Al-Qarawiyyin is still a sought-after place of learning. It was incorporated into Morocco’s state university system in 1963. The mosque and the library remain at the original site, although other parts of the university have been relocated across Fez.
Students are taught in the traditional fashion of sitting in a semi-circle around a sheikh, where they are asked to read texts and answer questions on it.
The university’s library has undergone a recent restoration project, which includes a new wing for use by the general public.
Today, entry requirements are still stringent at the university, and as well as being Muslim, potential new students must be able to memorise the Quran and have fluent knowledge of classical Arabic. Both men and women may attend Al-Qarawiyyin – students range from ages 13-30.
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