The University of Karueein is the world’s oldest university founded in 859 A.D. by Tunisian-born Fatima al-Fihri in Morocco’s Fez, over two centuries before its more widely known predecessors.
When thinking of the oldest universities in the world, probably the first ones that come to most people’s minds are Oxford and Bologna, but according to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, Al-Qarawiyyin University (also written as Al-Karaouine) is the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world.”
Founded by Fatima al-Fihri in Morocco’s Fez, the university is not only the oldest higher education institution on Earth but also the first to be founded by a woman, and a Muslim one at that.
Fatima used her inheritance from her merchant father’s wealth to found the university which started as an associated school – known as a madrasa – and a mosque that eventually grew into a place of higher education.
It also introduced the system of awarding degrees according to different levels of study in a range of fields, such as religious studies, grammar and rhetoric.
Though the university first focused on religious instruction, its fields of study quickly expanded to include logic, medicine, mathematics and astronomy, among many others.
Over a thousand years ago, when Europe was reeling from the Dark Ages, the Middle East and North Africa were shining with the light of knowledge. Under the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258AD), the entire region represented a beacon of hope, radiating cosmopolitanism, with its cities from the Levantine region, to the coasts of today’s Morocco proudly home to different cultures and traditions.
Prestigious institutions like the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna and Columbia University, came two to eight centuries later.
Like today’s modern universities, al-Qarawiyyin periodically hosted debates, symposiums and housed several libraries in its main premises and outside annexes.
Indeed, its historical library is still open to the public, and it exhibits Fatima’s original diploma on a wooden board. It also boasts more than 4,000 manuscripts on a range of subjects. The 14th century text, Muqaddimah, written by famous Muslim polymath and historian, Ibn Khaldun, is also available there.
By the late 20th century, the university had started to decay and until recent years, no one had undertaken the task to save it. A few years ago, the Moroccan government finally rose to the occasion and hired a Toronto-based architect, Aziza Chaouni, to give it a much-needed face-lift.
Regrettably, the several decades of accumulated rot proved destructive enough for some rare manuscripts. Some had been written by the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, such as Ibn Khaldun, the historian widely seen as a forerunner of today’s sociology.