Fatima al-Fihri: a medieval Arab feminist

This is an edited and refined version of Rita Atiah’s original article, which can be found here

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The hallway is draped with exquisite mosaic, fine rouge, and arches shaped like keyholes bathed in white. Bulbs suspended in mid-air, hanging from strings, make you wonder how breath-taking it will be when the night comes and it becomes their turn to illuminate the area. But this is not all you are thinking. This place is the oldest library in the world, housing the original 9th-century Quran, still in its original binding, and 4 thousand rare texts and ancient manuscripts– it’s a tad bit intimidating. As you walk through the architectural splendour that comes with a mix of medieval and modern Arabic designs, the thing that will cross your mind more often than the beauty you are currently living in is the unpopular fact that a woman founded this place.​

University of al-Qarawiyyin (جامعة القرويين) was first founded as a mosque, before being developed into a university that became an important centre of education and one of the first and most respected universities in the world. Whether al-Qarawiyyin is, indeed, the first university in the world depends on one’s interpretation of what constitutes a “university”. Nonetheless, people traveled the world just to have an education here; this was because, just like the brilliant idea of a university, the courses chosen to be offered were also brilliantly diverse, ranging from music to geology, astrology, grammar, chemistry, medicine, mathematics, and so much more. Fatima al-Fihri – its founder – obviously understood the interconnected and interdisciplinary nature of a wholesome education, as well as its importance for Arab civilisations.

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An orientalist depiction of a woman painted by Jan Frans Portaels in 1877. A lot of researchers have used this as a depiction of Fatima al-Fihri, but we have found no confirmation that the lady in the painting is, indeed, Fatima al-Fihri.

Fatima al-Fihri lived in Tunisia for some years before moving to Fez, Morocco, with her family. She wasn’t born into an affluent family, but her father, Muhammad al-Fihri, through hard work and persistence, became a successful businessman overtime. When her father sadly passed, Fatima was left alone with her sister and her father’s wealth which they both inherited. I could think of a million things to buy if I were Fatima, but instead of over-investing in luxury, she opted to buy into the future of the people.

Her sister, Mariam, built a mosque which is known as al-Andalus Mosque, also in Fez on the other side of a river dividing the city, while Fatima, in 859 CE, founded what would become the first university in the world, which she oversaw as it was being built. Fatima later died in 880 CE, but centuries and centuries later, al-Qarawiyyin University still stands, and is known as one of the most respected Moroccan, Arab and Muslim universities in the world. According to many in Morocco, Fatima and Mariam were almost in competition between each other to build the best mosque:

وَلِكُلٍّ وِجْهَةٌ هُوَ مُوَلِّيهَا فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ أَيْنَ مَا تَكُونُوا يَأْتِ بِكُمُ اللَّهُ جَمِيعًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

For each [religious following] is a direction toward which it faces. So race to [all that is] good. Wherever you may be, Allah will bring you forth [for judgement] all together. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.

Quran 2:148

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A Moroccan colonial postage stamp celebrating 1100 years of the founding of al-Qarawiyyin. For similar images, please visit our Digital Archive. 

Fatima was a strong Muslim woman who achieved things outside the box in which many women had been placed across the globe. This was a woman that contributed to giving the world a wholesome education system, a system which many women are still being systematically denied today. She was an obvious trailblazer, and without her, the marble floor, dressed with expensive rouge, would not receive bright eyed guests waiting to see a world that someone who we will never be able to thank in person orchestrated.

Fatima al-Fihri should not just be remembered as someone who saw the importance of educating the world, but further as someone whose vision was simply impeccable, and whose leadership was immense – beyond her own mortality. When names of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King are mentioned, her name should be mentioned too.

By Rita Atiah, Edited by Osama Filali Naji

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