THE UNIVERSITY OF AL-KARAOUINE, ALSO written as al-Quaraouiyine and al-Qarawiyyin (in Arabic: جامعة القرويين), is considered by the Guinness World Records as well as UNESCO as the oldest continuously operating, degree-granting university in the world. You’ll find it tucked within the winding alleyways of Fes el-Bali, Morocco, one of the world’s most ancient living cities.
It was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 with an associated madrasa, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963.
Wandering around Al-Karaouine today, you can admire the institution’s simple yet beautiful design, decorated with Andalusian art bordered with Kufic calligraphy. The university library is home to numbers of precious manuscripts including historic copies of the Qu’ran.
After the death of the family’s father, Mohamed Ben Abdullah Al Fihri, who was a successful merchant, his only two daughters Meriam and fatima inherited his gigantic fortune.
According to Dr. Abdelhadi Tazi, in his doctoral proposal, Fatima, known as Ummou Al Banin, meaning mothers of the children, dedicated her wealth with the approval of the Idrissi king Yahya I to build the mosque for her community. Being a pious woman, Fatima made an oath to keep fasting until the construction of the mosque was completed and made her first prayer in the mosque as an act of gratitude, and thankfulness to the Almighty.
Dating back to 859, the Al Qarawiyyin University is no doubt older than Egypt’s Azhar University (970) and its European counterparts: the University of Oxford, which is regarded as the oldest university in the English-speaking world (roughly founded in 1096), and University of Bologna (founded approximately in 1088).
In the year 859, Fatima al-Fihri’s intention was to give back to the community that had welcomed her family. They immigrated when she was young from the Tunisian city of Kairouan (the namesake of the mosque and university). The mosque was the initial focal point; with enough room for 22,000 worshipers, it remains the largest in Africa. Both women and men can attend the university, in recent years the female student body has grown as the culture’s value of education has increased. It is a common misconception that the university only allows male students to attend
Over the centuries, the University of Al-Karaouine became a key spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world. In the beginning, the madrasa focused on religious instruction and Qu’ran memorization, but later expanded into Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy. However, it was not until 1947 that the school was integrated into the state education system; in 1957 physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were introduced; in 1963 it joined the modern state university system; and in 1965 it was officially renamed “University of al-Karaouine” rather than simply “al-Karaouine.” The school’s student body shrank dramatically in the early 1900s when elites began sending their children to the new Western-style institutes in Morocco.
Much of the university is still highly traditional, from the student demographics to the style of instruction. Students, who range between the ages of 13 and 30, seat themselves in semi-circles (halqa) around a sheik when reading texts. They can work towards high school-level diplomas or university degrees, and before they arrive at Al-Karaouine, they must have memorized the entire Qu’ran as well as several shorter texts. Students come from different parts of Morocco and Islamic West Africa, and even Muslim Central Asia.
The University of Al-Karaouine reminds us that it is not Oxford or Cambridge that first set the stage for university learning, but a mosque’s madrasa that, over 1,000 years ago, set those gears in motion.
Since its foundation, Al Qarawiyyin has served as one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. Its financial independence has been a strong advantage, for it that has helped the university keep the same high quality services in spite of weary times and harsh events that had shaken the stability of Morocco.