The Peace Corps has three main goals, with the Third Goal focusing on bringing our host countries to our readership. With that being said, understanding my host country is exceedingly important to me, and one of my own goals is to bring a deeper understanding of everything Morocco to all of my readers. “Moroccan Mondays” are blog posts specifically catered to educating all of you about my host country, not necessarily the Peace Corps.
A few days ago, my cousin tagged my name in the comments section of a Facebook video titled, “The World’s Oldest Library was Created by a Muslim Woman,” and I was immediately intrigued by it. Muslim women are constantly accused of being subservient or illiterate, and Donald Trump’s opinion of Ghazala Khan’s silence at the Democratic National Convention is a recent example of this xenophobia. Publicizing that the world’s oldest library’s founder was not only a woman, but a Muslim woman, can help change the way Westerners, specifically Americans, view Islam and its practitioners. Oh, and by the way, this library’s founder was Moroccan.
Fatima Muhammad al-Fihri Al-Quraysh (or simply Fatima al-Fihiri), a Tunisian immigrant who settled in Morocco with her family in the mid-800s AD, received a sizable inheritance from her late father, who was a hugely successful businessman in Fes; it was a bustling metropolis at the time. After receiving their educations, Fatima and her sister Mariam both decided to utilize their newfound wealth by giving back to their community. Mariam noticed a growing population in Fes, and realized many mosques couldn’t accommodate the increased number of worshippers, so she built the grand Andalusian Mosque as another (albeit completely breathtaking) option. Fatima, on the other hand, wanted to build a place of both worship and knowledge.
Fatima wanted to build the world’s first university.
She purchased a large plot of land, diligently spending as much time and money as was necessary to see the project through. To show she meant business, when Ramadan rolled around on that first year of construction, Fatima vowed to continue fasting until the project was complete–two years later. For those of you who aren’t up to speed with Ramadan, it’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. This annual event is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and the month generally lasts 29 to 30 days, based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. Fasting occurs from dawn until sunset, and Muslims must refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, or engaging in sexual relations until the sun dips below the horizon. Proper fasting takes a lot of willpower, and Fatima didn’t just fast for 29 or 30 days; she fasted for TWO YEARS. I only have two words in response to that: Girl. Power.
In the year 859 AD, after more than two years of planning and building, Al-Qarawiyyin mosque and madrasa (Arabic for educational institution), considered by many historians as the world’s oldest degree-granting university, finally opened its doors. As one of the largest mosques in North Africa, Al-Qarawiyyin became a major center of advanced learning in the Mediterranean.
Al-Qarawiyyin University produced a myriad of Muslim thinkers, including the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi, the famous writer and explorer Leo Africanus, the historian Ibn Khaldun, and the astronomer al-Bitruji. Of its non-Muslim students, Gerber of Auvergne later became Pope Sylvester II, and went on to introduce Arabic numerals and the concept of “zero” to medieval Europe. Another famous non-Muslim student was Jewish physician and philosopher, Maimonides.
Almost 1,200 years have passed since the University of Al-Qarawiyyin sparked a legacy of learning across North Africa and the world. To this day, it continues to graduate students in a variety of religious and physical sciences, though in a newer location. The university has since moved to another part of Fes, but its ancient library still remains. Over the past three years, a Canadian-Moroccan architect named Aziza Chaouni has restored the library, including a wing that will be open to the general public.
Chaouni, originally from Fes, says she hadn’t heard of the library until the Moroccan Culture Ministry enlisted her in 2012 to restore the library, which had suffered climate and humidity damage over the years. The library actually underwent a number of restorations over the years, “but it still suffered from major structural problems, a lack of insulation, and infrastructural deficiencies like a blocked drainage system, broken tiles, cracked wood beams, exposed electric wires, and so on,” she says in a TED interview. Her restoration has equipped the library with solar panels, a new gutter system, digital locks to the rare books room, and air conditioning that will help control humidity. The library’s deteriorating condition meant precious manuscripts were deteriorating along with it. “When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place,” says Chaouni. “In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling.”
The library was previously only open to researchers and scholars, but starting this year, a wing of the library will be opened to the public. This public space will contain a reading room, book stacks, a conference room, a manuscript restoration laboratory, a rare books collection, and a small cafe. Chaouni also commissioned furniture from local craftsmen who used native wood, and installed courtyard umbrellas for hotter days. “Both Moroccans and foreign visitors will get to glimpse, for the first time, at some of the library’s amazing and unique manuscripts, as well as enjoy its architecture,” she says. Hopefully these restoration efforts will show the world that throughout modern history, countless Muslim women have accomplished incredible feats: one built the world’s first university, and now another keeps it from falling apart. Through Aziza Chaouni’s tirelessness, the entire world will finally get to set foot inside the center of higher learning that Fatima al-Fihiri inaugurated, some twelve centuries ago.