Moroccan Mondays: Meet the World’s Oldest University and Library

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.

Retrieved from Pinterest.

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.

A corner of a reading room (AP Photo / Samia Errzaouki

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.”

A reading room (AP Photo / Samia Errzaouki)
A prayer hall in the mosque (AP Photo / Samia Errzaouki)

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.


32 thoughts on “Moroccan Mondays: Meet the World’s Oldest University and Library

  1. This is such a heart-warming post – I’m so glad I found your blog! Not a lot of people write about these kinds of topics, especially that the world seems to be blinded by shallow pop culture, bias, and stereotype.

    I am part Moroccan and come from a family with a long lineage of strong spiritual women, including my late Grandmother who – like Fatima al-Fihiri – defies every stereotype about Muslim women with her kindness, knowledge, wisdom and love.

    The truth is, in every corner of the globe you find two types of people: Those who are enlightened and seek something higher than themselves including goodness for all of human-kind…and those who are filled with hatred, ignorance, and bias. The second type is very primal, led by one-track-mindedness and blind hatred for anything that does not represent their own narrow and suffocating image of themselves or the world.

    I admire the Peace Corps. In a past life as a reporter, I actually once briefly interviewed Jimmy Carter and his wife. I was a junior reporter at the time, and the US Embassy had called to ask my newspaper to send a reporter to cover a sudden visit to a nearby hospital – where the launch of a Peace Corp-related project was going to take place. I was the only one around, so I went, but no one had told me he will be there for security reasons I guess. It felt quite surreal standing next to the Carters and briefly interviewing them. When I went back to work I searched high and low for everything I could read about the Peace Corps including ways to apply to the program – but found out it wasn’t open to non-US nationals.

    Thanks for my passing my blog… and sorry for the long comment – I don’t usually do this, but I guess special occasions call for unusual measures 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much, Yaansoon! It means so much that you enjoyed my post. Moroccans are incredible people, and Muslims in general get SUCH a bad rep; it actually really hurts me. What an incredible life you’ve led! I’m so glad you got to meet the Carters. President Carter was quite underrated, and I’m glad he’s finally getting the credit he deserves. Please reach out if you’re ever in Morocco! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I will most certainly will, Abbie – going to Morocco one more time is totally on my list! Thanks again for such an amazing blog. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. Meanwhile, take care and please send my ‘Salams’ to Morocco 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I’m actually not in Morocco yet, but I’m moving there in a few weeks! I’ll be living and working there for 27 months as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, and I’m incredibly excited! Please feel free to reach out if you find yourself back in Morocco. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m loving everything about your blog! Morocco is one of the top places I want to visit but I always hesitate to go. I’m no stranger to solo travel but I know attitudes toward women are much different there (which is why this post is awesome). Being in the Peace Corp may give you a different experience, though I’m sure you find time to travel around on your own, but what is your take on traveling as a solo female there? Also, I’m pretty familiar with PC (boyfriend currently serving in Indonesia) and know that Morocco has the highest ET rate, especially among women, so it’s exciting to follow your adventures- I love the enthusiasm towards being a part of a new culture and your positivity! I hope you are enjoying your time over there!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much! I’m envious of your boyfriend! One of my best friends is Indonesian, and Jakarta is at the top of my bucket list. I will let you know that I’m actually not there yet (I leave in a few weeks), but I wanted to get a blog groove going now! I’ve been preparing myself for Middle Eastern opinions toward Western women since I got my invitation, so I’m hoping I can acclimate quickly. Please reach out if you decide to visit Morocco, though! I’d love to be your tour guide! 🙂


      1. Jakarta is a bustling place! Indonesia has so much to offer (I mean, there are 17,000 islands…) and I’ve loved exploring it. Being in a Muslim country has been quite an experience and as I literally write this I can hear the morning prayers chanted over all the town’s loudspeakers haha.

        That’s exciting to leave soon and I respect the preparation and your groove is definitely going! You will definitely have to be my your guide when I visit because after reading (stalking?) your site I officially decided we are spirit animals. I’m all about that PNW, beer drinking, cafe living, nap needing, book reading, travel minded, Tina Fey loving, Spanish obsessed lifestyle 😁

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Not sure how to find you on Facebook but I gotchu on the Gram! And seriously, drink all the good beer and chug another one for me too. IPAs don’t exist here and I’m in hops withdrawals (though I strangely found Deschutes from Oregon in Thailand a few times)

            Liked by 2 people

          2. I have a Facebook tab at the top of the page beneath the picture of me! Deschutes is my fav! I went to their tasting room in Portland on my 21st! I was in beer heaven.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Abbie,

    Thanks for visiting my post on Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park. Interested to know how you found my site…

    Enjoyed my visit to yours and saw this post on Al Karouine. We were in Fes in 2012, and broke away from our guided tour to tour the medina with an excellent private guide hired prior to our visit, helped by a regular visitor to Fes who had posted on Lonely Planet. We were not shown the library, perhaps because it was being worked on…

    Here is my blog on Fes:

    We also read Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles before we left for our Spain/Portugal/Morocco trip, so I found your tribute fascinating and will read it in depth.

    I was a volunteer teacher in Trinidad with CUSO: 1965-67, so there is another interest we have in common.

    I wish you a rich and rewarding experience in Morocco.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very educational post. Thank you.

    I wrote a similar one about the fact how Muslims saved European culture. In the Middle Ages, European scientific literature was kept in Christian churches. If the number of books reached 80, the library was considered to be enormous. Just imagine the amazement of the emancipators of Spain from the Moors when they entered Cordoba and discovered 80,000 books in its library. Thank God, they had enough wisdom not to burn it down.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s