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The Oldest University in the World, University of Al-Karaouine, Fez, Morocco

Story Highlights

  • About the Oldest University in the World
  • Al-Karaouine is Home to One of the Oldest Library in the World
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Tucked within the winding alley ways of Fez el-Bali, Morocco, the oldest university in the world, the University of Al-Karaouine (also written as Al-Quaraouiyine and Al-Qarawiyyin, in Arabic: جامعة القرويين) was founded in 859.

It is considered by Unesco and the Guinness Book of World Records to be the oldest continually operating university in the world.It is also the first degree-granting educational institution in the world.

About The Oldest University in the World

In the early mid-9th Century, Fatima al-Fihri – a migrant from the city of Kairouan (in modern day Tunisia) – settled in Fez, Morocco along with her sister Mariam.

Al Fihri was born in Tunisia in 800 AD. She was heir to a financial dynasty who believed in science, the power of logic and reasoning.

The two sisters were the only children of their father who was a wealthy merchant. After their father passed away, the sisters inherited a huge amount of wealth.

The sisters decided to use the fortune they inherited to give back to the community who accommodated them by building a Mosque and a educational institution.

The mosque was the initial focal point; with enough room for 22,000 worshipers, it was once the largest mosque in Africa.

Mariam used much of her share of the inheritance to build the central Andalusian Mosque while all of Fatima’s money, time and energy went into providing an adjoining place of education for the people of Fez, now the oldest university in the world.

Fatima started the university’s construction after purchasing a piece of land from the El-Hawara tribe. The foundation stone was laid in the holy month of Ramadan and she named it after her birthplace – Qayrawan – in Tunisia.

Fatima was so devoted to the cause that she fasted during the construction of the complex (some sources say for up to 18 years).

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University of Al-Karaouine

Al-Karaouine also known as a madrasa (school) became a place of religious instruction and Quran memorization, Arabic grammar, mathematics, music, chemistry, islamic legislation, Sufism, medicines, astronomy, as well to study political debate and lessons focusing mainly on the natural sciences.

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 oldest university in the world 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.

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.

One of the criteria for admission into al-Karaouine is that students 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.

Famous alumni who have studied within its mosaic-clad walls include 12th-Century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd; Pope Sylvester II (who is said to have introduced Arabic numerals to Europe after studying here in the 10th Century); 13th- to 14th-Century theologian Ibn al-Haj al-Abdari; and 16th-Century Berber Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus. Maimonides – the Jewish philosopher famed for his writings on Jewish law and ethics during the 12th Century – was said to have connections to the madrasa.

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Al-Karaouine is Home to One of the Oldest Library in the World

Al-Karaouine 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 Al-Karaouine Library, which contains some of the oldest preserved manuscripts in Islamic history, is now one of the most important in the Islamic and Arabic world.

To this day, a 9th-Century Mushaf Al Karim, a 10th-Century account of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, textbooks by 12th-Century scholar Ibn Tufail are kept safe inside the library’s walls and the 14th century text, Muqaddimah, written by famous Muslim polymath and historian, Ibn Khaldun, is also available there.

The library also holds a 16th-Century vault, with an impenetrable copper door that has four locks and requires four key holders to open it. This system was used to protect only the most precious texts. The library’s curator, has the only key to the one lock that is still used.

By the late 20th century, the university had started to decay. The Moroccan government later hired a Toronto-based architect, Aziza Chaouni, to give it a much-needed face-lift.

During the university’s restoration between 2012 and 2016, a high-tech laboratory was built to restore the historical manuscripts, ensuring they live on for many more generations.

The library curator at the oldest university in the world, told Al Jazeera in 2016, that people come to him from all over the world simply to check facts on the collection of old manuscripts.

Architecture

In 2012, the ministry used a grant to commission architect Aziza Chaouni to restore the university complex. Using local materials where possible, craftsmen and engineers painstakingly restored mosaic displays, restructured foundations, installed a modern sewage system and retiled its characteristic green roof.

The mosque is off limits to non-Muslims, so most tourists can only seek glimpses of the structure’s grand courtyard – and its intricate, hand-painted carvings, arches and water fountains – through the large doors on all four sides. Rooftop terraces within the medina serve as vantage points, allowing for breathtaking views over the mosque and its white minaret that sends out the call to prayer across the town.

From ground level, the true shape and structure of the oldest university in the world is hidden, where buildings are stacked so close together that roofs touch and crossover above the alleyways. But the trail of grand doorways and wooden walls help visitors define its outline.

The mosque is filled with visual details like the elaborately decorated ceiling in the main entrance. The building’s interior as it appears today was largely shaped by the Almoravid dynasty, which expanded the mosque and prayer halls during the 12th Century.

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A Key Educational Center in the World

Over the centuries, the University of Al-Karaouine the oldest university in the world became a key spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world.

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 also home to numbers of precious manuscripts including historic copies of the Qu’ran.

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).

Like today’s modern universities, al-Qarawiyyin periodically hosted debates, symposiums and housed several libraries in its main premises and outside annexes.

The university has had a far-reaching influence over global scholarship and also reshaping the future of humankind.

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