What an exhilarating fact! First university founded in the world was by a Muslim! Not only a Muslim, but a Muslimah! Yes! It was a Muslim woman who established first institute of higher learning. In fact Muslim community can boast of, some of the oldest universities in the world.

1.  University of Al-Karaouine: Located in Fes, Morocco, this university originally was a mosque founded in 859 by Fatima al -Fihri, a woman.


It developed into one of the leading universities for natural sciences. It wasn’t until 1957 that the university added mathematics, physics, chemistry and foreign languages.


This university is considered the oldest continuously -operating degree-granting university in the world by the Guiness Book of World Records.

2.  Al-Azhar University: This university, located in Egypt, is the world’s second oldest surviving degree-granting institute. Founded in 970-972, this university serves as a center for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning.


Al-Azhar university concentrates upon a religious syllabus, which pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (s) on the one hand, while also teaching all modern fields of science.

3.  Nizamiyya: This series of universities was established by Khwaja  Nizam alMulk in the eleventh century in what is now present -day Iran. 


The most celebrated of all the Nizamiyya schools is Al -Nizamiyya of Baghdad, established in 1065 in Dhu’l Qa’da and that remains operational in Isfahan. But, this was just one of many Nizamiyyah schools — others were located in Nishapur, Amul, Mosul, Herat, Damascus, and Basra.

The Nizamiyya schools served as a model for future universities in the region, and al Mulk often is seen as responsible for a new era of brilliance which caused his schools to eclipse all other contemporary learning institutions.

We will explore The University of Al-Karaounie in more detail.

Situated in place called Fez in Morocco,  the University of al-Karaouine or alQarawiyyin was founded in the year 859 by woman named Fatima Al Fihri. She was a daughter of a wealthy merchant called Mohammed al Fihri.


 Fihri family migrated to Fez from Kairouan in present day Tunisia. Fez at that time was a bustling metropolis of the “Muslim West” (known as al-Maghrib), and was the land of promise for the people of that era.

Father of Fatima engaged in business with a very humble beginning. A fter much struggle he became very successful in the business and was eventually blessed with prosperity. 


In the course of time Fatima’s husband, father, and brother passed away in short succession. Fatima and her only other sibling, Mariam, received a sizable inheritance. As a result of good education and pious upbringing, both the sisters dedicate all of their wealth to benefitting their community. 


Observing that the local mosques in Fez could not accommodate the growing population of worshippers, Mariam built the grand Andalusian Mosque in 245AH/859CE.

Fatima spent her entire inheritance on the construction of a  mosque suitable for her community. In addition to a place for worship, this mosque soon developed into a place for religious instruction, and became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world.


This institution later became famous as The University of al-Karaouine  or al-Qarawiyyin. This university is considered as the oldest, continually operating, degree-granting university in the world.

As per historical references she directly oversaw and guided the construction process in great detail, certainly a testament to her great dedication as she had no expertise in the field! Fatima had grand aspirations, and early on began buying property adjacent to the initial land, thereby significantly increasing the size of the mosque.


She diligently spent all that was required of time and money to see the project to completion.  She was also extremely pious and devout in worship and made a religious vow to fast daily from the first day of construction in Ramadan 245 AH/859 CE until the project was completed some two years later, whereupon she offered prayers of gratitude in the very mosque she had so tirelessly worked to build.

The present form of the mosque is the result of a long successive evolution over the course of more than 1,100 years. Originally the mosque was about 30 meters long with a courtyard and four transverse aisles.


The first expansion was undertaken in 956, by Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, Abd-ar-Rahman  III . Successive dynasties expanded the al-Karaouine mosque until it became the largest in Africa, with a capacity of 22,000 worshipers. 


The most extensive reconstruction was carried out in 1135 under the patronage of the Almoravid ruler sultan Ali Ibn Yusuf who ordered the extension of the mosque from 18 to 21 aisles, expanding the structure to more than 3,000 square meters.

The university taught language, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy along with Quran and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). By the 14th century, the university housed the Al-Qarawiyyin Library which remains one of the oldest in the world, preserving some of Islam’s most valuable manuscripts.


These include volumes from the Muwatta of Imam Malik inscribed on gazelle parchment, the Seerah of Ibn Ishaq, the premier transcript o f Ibn Khaldun’s Al-‘Ibar, and a copy of the Qur’an gifted to the institution in 1602 by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur, and the original copy of  Ibn Khaldun’s book Al-’Ibar.

When Morocco fell under the French rule in 1912, Al-Karaouine had witnessed a decline as a religious center of learning from its medieval prime.


At the same time, the student numbers at Al -Karaouine dwindled to a total of 300 in 1922 as the Moroccan elite began to send its children instead to the new-found Western-style colleges and institutes elsewhere in the country.

In 1947, Al-Karaouine was integrated into the state educational system, and it was finally transformed into a university under the supervision of the ministry of education, by royal decree after independence, in 1963.


In the process, the old mosque school was shut down and the new campus established at former French Army barracks.


While the dean took its seat at Fez, four  faculties were founded in and outside the city: a faculty of  Islamic law in Fez, a faculty of Arab studies in Marrakech and a faculty of theology  in Tétouan, plus one near Agadir in 1979.

Modern curricula and textbooks were introduced and the professional training of the teachers improved.

Following the reforms, Al-Karaouine was officially renamed “University of AlKaraouine” in 1965. In 1975, the General Studies were transferred to the newly founded Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University; Al-Karaouine kept the Islamic and theological courses of studies.

According to Guinness World Records, al-Karaouine is the oldest existing educational institution in the world. It has also been officially recognized by UNESCO as the world’s oldest university.


According to UNESCO and a number of other sources, Al-Karaouine is considered to have been a university since its founding and therefore that it is the oldest university in the world.

Al-Qarawiyyin University is credited with producing many distinguished Muslim thinkers including Abul-Abbas, the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus, the famous author and traveler.


Other prominent names associated with the institution include the Maliki jurist Ibn al -Arabi (d. 543AH/1148CE), the historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 808AH/1406CE), and the astronomer al -Bitruji (Alpetragius) (d.



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