Fatima al-Fihri: modern legends, medieval sources

This post was republished with extensive changes and a new title on 28/06/19. Older comments are still below the line.

 

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’ve heard of Fatima al-Fihri (or al-Fihriyya). Versions of her story have been going about on social media for a few years now. The older version relates that in 859, or thereabouts, she founded the University of Karaouine in Fez, Morocco. Such an early foundation would make it the world’s oldest working university; surely a landmark in the history of science. And since Fatima was a Muslim woman of colour, her story promotes a view of Islam as both egalitarian and intellectually curious.

It is a remarkable story, and it enjoys serious institutional support. It is endorsed by UNESCO and Guinness World Records. Scholars who want to explore Islam’s relationship with the history of feminism and western education have cited it. The Erasmus university-exchange programme even has a scholarship named after Fatima, extending the programme to students from North Africa. Scientific American has included Fatima in a list of forgotten Muslim scientists. She has become something of a patron saint for education, often depicted wearing a hijab and holding a book.

 


In recent years the university library, which had fallen into disrepair, underwent major restorations. In 2016 the official reopening was celebrated in the international press, putting a new spin on the Fatima story. Such influential sources as The Guardian, the SmithsonianTED and Quartz asserted that this was the oldest continually operating library in the world, and that Fatima herself had founded it. Some of the credit for popularising this version of the story may be given to the architect who oversaw the restoration, Aziza Chaouni; she stated in an interview about the library that “[Fatima] and her sister inherited a quite large sum of money, and she decided to donate her entire inheritance to create a new centre of knowledge that was going to be organised around a mosque.”

As a specialist in early Muslim societies, I was curious to see what evidence might be adduced to support these remarkable claims. Unfortunately, none of these commentators seemed to know or care where their information had come from. Think-tanks, NGOs, social scientists, journalists and a legion of bloggers have bounced this claim between them, citing each other while neglecting to consult historians and historical sources. If you go looking you can find hundreds of iterations of the Fatima story, none of which looks back past the 1990s: sourceless, baseless consensus.

I wanted to find the earliest possible witness to Fatima’s career; the closer to her time, the better. In the end, the earliest I could find was written centuries after her death, by a scholar from Fez called Ibn Abi Zar‘ (d. 1310–20). He wrote a history of the city called The Garden of Pages (Rawd al-Qirtas). Presumably he gleaned this information from earlier studies, but the only one he mentions, by a certain Abu al-Qasim ibn Janun, has not survived. Ibn Abi Zar‘ reports:

That is all that Ibn Abi Zar‘ has to say; but his book was then consulted for a history of the world by another Maghrebi scholar, Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406). This long history, the Book of Lessons (Kitab al-‘Ibar), has also survived. Ibn Khaldun retells Fatima’s story in brief. It may still be worth consulting, in case his short version retains a useful detail that has fallen out of our surviving version of Ibn Abi Zar‘, or in case he introduces a new detail from another source.

People migrated there from the distant frontiers, and it happened that a woman from among the people of Qayrawan came down, whose name was the Mother of Sons, daughter of Muhammad al-Fihri. Ibn Abi Zar‘ says her name was Fatima, and that she was from the Hawara tribe. She was the beneficiary of an inheritance from her relatives, which she resolved to spend on good works. So she planned out the congregational mosque, little though it was, on the slope of al-Qarawiyyin in the year [2]45 [= 859 C.E.] on empty land which the Imam Idris had granted her. She put a well in its courtyard for the people to drink from. It was as though her accomplishment inspired the sovereigns who came after her. The weekly sermon was moved over there from the congregational mosque of Idris, since the surrounding area had become too crowded.

These are the only medieval sources I have been able to find. Strikingly, there is no mention of scholarship or education when the building is founded. Ibn Abi Zar‘ and Ibn Khaldun describe a successful mosque, popular with the rulers and frequently renovated. Neither a library nor a university is implied. If we are to believe the medieval writers, all that Fatima established was a mosque: an act of piety by a Muslim heiress. It is however true that by the twelfth century – two hundred and fifty years later – the Karaouine was recognised as an intellectual hub. Several famous scholars in the Middle Ages are known to have studied or taught there. So what happened in the meantime?

We don’t have the records for what took place in the Karaouine itself, but there’s a certain pattern we can see elsewhere in the Islamic world that almost certainly applied there too. It goes like this. Over time, many popular mosques attracted religious scholars who shared their space and resources. Local rulers found that they could win prestige by supporting these scholars, and their donations helped to expand and formalise Islamic education. This is the process by which mosques gave birth to madrasas, and it is most likely the reason why Fatima’s mosque slowly gained recognition as a place of learning. The library would have grown out of this scholarly activity, collecting books from the scholars who passed through. (Important work on parallel developments in Syria is being done by a former colleague of mine, Paula Manstetten, whose publications we eagerly await.)

It is of course possible that some teaching took place at the Karaouine mosque from the very start. It would have been a convenient public space where knowledge of the Islamic sciences was prized. This is however quite different from saying that it was a university, still less a library, from the time that Fatima laid the foundations. The popular vision of Fatima as a patron of education is therefore a little distorted. It is, however, useful for those movements within Islam that want to find a scientific or feminist heritage in Islamic history. Such resources from the past can help to galvanise communities in the present while pushing back against criticism from outside. For many Muslims and their friends, Fatima has become a political symbol.

As a result, some modern writers have found more significance in her life than strictly warranted by the medieval sources. Consider Fatima’s entry in a Dictionary of African Biography (2012) published through Oxford University Press. “Very little is known about Fatima al-Fihri and the life she led”, writes the author, Osire Glacier of Bishop’s University; and she is right. But Glacier proceeds with reckless inference to imagine Fatima’s overall character: “if one takes into account the legacy that she left to humankind, one can sense some of her personal qualities, among which was probably generosity, intelligence, and clairvoyance.” This kind of speculative hagiography says more about the current value of Fatima as a political symbol than about the historical person herself.

Likewise, the surprising claim from Vice Broadly that Fatima was a “refugee” is a way of signalling that refugees have innate worth and potential. Indeed they do, and the way refugees are treated in my country and elsewhere is a bitter indictment of the world order; but Fatima was not one of them. However useful these untruths might be, they remain untruths, and that should be enough to disqualify them. Fatima did not found a university. She did not found a library. Fatima’s legend is a distraction from the real, historically defensible contributions that Muslim women and Muslim scientists have left us.

Fatima al-Fihri

 

Sources

1) Ibn Abi Zar‘

Arabic: Carl Johan Tornberg (ed.), Annales Regum Mauritaniæ, vol. 1 (1843), 29–30.
Arabic: ‘Abd al-Wahhāb b. Manṣūr (ed.), al-Anīs al-Muṭrib bi-Rawḍ al-Qirṭās (1972), 54–5.
French: Auguste Beaumier (tr.), Histoire des souverains du Maghreb (1860), 66–7.
German: Franz von Dombay (tr.), Geschichte der mauritanischen Könige, vol. 1 (1794), 66–9.
Latin: Carl Johan Tornberg (tr.), Annales Regum Mauritaniæ, vol. 2 (1846), 42–3.
Portuguese: Jozé de Santo Antonio Moura (tr.), Historia dos soberanos Mohametanos (1828), 54–6.
Spanish: Ambrosio Huici Miranda (tr.), El cartás (1918), 51–2.

2) Ibn Khaldun

Arabic: Khalīl Shaḥāda (ed.), Ta’rīkh Ibn Khaldūn, vol. 4 (2000), 20.
French: William McGuckin (tr.), Histoire des Berbères, vol. 2 (1854), 565.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

15 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post ! . Just a month ago I got involved in a discussion, where this university was one of the topics. Of course I looked around, but didn’t find anything, just the same history, as you referred to in the begining ( and this *). I’m not a student of early islam. I have an old MA in Historiography, but got curious on the subject in my retirement. Also because the discussions reming me a little of the first course in scandinavian middle age history I took when I started studying History. The source based attack, that the generation around 1900 made on the earlier traditional historians in Scandinavia ( Denmark, Sweden) remind me very much of the discussion on early Islam. ( And the counterattack was nearly just as strong !).
    But I wonder if you have speculated on the invention of this myth, and it’s history.

    Best Regards

    Niels

    (*)
    http://www.ircps.org/sites/ircps.org/files/aestimatio/10/2013-14_Brentjes.pdf

  2. That article’s great fun. Thanks!

    I think we can reasonably guess where the legend came from. ‘The Qarawiyyin’ refers both to a mosque and to the university that (over centuries) grew out of it. So the statement ‘Fatimah founded the Qarawiyyin’ is both true and false.

    Careless talk costs facts.

  3. Do look up the histories of the ancient universities of Nalanda & Takshila which were destroyed by Muslim invaders.

  4. Thank you for this piece, Sir. We are witnessing an explosion of highly spurious claims made by Islamic apologists, and this type of scholasticism is sorely needed to put them in their place. Besides, from a wider viewpoint, falsehoods must be challenged and corrected wherever they emerge.

  5. I curious as to why you felt the need to debunk this claim. The historical and contemporary of women’s education in Muslim countries has everything to do with men not valuing educated women and nothing to do with Islam. It’s amusing to me that this claim made you so uncomfortable . if Muslims had not had their lands colonised , their people murdered and their women raped , their descendants would have no need to make these claims as a way to deal with their inferiority complex . if western governments and media didn’t use women’s education as a strategic tool to assert ” western superiority” and “eastern inferiority” Muslims would not make these claims. if you debunked this claim because you truly care about the truth then your concern should be European accounts of Muslims and Muslim lands since something tells me their claims are full of more falsehoods, inaccuracies, islamaphobia, racism etc than anything said by Muslims. Don’t forget as Bernard Lewis said the reason the west rules the world is because they have mastered the art of widespread massacre, not because they are superior to non western people in any way

    • Yes, good question. Facts are not inherently valuable: researchers should take responsibility for their choices. While the story about Fatimah didn’t make me “uncomfortable” – why should it? – it did make me suspicious. That’s because I have some limited understanding of how Muslim educational institutions developed: if Fatimah had founded a ‘university’ in any meaningful sense of the word, that would have been a remarkable outlier.

      Now, I’m not denying that religious instruction was practised in ninth-century mosques; and depending on how particular communities chose to benefit from their central communal space, there may well have been other subjects taught there. But the formalised, advanced education and research implied by the word ‘university’ can’t really be located here. I was all the more sceptical because the story was set in Fez: at the time, a new settlement in a relatively undeveloped region. Even in ninth-century Baghdad, a major economic and intellectual hub, nothing that could reasonably be called a ‘university’ existed; the much-lauded House of Wisdom was in fact a translation library, where no tuition was offered and no original research undertaken. If you weigh what I already knew against the ideological incentives for fabrication – that you yourself bring up – you’ll see why I wasn’t buying it.

      I investigated because that’s my obsessive temperament. It’s part of what makes me good at kicking the legs out from beneath other researchers’ arguments. It’s also an academic weakness: I tend to waste time confirming the minutiae of other people’s research when I should be theorising for myself. In this case, the lack of any direct reference to a primary source was driving me to distraction. I wasn’t happy until I’d found Ibn Khaldun’s account for myself. (The satisfaction of finding that source is one that all historians will understand.) Later, when I found an earlier account by Ibn Abi Zar‘ that confirmed Ibn Khaldun, my frustration was already satiated; that’s why I haven’t yet made time to add it to this post.

      And as for why I shared it on my blog: well, you’ve already struck on that, when you noted that Muslim women’s education is a politically charged issue. The claim that Fatimah founded a university is widely shared, and not only by private individuals, but even by UNESCO. This subject is relevant: I had an opportunity to engage productively in a far-reaching conversation; not only to present established facts to a wider audience, but to amend the general wisdom. That’s in part what academia is for.

      Relevance is also why occasionally I debunk faulty claims by prominent non-Muslim writers. You’re right that there’s a lot of misunderstanding and wilful misrepresentation about Islamic history across the board: one of the reasons I choose to be active as a ‘public’ scholar is that I want to militate against those problems. I try to be politically responsible as I do so, but that didn’t worry me in this case, because I don’t think that debunking a widely repeated myth is irresponsible. It happens that medieval Muslims’ intellectual achievements – and especially those of Muslim women – are spectacular enough that they can stand to lose one untruth and remain a source of pride and inspiration for those who identify with that tradition.

      I’m not as prolific on this blog as I am on Twitter, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to build on this post a little. If you’re into medieval Muslim intellectual history, my thread on Dimitri Gutas’ Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement might pique your interest.

      • It is interesting how you can make a different system of education nearly a thousand years ago sound somehow inferior. Not quite as interesting as the why of course.

        Comparisons with education systems of the time might be a less slanted way to proceed.

        I believe University is the translation and rather a sloppy one at that but still we can use a poor translation as yet more evidence of inferiority.

        In a simple phrase, perhaps you would be well served by examining your lack of objectivity.

        • I did not say that the system of education at the early Karaouine was “inferior” (to what?). My argument was that the Karaouine was founded as a mosque like another other at that time, without the large-scale, formalised education implied by the word ‘university’. If we’re going to describe the early Karaouine as a university, then for consistency we should apply that word to all places throughout history where some kind of formal or informal education may or may not have taken place. If the Karaouine was a university, then a few dozen private houses in eighth-century Kufa were universities. I do not consider that an effective use of language.

          I do try to situate my scholarship, compensating for any weaknesses I notice and assimilating contrary arguments. But I would like those arguments to make sense of the evidence. You’ve seen my first source, Ibn Khaldun; below the line I’ve also mentioned Ibn Abi Zar‘. I’m rather proud to have introduced medieval sources to a discussion about medieval history. And when you re-read the post – in good faith – you should be able to follow the structure of my argument. I think it makes sense of the evidence, and it does so without redefining the terms of the discussion so broadly as to scupper the analysis.

          I welcome strong counter-arguments because that’s how scholarship advances. I just haven’t seen any yet.

          • The Arabic word Jami is also synonymous with Mosque and school. About the text from Ibn Khaldun, did you translate it from Arabic? Do you speak or know Arabic? I studied a Jamia in India. It was where I prayed and where I studied. The mosque and School where in the same place and space and on the same foundation. There were also 100 young children that studied there . Fifty of them lived there. I recently was in Morocco. I visited Fes and Al Qaraween. One of my Arabic professors in Rabat told us the word Jami is also a name for a Masjid/mosque. One word sir… One word can carry many meanings. Like the word “Dude” in English. If you have a lot of money someone will say, he is rich “Dude” it is meant as a compliment. If you do or assume something stupid…. someone will say, “Dude!” So Dude, what is your intent? One other thing happen when I was in Morocco. I spoke to a white women from a European country , about the importance of shedding a positive light on Islam in contrast to the negative western media… She said what I have for 35 years of my life, only heard white people say…”Let me be the “‘devils advocate”” for a moment”. Maybe because of Western or White egocentricity the “”devil advocates”” always seem to pick at the cracks in the foundations, cultures,and people of non-western civilization that do not meet a standard based on supremacist their orientation. Maybe the oldest Jamia(University) in the world Masjid Nabuwi, in the Holy City of Madinah in Arabia. This is where the companions of the Prophet Muhammad(Peace and Blessing be Upon Him), Prayed, Lived, and studied. I know that Fatimah Al Fihri was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad(Peace be upon him). I think she was following his Sunnah (way)….She was also very extremely spiritual and dignified lady. Whether or not the Jamia Al Qaraween is the oldest school in the world, would have been as important to Seyyidah Fatimah Fihri, as having left a place for generation of people to pray and study to improve the dignity of the human race is maybe a far more pertinent subject for research.

    • What about the library, the opening of which has caused recent news coverage? Do you see that as synonymous with the university aspect of this tale, or could it be that she did establish that and the university followed, over the coming centuries; possibly following the lead of Al-Azhar?

      • It’s part of the same myth, helped by the fact that there are apparently some very old books in the current library. There is no reason to think the mosque had a library in the early centuries.

  6. Early mosques did function as centers of learning; advanced studies were held in the mosques. There is no need to exaggerate the greatness of Medieval Muslim civilization. It was great. Most of our modern science is built on it. There is no need to define ancient universities in modern terms.

    • I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand evidence for “advanced studies” in the mosque of a new provincial settlement in the ninth century. Even if we’re going to assume that it was there, we should be clear about the object and form those studies took. Should we call a ‘university’ any place that may have hosted unattested, undefined education?

      And indeed, we don’t have to exaggerate the achievements of medieval Muslims; that’s one reason I find this unattested claim so frustrating. The dubious ‘first university’ should not be celebrated over well attested intellectual and institutional histories. We can do better.

  7. A lot of people are arguing against this, solely because they consider Karaouine to be a learning hub. Although a university goes beyond those fundamentals. But using their own logic the oldest university would have to be founded in the Maurya Empire in India around 322 BC.

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