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 Smithsonian, TED 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:
The congregational mosque of al-Qarawiyyin was founded on empty land with different kinds of plaster and shrubs to work with. The land belonged to a man of the Hawara tribe, whose father had acquired it when the town was built. A delegation from Qayrawan came to Idris in a large group with their families and children, and he settled them around him on the slope of the Qarawiyyin. One of them was a blessed and righteous woman called Fatima, nicknamed Mother of Sons, the daughter of Muhammad al-Fihri al-Qayrawani. She came from Ifriqiyya with her sister and husband, and they settled near where the congregational mosque would be located. Her sister and husband died, and she inherited a vast, legitimate fortune from them; there was no suspicion over it, and it was not altered by purchase or sale.
She wanted to spend it on charity and good works, so she resolved to build a mosque, whose recompense she would find in the hereafter, the day when every soul will encounter the deeds it has done. So she bought the land of al-Qarawiyyin from the one who owned it and gave him the money. Then she set about digging the foundations and building it. That was on the Saturday of the crescent moon in the glorious month of Ramadan, year 245 [= 3rd December 859 C.E.]. She built it from clay and pebbles. She dug out the middle of the site and she excavated pebbles, earth, stone and fine yellow sand, from with she built the congregational mosque in its entirety. No earth from elsewhere was used in the process. She also dug the well in the courtyard, and the builders were given water to drink from it while they built the honoured congregational mosque until they had finished the construction.
This Fatima al-Qarawiyya did not stop fasting from the moment she resolved to build it until it was completed, and she thanked Almighty God who had made her fit to do good works. The mosque which this Fatima built had four paved areas and a small court. She put its mihrab where the large chandelier is now. She made it 150 spans long from the western to the eastern wall. She added a minaret, not very tall, where the direction of prayer is indicated by the tip of the spear today. So [again] the congregational mosque comprised four paved areas and a small court, as mentioned by Abu al-Qasim ibn Janun in his study of the history of the town of Fez. It is also said that there were two sisters, Fatima the Mother of Sons and Maryam, both daughters of that same Muhammad al-Fihri: Fatima built the aforementioned congregational mosque of al-Qarawiyyin, while Maryam built the congregational mosque of al-Andalus, with a legitimate fortune which they had inherited from their father and their sisters. The mosques remained as the sister had built them throughout the days of the Idrisids right to the end, when the Zenata took over the country and their kingdom was established over the Maghreb.
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 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.
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