Roses of Islam: Fatima al-Fihri

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Fatima al-Fihri (? – 880) (nicknamed Oum al Banine, meaning the mother of the kids) was the daughter of Mohammed al-Fihri, with whom she migrated to Fes, Morocco from Qairawan, located in present-day Tunisia and came earlier from west Arabia of Fihrids family origin. Fatima and her sister Mariam inherited a great deal of money from their father, and Fatima vowed to spend all of it on a suitable mosque for the Tunisian community in Fes.

In 859, Fatima founded the world’s first academic degree-granting university existing today, the University of Qarawiyyin, with money inherited from her father, a wealthy businessman. She is said to have fasted in order to become closer to Allah during the building of the university. She intended the Mosque to serve the Tunisian community in Fes. Her sister Mariam is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Al-Andalus (Andalusian) Mosque in Fes.

Kairaouine Mosque

Exquisite carvings around the courtyard. Photo Creative Commons License Pierre Metivier

The Kairaouine Mosque (Djemaa el Kairaouine) in Fes is the second-largest mosque in Morocco (after the new Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca) and gives Al-Azhar in Cairo a run for its money as the world’s oldest university. Its minaret dates from 956 and is the oldest Islamic monument in Fes.

The University of Al-Kairaouine was highly regarded back then as one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. Today, The Al-Kairaouine institution is considered by the Guinness book, the UNESCO and many historians as the oldest continuously operating academic degree-granting university in the world.

Al-Kairaouine gained the patronage of politically powerful sultans. It compiled a large selection of manuscripts that were kept at a library founded by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1349. Among the most precious manuscripts currently housed in the library are volumes from the famous Al-Muwatta of Malik written on gazelle parchment, the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, a copy of the Qur’an given by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1602, and the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s book Al-’Ibar. Among the subjects taught, alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), are grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography and music.

Al-Kairaouine played, in medieval times, a leading role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. Pioneer scholars such as Ibn Maimun (Maimonides), (1135–1204), Al-Idrissi (d.1166 AD), Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240 AD), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 AD), Ibn al-Khatib, Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius), Ibn Hirzihim, and Al-Wazzan were all connected with the University either as students or lecturers. Among Christian scholars visiting Al-Kairaouine were the Belgian Nicolas Cleynaerts and the Dutchman Golius.

Kairaouine Mosque

Glimpse of the Kairaouine’s courtyard. Photo Creative Commons License Shawn Allen.

The Kairaouine is also the holiest mosque in Morocco and governs the timing of all Islamic festivals across the country. The present form of the mosque is the result of a long historical evolution over the course of more than 1,000 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. The prayer hall was extended and the minaret was relocated, taking on a square form that served as a model for countless North African minarets. At this time it became a tradition that other mosques of Fes would make the call to prayer only after they heard Al-Kairaouine. In the minaret of the Al-Kairaouine mosque there is a special room, the Dar al-Muwaqqit, where the times of prayer are established.

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 mosque acquired its present appearance at this time, featuring horseshoe arches and ijmiz frames decorated with beautiful geometrical and floral Andalusian art, bordered with Kufic calligraphy.

The Qur’an and the Hadith (teachings of the Prophet) inspires every man and woman to seek knowledge. This unique story of Fatima Al-Fihri has shed some light on the role and contribution of Muslim women to Islamic civilization. It is this role which will hopefully denounce the narrow-mindedness of the western mind of Muslim women. Fatima has shown to us that even in the early centuries that women who are shrouded with the veil are just as willful and intelligent as those of us today.

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