Most Global Academy researchers are based in universities across 83+ countries and more than 45% are women. Today, on what may be our 113th International Womens’ Day (#IWD2024), I’m celebrating how this all started.

Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية‎) founded the world’s first university in 895 CE in Fez, which is now in Morocco. She is more usually known simply as Fatima al-Fihri. When she and her sister inherited their father’s wealth she used her share to found The University of Al Qarawiynn.

The university started as a large mosque and later grew into a place of education. The Madrasa (Islamic School) founded by Al-Fihri is still in operation today as the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world. It was also the first institution to award degrees according to different levels of study, in Islamic studies, mathematics, grammar, and medicine.

The University of Al Quaraouiyine became a state university in 1963. It now awards degrees in Islamic, religious and legal sciences with an emphasis on classical Arabic grammar and linguistics and law.  Interestingly, teaching is still delivered in a very traditional manner; students are seated in a semi-circle around a Sheikh (Islamic scholar). The Sheikh prompts them to read sections of particular texts, asks them questions on aspects of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points.

Al Quaraouiyine also houses an ancient library, recently restored by another woman

Adjacent to Al Quaraouiyine mosque and university is the world’s oldest library. The library was re-opened in 2017 after a crucial restoration overseen by another woman; this time the architect Aziza Chaouni.

Chaouni grew up in Fez and recalls seeing the great locked doors of the library as a young child. Her vision is for the library to, once more, become a second home for the people of Fez; a living functional library, not just a tourist attraction.  The historic 9th century (CE) library now includes an isolated drainage system to avoid future damage, and a lab to treat, preserve and digitise the oldest texts.  It also houses, with the greatest possible security, temperature and humidity controls, a precious ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin vellum (parchment). Chaouni’s website has some rare pictures of the interior.

Fatima al-Fihri’s legacy in the Arab world

It’s mixed. A survey by Al Fanar Media in 2018 showed that women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in many Arab countries. Women also make up a growing proportion of teachers at the primary and secondary levels of education. However, they are often missing from the upper ranks of higher-education leadership. A further recent article shows how this is being tackled in Lebanon.

Today, for International Women’s Day 2024 (#IWD2024) I have refreshed and reposted this article as it is one of my favourites. Let’s remember how women contribute to scholarship around the world. I’m thankful for Fatima al-Fihri’s early vision and educational leadership in Morocco over 1,100 years ago.