teradesa.com The University of al-Qarawiyyin or in Arabic: جامعة القروين is considered by Guinness World Records as well as UNESCO as the world’s oldest continuously operating university. You can find it in Fes el-Bali, Morocco, one of the world’s ancient living cities.
The building, which also serves as a mosque, is simply yet beautifully designed. It is full of Andalusian art decorations coupled with Kufic calligraphy. The university has a library that is home to a number of precious manuscripts, including historic copies of the Quran.
In 859 AD, Fatima al-Fihri used her inheritance to fund the construction of a mosque for her community with an Islamic school known as a madrasa. The mosque is named after the Tunisian city of Kairouan, her hometown before migrating to Morocco.
The construction of a mosque was the initial focal point, with enough space for 22,000 worshippers. Both women and men can attend the university’s school. In recent years the female student body has grown along with the increasing cultural value of education. This dismisses the common misconception that universities are only for male students to attend.
For centuries, Al-Qarawiyin University has been a major center of education in the Muslim world. At first, the madrassa focused on religious studies and memorization of the Quran, but later expanded to study Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy.
However, it wasn’t until 1947 that the school was integrated into the Moroccan state education system. In 1957 physics, chemistry and foreign languages were introduced. In 1963 the university adopted the modern university system, and then in 1965 it was officially renamed “al-Karaouine University” instead of just “al-Karaouine”.
The school’s student body shrank dramatically in the early 1900s when the elite began sending their children to Morocco’s new Western-style institutes. The teaching style at Al-Qarawiyyin is still traditional. Students, aged between 13 and 30, sit in a semicircle (halqa) around the sheikh while listening to and reading texts. They study for a diploma degree.
Before they attend Al-Qarawiyyin, they must have memorized the entire Qur’an as well as some short hadith texts. The students come from different parts of Morocco, West Africa, and even Central Asia.
Al-Qarawiyyin University reminds us that it was not Oxford or Cambridge that first became a place of university-level learning. But Al-Qarawiyyin, a madrasa in a mosque that more than 1,000 years ago set the wheels of higher education in northern Africa in motion.