Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, in partnership with Muslimah Media, speaks in a 5-part series about the amazing Muslim women who paved the way for others after them.
Fatima al-Fihri lived in Fez, Morocco in the mid-9th century. She lived in a time where the women were very involved in the development of infrastructure. At that time, public institutions were supported by an endowment, or waqf. Because women, under Islamic law, are not obliged to supported their families, women with large fortunes would choose to channel them into waqfs. Whether it was a mosque, school or hospital, the waqf would ensure that the institution could be funded long-term.
Fatima was heir to a large fortune, and promised to build a university. At the time, there were no other universities in the world. In fact, the first European university wouldn’t open until the 11th century. In the year 859, Al-Qarawiyin (also spelled Al Quaraouiyine or Al-Karaouine) was opened. It was the first institution to offer standardized degrees at the graduate, post-graduate and doctorate level. In addition to a vibrant campus, she also added a mosque and a huge library. Many brilliant minds flocked to al-Qarawiyin, including the famous sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldun, to present-day Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, faculty at Zaytuna College.
Fatima’s piety and social concern was evident in her planning. During the two years of construction, she took a vow of fasting, keeping the fast every day until the day of completion. In addition, she specified that the building materials be locally sourced. This allowed the surrounding community to benefit, and ensured that the building suited its natural environment.
Fatima al-Fihri is an example of what happens when women in a society are empowered. Al-Qarawiyin is the one lasting example of that society.