Name: University of Al-Karaouine
Location: Fes, Morocco
Established in: 859 as a Mosque
- Ibn Khaldun (Historian, Economist and Sociologist)
- Leo Africanus (Author and Diplomat)
- Muhammad Allal al Fassi (Politician, Writer, Poet and Islamic Scholar)
While highly contested, the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco is considered as the world’s first university and hence the oldest university. The University is actually recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world.
It was originally founded as a mosque with an associated mosque school (madrasa) which has been referred to as a university. The credit of its foundation goes to a woman called Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Mohammed Al-Fihri, who along with many of their community migrated from Kairouan (from where the name of the mosque has come) in Tunisia to Fes in Morocco in the early 9th century. Fatima al-Fihri together with her sibling inherited huge wealth from their father, and Fatima had vowed to utilize her inheritance on the construction and running of a mosque for her community. The dynasties that followed continued to expand the Al-Karaouine mosque until it became the largest in Africa.
The mosque, in addition to a mere place for offering prayers, was developed into a place for religious and political deliberations and instructions. Gradually, the education programme was extended to a broad range of subjects, particularly the natural sciences, some of which include rhetoric, grammar, logic, music, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, history, geography, astronomy, etc. Al-Karaouine has been and continues to be one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world, was integrated into the state educational system in the year 1947 and acquired the status of a state university in the year 1963 by a royal decree, which brought it under the supervision of the ministry of education. With the introduction of various reforms such as modern curricula and textbooks, trained faculty, etc., Al-Karaouine was officially renamed “University of Al-Karaouine” in the year 1965.
While many hail the evolution of Al-Karaouine spread across a period of over 1000 years, there are other who dispute its institutional status particularly prior to World War-II, claiming that it started as a mosque school and its transformation into a full-fledged university took place only in the year 1963. UNESCO in contrast considers Al-Karaouine to have been a university since its founding.
Despite the debate, there is however no doubt that Al-Karaouine’s has produced numerous scholars and intellectuals who have strongly influenced the history of Muslim and Jewish worlds.