Fatima al-Fihri isn’t a household name, but she should be, because she founded the world’s first University (which, incidentally, is still thriving today). She was born in Tunisia into a wealthy family; her father was a successful businessman. She also had one sister named Mariam (it is unclear if her mother died young). They were a pious, well-educated family with great social standing and eventually moved west to Morocco.
Both Fatima and Mariam were greatly invested in community betterment and set to work in Fes, Morocco. When their father passed away, they inherited a fortune and dedicated their lives to disseminating Islamic arts, religious learning, and architecture. Mariam went on to found the al-Andalus Mosque, while Fatima set her sights on constructing the Qarawiyyin Mosque. It was built exclusively from her inheritance and took two years — it is said that she fasted the entire length of time until the project was completed and regularly praised Allah for blessing her with the means to enact such a charitable operation. If that was the only lesson to be taken away from Fatima al-Fihri, it would be more than enough: She did the best she could with what she had, all the while acknowledging that without Him, it wouldn’t be possible.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Qarawiyyin Mosque is the oldest University in the world because of its degree-granting status in the context of its era. It was the heart of Morocco in much the same way that Mecca is the heart of Saudi Arabia today; it thrived on the intelligent, dedicated individuals who flocked in large numbers to study Islamic theology (and develop political and social interactions) there in order to assume administrative positions. Muhammad al-Idris hailed from there, a Muslim cartographer whose maps were used for navigation during the Renaissance, as well as Ibn Khaldun, a pioneer of sociology, to name a just a couple. Another important observation to be made here is how the sincerity with which Fatima al-Fihri built this mosque was a major reason for its success. As Muslims, we know that intention is of utmost importance, and that “the reward of deeds depends upon the intentions, and every person has only what he has intended” according to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). [Sahih Al-Bukhari]
Fatima al-Fihri puts to notion the rest that education is secondary for Muslim women. Her life also speaks volumes about the contribution of Muslim women to Islam and Islamic history as we know it today. Unfortunately, it often goes downplayed or unreported, and this maintains the appearance that we have taken the backseat for our religion. Fatima al-Fihri is pivotal to Islam, not just because she was the founder of an institution that is running to date, but because she represents exactly the kind of Muslim woman we strive to be: Pious, well-intentioned, generous, educated, empowered, and productive. Surely, we have opportunities that are just as (if not much more) accessible than they were to her. It may seem as though giant hurdles are the sole characteristic of realizing a dream, but sometimes, it’s just about setting a goal, rolling up your sleeves — and going for it.
This piece is part of the MuslimGirl series: Influential Muslim Women. For more articles discussing the accomplishments of Muslimahs throughout history, click here.