The Oldest University in the World Was Founded by a Muslim Woman in Morocco

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Muslim women have been transforming society since, well, at least 12 centuries ago. Founded in 859, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, is the world’s oldest operating university — it was also endowed by a devout Muslim woman with her inheritance.

Fatima al-Fihri, who was Tunisian, donated the funds to open a mosque and madrasa (a school which teaches religious texts) in the mid ninth century, but the property was expanded to be a university by the tenth century. Now the stunning campus houses one of the world’s oldest libraries, which was recently restored after being kept private for scholarly use for hundreds of years.

According an Associated Press report on the library’s restoration, its collection of Islamic historical manuscripts is unparalleled. For example: al-Qarawiyyin’s library includes a ninth century Quran written in ancient Kufic calligraphy.

“The manuscripts are now kept in a secure room, with strict temperature and humidity control,” reported the AP in 2016 after the renovations were completed.

By 1947, the school was officially integrated into Morocco’s public education system, and in 1967, it became the University of al-Karaouine. Though European schools are often credited with being the first universities, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization considers al-Karaouine a university since its original inception as a madrasa — making it the oldest in history.

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