The Oldest University in the World


The concept of a university as a center for higher learning has evolved significantly over the centuries. When we think of ancient centers of learning, institutions like the University of Oxford or the University of Bologna might come to mind. However, the title of the world’s oldest continuously operating university belongs to Al-Qarawiyyin (also spelled Al-Karaouine or Al-Quaraouiyine) in Fez, Morocco. Established in 859 AD, Al-Qarawiyyin has been a beacon of knowledge, culture, and religion for over a millennium. This blog delves into the rich history, enduring legacy, and profound impact of Al-Qarawiyyin, illuminating its role as a cornerstone of global education.

 Historical Context and Foundation

 The Birth of Al-Qarawiyyin

Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 AD by Fatima al-Fihri, a learned and devout woman, originally from Kairouan (in present-day Tunisia). Fatima and her sister, Mariam, inherited a substantial fortune from their father, a wealthy merchant. Fatima chose to invest her inheritance in establishing a mosque and an educational institution, thus creating Al-Qarawiyyin. This was a remarkable endeavor, especially considering the limited roles typically available to women during that era.

 The Rise of Fez as a Cultural Hub

Fez, the city where Al-Qarawiyyin is located, has long been a significant cultural and intellectual center. Founded in 789 AD by Idris I, Fez quickly grew into a major metropolis. By the 9th century, it had become a melting pot of cultures and a prominent center of trade and scholarship. The establishment of Al-Qarawiyyin further cemented Fez’s status as a hub of learning and culture.

 The Architectural Marvel

 The Mosque and Its Expansion

Originally founded as a mosque, Al-Qarawiyyin underwent several expansions over the centuries. The initial building was modest, but subsequent rulers and benefactors continually added to its structure. The mosque’s architecture is a testament to the blend of Andalusian and Moroccan styles, featuring intricate mosaics, carved woodwork, and stucco decorations. The central courtyard, surrounded by arcades, is particularly noteworthy for its elegant proportions and serene ambiance.

 The Library: A Treasure Trove of Knowledge

One of Al-Qarawiyyin’s most significant components is its library, which is considered one of the oldest in the world. The library houses an invaluable collection of manuscripts, some dating back to the 9th century. Among its treasures are works on theology, astronomy, law, grammar, medicine, and philosophy. Notable manuscripts include the famous “Muqaddimah” by Ibn Khaldun and a copy of the Quran from the 9th century. The library’s recent restoration has made these texts more accessible, ensuring that this repository of knowledge continues to inspire future generations.

 Academic Contributions and Influence

 A Center for Islamic Scholarship

Al-Qarawiyyin has always been the foremost institution for Islamic studies. Over the centuries, it has produced numerous eminent scholars, theologians, and jurists. The university’s curriculum traditionally focused on religious and legal studies, with the Quran and Hadith being central texts. However, it also offered instruction in a wide range of coursework help, including grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography, and music.

 Influence on European Universities

The contributions of Al-Qarawiyyin extended far beyond the Islamic world. During the Middle Ages, it played a crucial role in the transmission of knowledge to Europe. Scholars from Al-Qarawiyyin were instrumental in preserving and translating ancient Greek and Roman texts, which were later transferred to European universities. Notable scholars such as Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) and Michael Scot studied in Muslim Spain, where they were influenced by the works of Al-Qarawiyyin scholars. This cross-cultural exchange significantly impacted the European Renaissance.

 Renowned Alumni

Al-Qarawiyyin’s illustrious alumni include several prominent figures in various fields. Among them are:

– Ibn Rushd (Averroes): A polymath who made school significant contributions to philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence. His works influenced both the Islamic world and Western thought.

– Ibn Khaldun: Often regarded as the father of sociology and historiography. His seminal work, “Muqaddimah,” laid the foundation for various social sciences.

– Leo Africanus: A geographer and traveler whose writings about Africa were crucial for European understanding of the continent.

 Modern-Day Al-Qarawiyyin

Adaptation and Modernization

While Al-Qarawiyyin remains deeply rooted in its Islamic heritage, it has also adapted to modern educational paradigms. In 1963, it was integrated into the Moroccan university system, and its curriculum was expanded to include modern sciences and humanities alongside traditional religious studies. This transformation reflects a broader trend within the Islamic world to harmonize tradition with modernity.

 Preservation Efforts

The Moroccan government, along with international organizations, has made concerted efforts to preserve and restore Al-Qarawiyyin’s historic buildings and manuscripts. The recent renovation of the library, spearheaded by Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni, has been particularly noteworthy. These efforts ensure that Al-Qarawiyyin remains a vibrant center of learning while preserving its rich heritage for future generations.

 Continuing Legacy

Today, Al-Qarawiyyin University continues to function as a center for religious and academic study. It attracts students from all over the world who seek to immerse themselves in Islamic scholarship. The university’s enduring legacy is a testament to its founders’ vision and the countless scholars who have contributed to its growth over the centuries.

 The Broader Impact on Global Education

 A Model of Academic Excellence

Al-Qarawiyyin’s influence extends beyond its immediate academic contributions. As the oldest continuously operating university, it has set a precedent for academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge. Its model of integrating religious and secular studies has been emulated by numerous institutions worldwide.

 Fostering Intercultural Dialogue

The university has historically been a place where scholars from diverse backgrounds could engage in intellectual exchange. This tradition of intercultural dialogue has contributed to a greater understanding between the Islamic world and the West. By facilitating the transfer of knowledge across cultural boundaries, Al-Qarawiyyin has played a vital role in the global academic community.

 Promoting Lifelong Learning

Al-Qarawiyyin’s legacy underscores the importance of lifelong learning. Its enduring existence over more than a millennium demonstrates the timeless value of education. In an era where the pace of technological and social change is accelerating, the principles of continuous learning and adaptation exemplified by Al-Qarawiyyin are more relevant than ever.


Al-Qarawiyyin University stands as a monumental testament to the enduring power of knowledge and learning. Founded by a visionary woman in the 9th century, it has weathered the vicissitudes of history while continually evolving and adapting to changing times. Its contributions to Islamic scholarship, its role in the transmission of knowledge to Europe, and its ongoing relevance in the modern world underscore its unparalleled significance.

As we reflect on the legacy of Al-Qarawiyyin, we are reminded of the transformative power of education. In celebrating its rich history, we also acknowledge the enduring spirit of inquiry and the quest for knowledge that transcends time and geography. Al-Qarawiyyin is not merely the oldest university in the world; it is a beacon of intellectual heritage that continues to illuminate the path toward a more enlightened and interconnected world.