The first degree awarding university in the Americas for Arabic Literature & Arabic Islamic Studies

Why Alqarawiyyeen





"It is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records and is sometimes referred to as the oldest university."



The University of al-Qarawiyyin or al-Karaouine (in Arabic: جامعة القرويين‎) is a university located in Fes, Morocco.

The al-Qarawiyyin mosque , a religious school / college was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 with an associated school, or madrasa, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world.

It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963.

It is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records and is sometimes referred to as the oldest university.

These claims are subject to discussions as other institutions, such as the Zaytouna mosque-school founded in 703 in Tunis, predated the founding of al-Qarawiyyin .

Al-Qarawiyyin itself is named after the Qairaouan Mosque in Tunisia , the oldest mosque in the Maghreb and the cradle of the Muslim Maliki rite.

Education at al-Qarawiyyin University concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Maliki law, although a few lessons on other non-Islamic subjects such as French, English, and even IT are also offered to students.

Teaching is delivered in the traditional method, in which students are seated in a semi-circle (halqa) around a sheikh, who prompts them to read sections of a particular text, asks them questions on particular points of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points.

Students from all over Morocco and Islamic West Africa attend the Qarawiyyin , although a few might come from as far afield as Muslim Central Asia.

Even Spanish Muslim converts frequently attend the institution, largely attracted by the fact that the sheikhs of the Qarawiyyin, and Islamic scholarship in Morocco in general, are heirs to the rich religious and scholarly heritage of Muslim al-Andalus.

Most students at the Qarawiyyin range from between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degrees, although Muslim males with a sufficiently high level of Arabic are also able to attend lecture circles on an informal basis, given the traditional category of visitors ‘in search of religious and legal] knowledge’ (zuwwaar li’l-talab fii ‘ilm).

In addition to being Muslim and male, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an in full as well as several other shorter medieval Islamic texts on grammar and Maliki law, and in general to have a very good command of Classical Arabic.

Successive dynasties expanded the al-Qarawiyyin mosque until it became the largest in Africa , with a capacity of 22,000 worshipers.

Compared with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Jameh Mosque in Isfahan, the design is austere.

The columns and arches are plain white; the floors are covered in reed mats, not lush carpets.

Yet the seemingly endless forest of arches creates a sense of infinite majesty and intimate privacy, while the simplicity of the design complements the finely decorated niches, pulpit and outer courtyard, with its superb tiles, plasterwork, woodcarvings and paintings.

The present form of the mosque is the result of a long historical evolution over the course of more than 1,000 years.

Originally the mosque was about 30 meters long with a courtyard and four transverse aisles.

The first expansion was undertaken in 956, by Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba , Abd-ar-Rahman III.

The prayer hall was extended and the minaret was relocated, taking on a square form that served as a model for countless North African minarets .

At this time it became a tradition that other mosques of Fes would make the call to prayer only after they heard al-Qarawiyyin. In the minaret of al-Qarawiyyin mosque there is a special room, the Dar al-Muwaqqit, where the times of prayer are established.

The most extensive reconstruction was carried out in 1135 under the patronage of the Almoravid ruler sultan Ali Ibn Yusuf who ordered the extension of the mosque from 18 to 21 aisles, expanding the structure to more than 3,000 square meters.

The mosque acquired its present appearance at this time, featuring horseshoe arches and ijmiz frames decorated with beautiful geometrical and floral Andalusian art, bordered with Kufic calligraphy.

In the 16th century, the Saadis restored the mosque, adding two patios to the northern and southern ends of the courtyard.



Al-Qarawiyyin was founded with an associated school, or madrasa, in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Mohammed Al-Fihri.

The Al-Fihri family had migrated from Kairouan (hence the name of the mosque), Tunisia to Fes in the early 9th century, joining a community of other migrants from Kairouan who had settled in a western district of the city.

Fatima and her sister Mariam, both of whom were well educated, inherited a large amount of money from their father.

Fatima vowed to spend her entire inheritance on the construction of a mosque suitable for her community.

In some sources, the medieval madrasa is described as a “university”in one Rough Guide book even as vying with Al-Azhar in Cairo “for the title of world’s oldest university”.

Some scholars, noting certain parallels between such madrasas and European medieval universities, have proposed that the latter may have been influenced by the madrasas of Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily.

Other scholars have questioned this, citing the lack of evidence for an actual transmission from the Islamic world to Christian Europe and highlighting the differences in the structure, methodologies, procedures, curricula and legal status of the “Islamic college” (madrasa) versus the European university.

Al-Qarawiyyin gained the patronage of politically powerful sultans.

It compiled a large selection of manuscripts that were kept at a library founded by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1349.

Among the most precious manuscripts currently housed in the library are volumes from the famous Al-Muwatta of Malik written on gazelle parchment, the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, a copy of the Qur’an given by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1602, and the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s book Al-‘Ibar.

Among the subjects taught, alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), are grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy.

The twelfth century cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi, whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance is said to have lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that he may have worked or studied at al-Qarawiyyin.

The madrasa has produced numerous scholars who have strongly influenced the intellectual and academic history of the Muslim world.

Among these are Ibn Rushayd al-Sabti (d. 1321), Mohammed Ibn al-Hajj al-Abdari al-Fasi (d. 1336), Abu Imran al-Fasi (d. 1015), a leading theorist of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, Leo Africanus, a renowned traveler and writer.

Pioneer scholars such as Al-Idrissi (d.1166 AD), Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240 AD), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 AD), Ibn al-Khatib, Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius), Ibn Hirzihim, and Al-Wazzan were all connected with the madrasa either as students or lecturers.

Among Christian scholars visiting al-Qarawiyyin were the Belgian Nicolas Cleynaerts and the Dutchman Golius.

State University

At the time Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, Al-Qarawiyyin had witnessed a decline as a religious center of learning from its medieval prime.

However, it had retained some significance as an educational venue for the sultan’s administration.

The student body was rigidly divided along social strata; ethnicity (Arab or Berber), social status, personal wealth and the geographic background (rural or urban) determined the group membership of the students who were segregated on the teaching facility as well as in their personal quarters.

The French administration implemented a number of structural reforms between 1914 and 1947, but did not modernize the contents of teaching likewise which were still dominated by the traditional worldviews of the ulama.

At the same time, the student numbers at Al-Qarawiyyin dwindled to a total of 300 in 1922 as the Moroccan elite began to send its children instead to the new-found Western-style colleges and institutes elsewhere in the country.

In 1947, Al-Qarawiyyin was integrated into the state educational system, but it was only by royal decree after independence, in 1963, that the madrasa was finally transformed into a university under the supervision of the ministry of education.

The old mosque school was shut down and the new campus established at former French Army barracks.

While the dean took its seat at Fez, four faculties were founded in and outside the city: a faculty of Islamic law in Fez, a faculty of Arab studies in Marrakech and a faculty of theology in Tétouan, plus one near Agadir in 1979. Modern curricula and textbooks were introduced and the professional training of the teachers improved.

Following the reforms, al-Qarawiyyin was officially renamed “University of al-Qarawiyyin” in 1965.

In 1975, the General Studies were transferred to the newly founded Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University; al-Qarawiyyin kept the Islamic and theological courses of studies.

In 1988, after a hiatus of almost three decades, the teaching of traditional Islamic education at the madrasa of al- Qarawiyyin was resumed by king Hassan II in what has been interpreted as a move to bolster conservative support for the monarchy.

Historians of the university, encyclopedias and dictionaries of the Middle Ages consider that the university (from Latin universitas) was an institution unique to Christian Europe, that the first universities were all located in Western Europe with Paris and Bologna often cited as the earliest examples.

These sources therefore consider that al-Qarawiyyin was founded and run as a madrasah (Arabic: مدرسة‎) or a mosque school until after World War II.

They consider institutions like al-Qarawiyyin to be higher schools of Islamic law where other subjects were only of secondary importance.

They also consider that the University was only adopted outside the West, including into the Islamic world, in the course of modernization programmes since the beginning of the 19th century.

They date the transformation of the madrasa of Al-Qarawiyyin into a university to its modern reorganization in 1963.

In the wake of these reforms, al-Qarawiyyin was officially renamed “University of al-Qarawiyyin” two years later.

In contrast according to UNESCO and a number of other sources, al-Qarawiyyin is considered to have been a university since its founding and therefore that it is the oldest university in the world.

According to Yahya Pallavicini , the university model did not spread in Europe until the 12th century, and was found throughout the Muslim world from the founding of al-Qarawiyyin in the 9th century until at least European colonialism.