The University of Al-Karaouine, also written as al-Quaraouiyine and al-Qarawiyyin (in Arabic: جامعة القرويين), is considered by the Guinness World Records as well as UNESCO as the oldest continuously operating, degree-granting university in the world. You’ll find it tucked within the winding alleyways of Fes el-Bali, Morocco, one of the world’s most ancient living cities.
Wandering around Al-Karaouine today, you can admire the institution’s simple yet beautiful design, decorated with Andalusian art bordered with Kufic calligraphy. The university library is home to numbers of precious manuscripts including historic copies of the Qu’ran.
Interestingly, though students at the university must be both Muslim and male to attend, the original establishment was founded in 859 by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. Al-Fihri migrated with her family from the Tunisian city of Kairouan (the namesake of the mosque and university) to Fes, Morocco. She proceeded to spend all of her family inheritance on constructing a mosque for her community with an associated school, known as a madrasa. The mosque was the initial focal point; with enough room for 22,000 worshipers, it remains the largest in Africa.
Over the centuries, the University of Al-Karaouine became a key spiritual and educational center in the Muslim world. In the beginning, the madrasa focused on religious instruction and Qu’ran memorization, but later expanded into Arabic grammar, music, Sufism, medicine, and astronomy. However, it was not until 1947 that the school was integrated into the state education system; in 1957 physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were introduced; in 1963 it joined the modern state university system; and in 1965 it was officially renamed “University of al-Karaouine” rather than simply “al-Karaouine.” The school’s student body shrank dramatically in the early 1900s when elites began sending their children to the new Western-style institutes in Morocco.
Much of the university is still highly traditional, from the student demographics to the style of instruction. Students, who range between the ages of 13 and 30, seat themselves in semi-circles (halqa) around a sheik when reading texts. They can work towards high school-level diplomas or university degrees, and before they arrive at Al-Karaouine, they must have memorized the entire Qu’ran as well as several shorter texts. Students come from different parts of Morocco and Islamic West Africa, and even Muslim Central Asia.
The University of Al-Karaouine reminds us that it is not Oxford or Cambridge that first set the stage for university learning, but a mosque’s madrasa that, over 1,000 years ago, set those gears in motion.