Fatima al-Fihri was young when her family moved to what is now modern-day Morocco. After her father’s death, the young, Muslim woman of color used her inheritance to build a mosque for those in her community to both learn and practice their faith.
The establishment of the mosque took place over 1,200 years ago in 859 AD. Today, it's known as the University of al-Qarawiyyin and is a leading institution in science, math and philosophy. The university is the oldest and longest-running school in world history according to VICE Broadly.
Having initially focused on calligraphy, grammar, medicine, music, astronomy and Sufism, the university has since expanded its curriculum and accepted students who became notable alumni, such as philosophers Maimonides, Ibn Rushd and Pope Sylvester II.
All students who attend, and are thus surrounded by over 4,000 manuscripts spanning history and dating back to the 9th century, must pass a rigorous test in order to gain admission. This includes memorizing the entire Quran.
The school currently hosts around 800 students from ages 13 to 30.
Despite the university being founded by a young woman, the majority of the student population consists of men, due to the university’s recent opening to significant amounts of female students. Some female students, like 22-year-old Ilhem Ibrahim, are the first women in their families to go to any university.
“[It’s] not because women were barred from studying,” Ilhem told Broadly. “It was social tradition to study to 12 years and then get married. Now you only find this in the countryside and mountains.”
According to Broadly, one in two women in Morocco are illiterate, and in rural areas where farm life is the norm, many families find further schooling to be more costly than it is worth. Despite this, female students at al-Qarawiyyin found the motivation to seek higher education and break the constructed mold for women in their society; they find honor in their attendance and a hero in Fatima.
“Fatima was well-educated and rich,” Ilhem said. “She came to Res and gave her family’s money to Allah by building the university; she fasted for the 18 years it took to build.”
al-Qarawiyyin is the largest mosque in Africa and continues to represent a strong historical presence of black foundation and determination.