University of Karueein – oldest university in the world

Dear Readers, Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you)

It was a dream come true to set foot inside the famed Karueein, the oldest continually operating university in the world (Guinness, UNESCO). I will use the English form of the Arabic name, as that is more familiar to me, Al-Qarawiyyin. It was founded in 859 CE, which would be 244 AH (hijri calendar), so 234 years after the death of the blessed beloved Muhammed (peace be upon him).

It was built by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. And what a lady she must have been. She was wealthy and endowed her wealth to build this institution. It is said, such was her piety, that she continuously fasted for the duration of the building of the institution. Indeed, as per a classical Islamic understanding of success…her intention and good deed was surely accepted by God, for it has been rewarded by the benchmark of divine acceptance – longevity! She is given the affectionate title, Al-Fihriyya – Allah be well pleased with her!

From the ‘1001 inventions exhibit’ – fatima

 

We entered the mosque of the Qarawiyyin through one of its 14 gates. In the old Muslim world (and indeed to this day, though it remains as only a slight shadow of its glorious past), mosques were a center for learning and community. Education was free in the Muslim world, the Sultan supporting the scholars, or more frequently, their work would be supported by rich endowments, called ‘waqf’ in Arabic. Awqaf (plural of waqf) would be established by wealthy families, so that scholars would be supported and could work independently from state sponsorship – ensuring free thinking. So scholars would stay behind after one of the canonical prayers and stand at a pillar of the mosque (rarely there would be chairs on raised daises – you can still see some in old Turkish mosques) and give a lecture. Anyone who wanted to was free to listen or go. One can imagine serious students keeping a timetable of talks times and scurrying from mosque pillar to mosque pillar! As well as busy merchants, housewives etc. wandering in and out catching a talk here and there as they go about their daily business.

So the mosque is an essential part of the University. The university complex grew around it, and included many amazingly beautiful dormitories (another post inshaAllah) and buildings. The mosque is not used as a lecture hall anymore, though we were treated to a glimpse of the past…when the imam came by, he sat down on the carpet by a pillar, we sat in a circle around him and he gave us a mini lecture on the history of the Qarawiyyin. Beautiful, simple, and easy – devoid of all the trappings of a modern classroom. The teacher is fully exposed and the student has full access to him. What a teacher one has to be to take this place confidently!

Before stepping into those hallowed halls of the Qarawiyyin mosque we stopped to imagine the footsteps that must have gone over the same door-sill we were stepping over; the Qarawiyyin was famed for studies in theology, jurisprudence , philosophy, mathematics , astronomy, geography and languages. It was open to students of all faiths. Maimonides, one of the most famous of the Jewish scholars (well worth looking into the Jewish golden age of scholarship that flourished in Muslim Spain in the past – a strong proof that the present Muslim-Jewish conflict has little precedent historically, as well as negating the orientalists assertion that Islam is an intolerant faith. Please look at this link from jewishhistory.org) was said to have studied there. Indeed there was a rich caravan of scholars going to and fro between the Maghreb (Muslim lands in North West Africa) and Andalucia (Muslim kingdom in Spain) in those days, a bit like scholarship travel between Canada and the USA of today if I may. Here is an excerpt about other famous scholars at the Qarawiyyin, source here

Pioneer scholars include Ibn Maymun (Maimonids, (1135-1204) who was taught at Al-Qarawiyyin by Abdul Arab Ibn Muwashah. The famous Al-Idrissi (d.1166 CE) is said to have settled in Fes for considerable time suggesting that he must have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin. Sources also list a number of peers such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 CE), Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan are said to have all taught in Al-Qarawiyyin[7].Some historic accounts also spoke of Ibn Zuhr (d.1131 CE) spending a great deal of time travelling between Andalusia, Fes, and Marrakech.

Among Christian witnesses of the contribution of Al-Qarawiyyin is Gerbert of Aurillac (930-1003), famously known as Pope Sylvester II, and who is credited with introducing the use of zero and Arabic numerals to Europe, studied at Al-Qarawiyyin[8] . More recently the Belgian Nichola Louvain settled in Fes in 1540 and studied Arabic at Al-Qarawayyin, to be followed later by the Deutch Mathematician Golius who also studied Arabic there

N.B. – Al-Idrissi is the famous cartographer, whose maps contributed greatly to the Portugese and Spanish naval conquests. The world-map as he drew it, had what is now considered North, at the South. That is, Europe appears below Africa! This was the order of the world-view pre-Renaissance apparently. He was commissioned to do this by the Norman king of Sicily at the time, Roger. His finished product, ‘Al-kitab Al-Rujari’ (=Roger’s book). Source here

Ibn Khaldun, for those not familiar, wrote one of the most comprehensive world-histories…it is a masterful compendium of global events and civilizational analyses. Still studied to this day in the Muslim world.

I will stop myself going on about the scholarship there (this junior scientist finds it very easy to indulge in long digressions on this topic) and post pictures below. They are mostly of the mosque…where we were privileged to join several congregations and then just ‘hang-out’.

 

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Inside where the mihrab (=prayer niche) is. The mihrab is a distinguishing characteristic of a mosque, it faces to Mecca and is where the Imam stands to recite. The hollow niche acts to echo his voice so the congregation can hear him. The niche was a few degrees ‘off’ from the direction of Mecca…but to me that only spoke to how old the mosque is and I was amazed they could calculate the direction to so close to accuracy ~1200 years ago!

 

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sacred space still echoing the purity of lost knowledge…

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One of the functions of the ‘work’ on the ceiling it was found recently was that the angles created prevent the formation of cobwebs… sorry about the poor focus

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Courtyard, that features the fountains to make ‘wudu’ (=lumination, mandatory washing prior to entering the salat or prayer)

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One of two sundials found in the courtyard…this one must have been touched up with the numerals (?). The sundials were used to calculate the times for the canonical prayers -which are based upon the position of the sun in the sky

 

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Second sundial…unfortunately I am not able to read the Arabic around it yet…it is most likely Quranic ayat (=verses, literally ‘signs). In the center portion is ‘Allah’ right on top, below that ‘Muhammed’ and the four circles on either side have the names of the first four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs of Islam, ‘Abu Bakr’, ‘Umar’, ‘Uthman’ and ‘Ali’ (God be pleased with all of them)

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One of the two fountains in the courtyard is under this beautiful and intricately decorated roof. Truly breathtaking to make the ‘wudu’ under…

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Finally, the doors being opened by the beautifully dignified caretaker…what a feeling when those giant ancient wooden doors swing open and we step over the sill. A feeling of awe and being deeply honored to enter.

 

3 thoughts on “University of Karueein – oldest university in the world

    • Thank you for this comment. I get the feeling the more I explore/travel that it is still there…albeit, a small remnant of it…just not what the media will ever highlight! Also I feel bringing back lost history will be a strong factor for improvement on both sides. It’s a great shame to cut a people off from their heritage – knowledge always brings light and a whole ‘world’ divorced from its history is really struggling. Need to spread that light of sound/factual knowledge🙂

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