Fez, Morocco – The oldest university in the world is undergoing a facelift in the Moroccan city of Fez. Founded in AD 859, the University of al-Qarawiyyin has stood for centuries as a prestigious centre of science and technology. Abandoned for years, decay and humidity have damaged many of its library books, but steps are now being taken to preserve rare manuscripts written by some of the greatest medieval thinkers.
To control the humidity, gutter systems, solar panels and air-conditioning have been installed at the ancient institution. “I had no idea that I would spend years dealing with rare and invaluable manuscripts,” Abdelfattah Bougchouf, library curator, told Al Jazeera. “I have people coming from all over the world just to check facts on a page in one of the manuscripts.”
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 al-Qarawiyyin mosque-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.
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 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.