Fatima al-Fihri – Paving the Way for Modern University Education

Today I want to tell you how a Muslim woman paved the way for higher education as we know it. This is the history of the world’s oldest, continually operating university as well as a story about determination and giving back to the community. Let me take you to 9th century North Africa where Fatima al-Fihri was born.

Around 800 AD in the Tunisian town of Kairouan, a merchant and his wife welcomed their first daughter into the world and named her Fatima. A second, Maryam, would follow soon. While it isn’t certain when the family became rich, it must have happened either before the girls were born or as they were growing up, as they enjoyed quite a few privileges. 

They did receive a thorough education for example, both scientific and religious, and they were. Apart from this, not much is known about Fatima’s early life, except that she was devoutly religious, as was her sister. So we’re going to fast forward a little. 

At some point she married and after an uprising in Kairouan the whole family decided to emigrate to Fez – a city in today’s Morocco on its way to becoming a bustling metropolis of the Islamic Golden Age – and settled in its west where many other people from their hometown were living aready. For now however, life wasn’t all that golden for Fatima. Shortly after her wedding her father died and soon after her new husband as well. There is no mention of her mother at all after this point, so I’m assuming she died before the family moved. So now Fatima and her sister were completely on their own in a new city. 

Being the only children to their parents however and with Fatima being a widow, the two women inherited quite a bit of money – most sources use the word “fortune.” But living modest lives, as was expected from Muslims, they didn’t really need that much and wouldn’t it be much more in Allah’s sense to give back to the community that so lovingly welcomed them? Maryam decided to buy a plot of land and supported the Andalusian immigrants of the city (who arrived prior to the wave from Kairouan) in building a mosque which they named Al-Andalus. It is still standing and one of the oldest landmarks of the old city center of Fez. Fatima too purchased land, near Maryam’s, however on her plot there was a mosque already which she tore down with the intention to rebuild it, but bigger and better! 

It took 18 years until Fatima’s ambitious project was finished. She oversaw the whole building process and is said to have fasted for the final two years until it was completed. It was planned as a community hub, 1520 m² big with a courtyard with a fountain, enough room for many many books and space dedicated to learning. Although the mosque itself is beautifully intricate and extravagant, she made a point of keeping its construction modest, using only materials from the site. It was a remarkable process really: they dug deep into the earth to find different materials to use and rebuilt a stable foundation after. Finally in 859 AD it was done, the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque (Al Kara-ween – named after her hometown) was complete. Fatima was the first to walk through its doors and pray. 

In accordance with Muslim tradition, the mosque also functioned as a madrasa, a place of education and you might remember Fatima’s plan to include enough space for that purpose. She herself took an active part in learning too and attended lectures until old age. She also appears to have introduced certificates for completing studies in a certain subject, similar to our university degrees today! After seeing her mosque flourish and become a community hub, Fatima died around 880 AD, an old woman. 

But her story doesn’t end here because it’s her legacy that truly made a difference in the long run. Around 30 years after Fatima’s death Al-Qarawiyyin became the Jama Masjid, the main mosque, of Fez. With time its library expanded and attracted scholars from all over the country and even from across its borders.

By the 12th century not only the Qur’an and Fiqh (Islamic Law) were taught there but also worldly subjects like grammar, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. It still wasn’t officially called a university, but it came pretty close to the system we have today. Many of the people who studied there became influential personalities in the Muslim world and beyond! And not only Muslims went there to learn and it is likely that it was at Al-Qarawiyyin where Pope Sylvester II (before he became pope) learned about arabic numerals which he then brought to the Western world. Even though it had been a hub for learning and scientific exchange, Al-Qarawiyyin didn’t receive its official university status until 1963. 

Today the University of Al-Qarawiyyin is still standing and has been recognized as the oldest existing and continuously operating university in the world – it has been teaching for more than 1200 years! And even if Fatima did not really found it as an university, she built it as a place for learning. Thus she not only paved the way for significant progress in her country, but all over the world. Without her, our system of higher education would probably look way different. Just as Fatima wanted, Al-Qarawiyyin became a center of the community, making it better.

By the way: While the university itself is off-limits if you are not a student there, the library can be visited and of course the beautiful courtyard. So if you ever happen to be in Fez, you know where to go!

image credits:

1: “Fatima Al-Fihriyya Art Nouveau” by Nayzak on DeviantArt (cropped) – Link
2: “The oldest university of the world, Al Qarawiyine university in Fès” by User Abdel Hassouni in Wikimedia Commons, 2015 – Link
3: Fatima al-Fihri by Decue Wu for the Fiercely Female 2019 Calendar – Link
4: “University Al Quaraouiyine in Fès, Morocco” by User Medist in Wikimedia Commons, 2019 – Link

Jeanne Hachette – Defender of Beauvais

The story I’m telling you today is a relatively short one, but exciting nonetheless! While Jeanne was definitely a real person, the accounts on her life differ from source to source, but one thing is clear, she was a total badass. When her city was attacked, many of the women living there refused to be bystanders and joined the fight – including 18 year old Jeanne, who grabbed a hatchet and played a key role in defending the city from capture. But let’s start at the beginning. 

Born around 1454 in the city of Beauvais, her real last name was either Fourquet or Laisné. She might have been the daughter of a butcher and, after her father’s death, could have been adopted by one of the city guards, which would explain the different names. Whatever the case, she was apparently not unfamiliar with blades. Another story tells that since childhood, she adored her namesake Jeanne d’Arc and dreamt of being like her someday. And she got her chance. 

Fast forward to 1472 when the Duke of Burgundy, who was revolting against the King – long story and not all that important for this article – advanced on Beauvais with an army of 80.000. They had already laid waste to the surrounding villages in an especially brutal fashion, hoping to scare the city into surrender. On June 27, workers on the cathedral roof spotted the approaching army and raised the alarm. The first onslaught was overwhelming. While Beauvais was well fortified, it had no artillery and the Burgundian soldiers were climbing the wall. Swiftly one of the suburbs was taken and there was a huge hole in one of the city gates. But the city didn’t surrender. Instead the citizens took up arms and threw themselves into battle – and not only the men, but women and children as well. Hot water, oil and molten lead were poured on the enemy soldiers storming the gate, men and women were blocking the gate, armed with whatever was available, sometimes only with their fists. But slowly they were losing ground and slowly their courage wavered.

Amidst all this chaos, 18-year-old Jeanne grabbed a hatchet and climbed the city walls with a band of women, all armed for combat. The Burgundians were still scaling the walls and the women got to work, shoving enemies back down and toppling ladders. Some soldiers got through though and one of them was intent on planting the Burgundian flag on top of the wall, a sign of victory. Jeanne swiftly threw him into the moat, holding the flag high over her head. This reignited the bravery of her fellow fighters and the battle waged on. At some point the broken gate was set on fire and kept aflame to make it harder for the enemies to enter. 

For two weeks they kept the flames burning until the Duke decided to attack another portion of town. Cannonballs destroyed big parts of the city, but he couldn’t get through the walls to conquer it. Even though Beauvais didn’t have any artillery, the defenders – many of them women – were valiant and quite inventive, hurling stones, torches and boiling water at the enemy. Wherever the soldiers attacked, a defense system was already in place, keeping them at bay. 

On July 22nd, after almost a month of fighting, the Duke had to retreat. He lost around 3.000 men, including about 20 lords against a city that had no ranged weaponry and an army that mainly consisted of citizens, many of them women – a humiliating defeat.

A defeat that might just have turned the tides of the Duke’s revolt. You see, he might have been able to beat the King… had he not wasted that much time on the city of Beauvais. As things were, he was forced to retreat to his own lands. The revolt had failed. King Louis XI recognized the contribution of the valiant citizens of Beauvais and granted the town certain privileges, like a lower tax rate. He also recognized the important role women had played in this defense and suspended the sumptuary laws which were common at the time. That means women were allowed to wear whatever clothing they liked, regardless of rank or gender norms.

And Jeanne? Jeanne was rewarded as well. Not only did she get money, but she and her descendants would never have to pay taxes, ever. Furthermore she was allowed to marry the man she loved, Collin Pillon, and some even say it was the King himself who held the ceremony.

That year the first Fêtes de l’Assaut (“Celebration of the Assault” – weird name, I know) is held with a procession through the city with Jeanne at the front, carrying the flag she conquered. Behind her the women of the city, honored for their inventiveness in ammunition. Since then this procession is held every year on the last weekend of June and it’s often called Fêtes Jeanne Hachette after our heroine and the name she became known for.

From then on her traces are lost in time. But her memory lives on forever in the town of Beauvais – their very own Jeanne d’Arc. 

image credits:

1: Jeanne Hachette Transformation cards (c. 1870, image cropped) – Steffen Völkel Rare Books – Link
2: “Beauvais (Oise, France) – Statue de Jeanne Hachette” (2008) by User Markus3 (Marc Roussel) in Wikimedia Commons – Link
3: “The women of Beauvais defending their city under Jeanne Hachette” from page 172 of “The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century” by E.S. Ellis & C.F. Horne, 1900 – page scan uploaded to flickr by Internet Archive Book Images – Link
4: “La statue de Jeanne Hachette” by Béatrice Butstraen on her blog Les petits plats de Béa [French], 2018 – Link

Li Qingzhao – Protector of History

Today I want to bring you a story of a happy marriage between two bookworms. They were collecting historical artifacts and writing each other love letters …until they lost their home and most of their beloved collection. And then her husband died too. It’s a lot. This is a story of a picture perfect life turning to ashes, but it’s also a story of resilience and protecting what we love. This is the story of Li Qingzhao. 

Born around 1084 in Zhangqiu, China as the first child of a family of scholars and government officials, Qingzhao had a great start in life! Her father was the headmaster of the capital’s university and saw to it that all of his children, one boy and three girls, received a thorough education. The family seems to have been fairly progressive as the girls’ feet were not bound, a popular custom throughout China at the time. Furthermore when Qingzhao started writing in her teens, she was taken seriously by her family and encouraged to pursue her passion. And so she developed into an intelligent and outgoing young woman.

When she was 18 years old, she entered an arranged marriage with Zhao Mingcheng, who was 23 years old and a poet as well. I’m a bit confused as to why he was chosen for her, as their parents had different opinions in politics (her father was a conservative, while his father was a reformist) and they were not particularly wealthy. But it turned out to be a wonderful match. Although Mingchen was often gone for work and they were never particularly wealthy, they were very happy. Both loved history and the little money they had, they used to buy statues, paintings, calligraphies and reproductions of historical inscriptions. They would spend hours upon hours examining the pieces and cataloguing them. Whenever they could, they would write each other little love letters – with Qingzhao being the better poet. And during their tea ceremonies they would play a game in which whoever could name the origin of a quote was the one to drink first. They were very much in love. 

Their happy married life took a little hit three years later, when not only Qingzhao’s father died, but so did Mingcheng’s two years later. There was some political tension involved and so the couple decided to lay low for a while and move out into the country, located in what is now Shandong Province. In favor of acquiring new artifacts, the couple lived a minimalist life and often went out themselves in search for new items for their collection. For the longer trips however, Qingzhao was left in their home and spent her time writing …and drinking a fair share. Many of her poems from that time are about loneliness and intoxication – a scandal for a woman of her status, as these topics had been reserved for prostitutes, not honorable wives! It’s not like she cared about that though. 

Generally they seem to have been happy in their secluded little life though, and even when the political climate calmed down after five years in their new home, they decided to stay there. They never had any children and there is no word of that in neither her nor his writings, so I assume they didn’t really care. That’s highly unconventional as it was an important part of Chinese culture to continue the family line. Instead of doing that however, they amassed one of the most valuable collections of historical artifacts in all of China. And for nine more years, they lived a quiet life, content in each other’s company and surrounded by their biggest passion. 

Until in 1121, Mingcheng was ordered to move to Laizhou to occupy a political post. Even though this time Qingzhao could come with him, it meant they had to leave their beloved home. And that wasn’t the end of it. In 1127, the capital of the Song Dynasty, Kaifeng, fell to the neighboring Jin. The government had been buying peace so far, but eventually that wasn’t enough anymore.

Although Qingzhao was advocating for a strong offense against the invaders, in the end she had no choice but pack her stuff and flee. And packing she did. With her husband, she hand-picked every little piece to take with them, ending up with fifteen (15!) carts of the most valuable artifacts in their collection. Still that meant ten more rooms (!) left behind for certain destruction. 

Arriving in Nanjing, the two lovers parted ways. Mingcheng had to see to the funeral of his mother who had just died, while Qingzhao was determined to save whatever she could from their old family home in Shandong Province. Travelling against the stream of refugees, she finally reached her destination. However the Jin were fast approaching, so she had to leave with only a few pieces, seeing her beloved collection burn behind her. 

After a long journey she returned to Nanjing where she was reunited with her much-missed husband. Together they travelled south on the Yangtze River to find a safe place for their prized collection. However their time together was cut short once again when Mingcheng was ordered to take a political post once again. Shortly after the lovers parted ways, he fell sick with malaria. As soon as Qingzhao heard, she left for Nanjing where he was staying. She didn’t even think about her collection that she went through so much to safe, she took off to see her husband again. 

She did arrive in time to see him again before he died. According to custom it would be the eldest son writing the epitaph, but as there was no son, Qingzhao wrote Mingcheng’s. A final little love letter. 

Now Qingzhao was 45. She was completely alone, homeless and didn’t even really have a solid country to return to. After burying her beloved husband with all honors, she recovered her second love, her artifacts, so at least she wasn’t broke. But once again the Jin were not far and she had to flee again. Her journey took her through all of Southern China and gradually she had to sell more and more of her collection until almost nothing was left. With all the refugees, finding her family was impossible and she had nowhere to go. After three years the new borders were finally relatively established and Qingzhao moved to the new capital of Hangzhou in Eastern China. 

In the same year, just after the mourning period had passed, she apparently remarried (although this is not 100% verified.) Another highly unorthodox move as Confucianist law forbids widows from marrying again. I can only guess as to why she chose to do this. Maybe it was the longing for stability and a home, maybe the wish for another companion, someone to share her passion with. Her new husband however was not that. Not only was he far from being on her level, intellectually speaking, but it appears he also harmed her physically. Not even 100 days into marriage, Qingzhao demanded a divorce. In another unorthodox move, she took her case to court – and she won! Her ex-husband was banished and she never looked for another. 

Instead she threw herself into writing. Once so outgoing and unconventional, her poems are now about her lost home, her lost love and her lost happiness. Also a lot more about drinking. But her intellect and abilities as a poet didn’t suffer and even though she seems to have become severely depressed, she didn’t give up entirely. 

After five years, in 1134, she published a monumental catalogue of antique inscriptions in bronze and stone which her husband had assembled. She herself wrote the foreword (and probably helped with cataloguing too, but she never took credit.) It is still a recognized educational book on the subject. All the while she continued to write poems criticizing the Dynasty’s politics regarding the new borders. Her last known poems were written in 1143, when she was almost 60, then she vanishes from history. 

It is unknown when exactly she died, but it must have been around 1155. But she isn’t forgotten. In China she remains one of the greatest poets in history, even though most of her writing has been lost to time and war. There is even a crater on Venus named after her, as well as one on Mercury! And although she couldn’t protect her collection, who knows how many pieces of Chinese history in our museums went through the hands of Li Qingzhao?!

image credits:

1: Li Qingzhao and Mingcheng Zhao (presumably), artist unknown – Link
If you happen to know the creator, please let me know, I couldn’t find them!

2: Li Qingzhao’s “Summer Judgment · Life as a Master” illustrated by Wang Xijing in 1990 – Link

3: Wu Shanming: “Poet Li Qingzhao” – Link

4:  Li Qingzhao statue at Li Qingzhao Memorial, Jinan by User Gisling in Wikimedia Commons – Link
The inscription reads: “Li Qingzhao 1084-1156”

Shajar al-Durr – The King-Ransoming Sultan

The place is Egypt at the time of the Seventh Crusade. You have never heard of that one, you say? That might be because this week’s heroine stopped it before it could really begin by torching its ships Blackwater Bay-style and capturing its leader, the King of France. Her name is Shajar al-Durr and this is her story.

It begins with a lot of loose ends. She was presumably born around 1220 as a slave of maybe Armenian but most definitely Turkic descent. Her birth name is unknown. She must have been beautiful though, as she was bought as a gift to the son of the Egyptian Sultan and given the new name Shajar al-Durr, meaning String of Pearls. In 1240, when the old sultan died and his son succeeded him on the throne, she moved into the palace in Cairo with him. (It wasn’t quite that easy, but this is Shajar’s story, so I’ll keep it short here.) Not much later, she gave birth to their son Khalil and promptly the Sultan married her. For about eight years, their life was blissful. (The picture on the right is an illustration of her from a Lebanese book from 1966, but it might be set in these happy times.) Then, in 1249, the Sultan died, right when the 7th crusade, led by King Louis IX of France, knocked at the door. Well, they didn’t knock exactly, they sent a letter. It was not a diplomatic offer as one might expect, it was nothing but Louis detailing how he would crush Egypt under his foot.

Shajar, being a smart woman, only told the highest ranking and most trustworthy officers (exactly two people: the chief commander and the chief eunuch) of the predicament of the sultan being dead. In the true spirit of “The King is dead, long live the King,” they decided to hide the monarch’s death until the question of his succession was solved (Khalil was not the heir as he wasn’t the eldest son). So Shajar took the reins in the meantime, supported by her two accomplices. Luckily her husband had been kind of a lazy ruler, so there were many blank orders already signed in advance that were just waiting to be filled. And so they did. Shajar told everyone the Sultan was sick and needed rest to recover but was still watching over his country. And then she handed out orders like the badass she was. She even organized for food to be made for the Sultan and left in front of his door everyday for her to bring to him – or rather dispose of it. And so they convinced the people of Egypt that their leader was still alive.

The rumours that had existed in the beginning though reached the crusaders then and they were sure of their victory now. After all, their opponents didn’t have a king anymore. And in 1250 they launched their attack on the city of Al Mansurah where the Egyptian camp was stationed. They were delighted to see the city gates open, thinking they had caught the Heathens by surprise and expecting an easy victory. Once the army advanced though, they were ambushed and more than 15 000 soldiers and 400 Templars and noblemen were killed. Prior to the battle, Shajar had the crusaders’ ships set ablaze with Greek fire, so the expected crusader reinforcements never arrived. There were hostage taken as well. Amongst them King Louis IX.

Now for a fun interlude: this sparked the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251, when a bunch of French farmers, peasants and, well, shepherds revolted and travelled to Egypt to rescue their king. I say they travelled to Egypt, but in fact they never made it there. The crusade dispersed rather quickly and soon they wreaked havoc on the French countryside.

So, now it gets a little complicated. There was the Sultan’s eldest son Turanshah, who was rightfully entitled to the throne and actually had been crowned before the Battle of Al Mansurah. But he made a couple of stupid mistakes. He drank in public (as a Muslim!) and rumours ensued that was mistreating his father’s household, specifically Shajar, who was beloved with her people. The biggest mistake of all however was replacing the Turkic military captains that had held command under his father and fought at Al Mansurah, with his own. Let’s say, they weren’t exactly happy to be demoted, so they stormed the palace while Turanshah was having a party. After receiving a sword blow to the hand, Turanshah fled but it was for nothing. They torched the tower he tried to hide in and finally shot him down (with arrows) in a riverbed. His reign was very short.

Instead the captains  installed Shajar, with whom they shared a heritage, as sultan. This marks the beginning of a dynasty lasting more than 300 years, one where the Muslim servant class, the Mamluks, held the throne of Egypt. Since she had been filling in for her husband when he was away in battle, the court was used to her orders and accepted their new sultan (gladly I expect, with the domestic violence rumours from before.)

The people were favorable too, especially when she ransomed King Louis IX back to his own country for 400 000 livres tournois. To set this into perspective, that was about 30% of the country’s annual revenue. That’s a lot of money. And to repeat this once more: she was Sultan in her own right, supported by the military in a Muslim country in the 1250s. She also had her own coins made (see picture!)

Well, that didn’t last for too long. Even though she had her own coins printed and was acknowledged as sultan in her people’s prayers, there were still naysayers. Powerful naysayers that is. Firstly, news of the female sultan reached Syria and its leaders were not amused and attacked Egypt. The invaders were defeated but her country worried – more specifically her opposition in the country worried and in turn made the population worry. So with all this pressure, she agreed to marry Aybek, who had been the taste-tester/accountant of her late husband and had done admirable deeds in the battle against Syria. This meant Shajar had to step down in favour of her husband, which she did. And so her reign was arguably short as well.

Ayak wasn’t a good sultan. He didn’t have much of a backbone and was easily manipulated by all parties. It’s rumoured Shajar continued to rule from the shadows, but there is no proof. Another rumor was that she would not allow the marriage to be consummated and I wouldn’t blame her. You see, Ayak had a first wife who had born him a son and whom he refused to divorce. And then he talked about taking a third one! In 1257 Shajar finally snapped. She and her servants strangled him in the bath (or she had her servants do it, historians disagree.) And again she told everyone her husband was ill – although this time she actually admitted he was dead, albeit from an illness and not from a sudden lack of oxygen.

At first everything seemed fine, no one liked Ayak anyhow, but neither his first wife not the soldiers loyal to him believed her. And after a good torture, they had the confessions of the slaves involved. A palace revolt ensued. It isn’t exactly sure what started this riot, but it is likely that Ayak’s first wife had something to do with it. Anyhow, the angry mob found Shajar and beat her to death. With wooden shoes. Ouch. Then her half-naked corpse was dumped over the city wall into the moat where the rest of her (valuable) clothes were stolen by peasants. It was only three days later, after wild animals had already taken the one or another bite, that she was finally buried. Her final resting place is the Darih Shajarat al-Durr, a mausoleum she had built in 1250, located near the shrines of female deities. And although time has left its marks on the structure, the elaborate craftsmanship is clearly visible. (see picture)

Aybak’s son Ali became the new sultan, albeit only four two years. But the Mamluk dynasty that Shajar had founded lived on, even if she was omitted from the official list of sultans and sweeped under the rug for a good while. It is often hard to tell fact from fiction and there are many different opinions on almost everything in her story but they all agree in one thing: Shajar al-Durr was a badass woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it.

image credits:

sketch: from صلاح الدين الايوبي قصة الصراع بين الشرق و الغرب خلال القرنين الثاني عشر و الثالث عشر للميلاد from 1966 – via Wikimedia Commons
coins: from “A History Of Eypt” by Stanley Lane Poole, 1901 – Link
mausoleum: John A. and Caroline Williams on Archnet