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

Dada Masiti – Expanding Her Traditional Duties

Thinking about Somalia, literature might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but unbeknownst to many, Somalia is a country of bards and poets. This is the story of one of them.

Mana Sitti Habib Jamaladdin was born around 1810 in the city of Brava on the southern coast of Somalia to a family that took pride in the fact that they were part of the Ashraf clan, direct descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. As the Somali people follow an oral tradition of storytelling, there are a lot of uncertainties regarding her life. Though it is confirmed that she was abducted as a child and taken to Zanzibar where she lived in slavery, opinions differ on how exactly this happened. 

One source says, she was kidnapped and sold, while another states that the kidnapping was voluntary so she could marry a suitor her family had turned down. They were said to have married on the Kenyan island of Pate, but soon sweet young love turned bitter and she ended up enclosed in her home, a mere maid. Mana herself seems to have hinted on the latter version to be true, writing in one of her poems that she was “led astray by worldly lures.” But however things went down, they ended the same way: in slavery. After ten years she was finally found: one of her cousins was in town, recognized her and brought her home.

Having grown into an intelligent young woman (albeit slightly remorseful regarding her “worldly adventure”), she immersed herself in religious studies, earning a reputation as a Muslim scholar. Contrary to other religious texts and the oral tradition of the Somali people, Mana began to write poems in her own language and dialect, Chimbalazi or Bravanese. And they were well-received. Showing eloquence and a deep understanding of religious scripture, they found their way into mosques and Quranic schools all over the region and eventually became a staple piece of literature in and around Brava. And not only that, her work helped to spread and revive the Sufi order of the Qadriyya in Somalia, finding a new purpose as prayers! Her poems were memorized and recited and even the Sheikh wanted his eulogy written by the famous poetess. Eventually she was even revered as a Muslim saint.

She went on to be more than one hundred years old in which she never stopped writing. As she grew older, she was regarded a treasure of the town and known by everyone as Dada Masiti (Grandmother Masiti). Until her death in the summer of 1919 she continued to live in her little house in her hometown and was buried there as well. After spending the earlier part of her life away from home, it seems she didn’t even want to leave it in death.

Still remembered fondly throughout Somalia, each year a pilgrimage to her house can be observed in the streets of Brava. It were (and still are) mainly the women who are keeping the poems of Dada Masiti memorized, looking up to her. You see, she never married and lived a self-determined life, all while still contributing to society and fulfilling her traditional duties. In Brava men and women are strictly separated and women are prohibited from attending and performing many functions. Nonetheless their role as teachers is essential to a functioning community, providing intellectual but also cultural knowledge.

Dada Masiti managed to carve out a place of her own in this society by following her traditional role and expanding it.

Finally here is an excerpt from her work. It’s the final part of her eulogy for the Sheikh: “After Life”
It is one of her most famous pieces and the most famous eulogy in all of Somalia.

Hu xuzuniko mpeengele
Kutta schinendhroowa
Hu xuzuniko ni darsa
Fadhi schitalicoowa

Miskiti huwa miinza
Ataa tarha ichashoowa
Tarha waarhiko niyeeye
Nuuru ya ku rhangaaloowa

Sawarataani turhaani
Sheekhi siwo wakhpatoowa
Sheekhi karheente Jannaani
Na kurhiindra kendreloowa


The pathways he walked daily
Will feel sad,
As will his daily circle of students
And the lessons he used to teach

The Mosque will be dark
Even when it is lit
For he was the light
A bright light we all watched

Calm down and be consoled
For the Sheikh is out of our reach
He is residing in Heaven
Waiting for us to join him

image credits:

Brava today: User Vascoscream in Wikimedia Commons – Link

As there were no images of this week’s heroine available, I reached out to the community that started this project and was lucky to have had three awesome artists interpret her in their very own styles. Check out their amazing work:

1st picture: Anna Latchman
2nd picture: Annassez – on facebook, patreon and etsy
3rd picture: Kateryna Kateryna – on instagram and patreon

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