In recent years, Fatima al-Fihri, may Allah be pleased with her, has acquired a mythological, folklore-like status as the “founder of the world’s oldest university.”  The magazine Girlboss credits her with “establishing the university as we know it today.”  Oxford Reference and UNESCO recognize University of al-Qarawiyyin as “the oldest operating university in the world.”  Blog posts and news sources alike continue to embellish parts of her story, crediting her institution as the first to grant “academic degrees.” 
But what does all that actually mean? The lack of primary sources make it difficult to substantiate the above, but enough gaps in these narratives have been noted that, at the very least, it sheds doubt on embellishments such as “oldest university” and “degree-awarding.” An ijazah is different from a degree, and degree-awarding systems are a relatively modern phenomenon compared to the pedagogical system of madrasas. Many institutions in French-occupied countries like Morocco and Tunisia were not even given weight until modernization programs were introduced during colonization.  Al-Qarawiyyin was first a mosque, and like many mosques, may have housed a madrasa or served as a space for teachers to teach students.
So my question is, who’s doing the recognizing of our contributions, what purpose does it serve, and ultimately, how do we measure the progress and contributions of Muslims, especially Muslim women? To speak of Al-Fihri’s contributions in the manner cited above is convenient — not because Muslim women weren’t great — but because it is likely a symptom of an eagerness to signal a Muslim woman’s place in the world. Unfortunately, in a world that has a secular, material measure of contribution and success, we speak of Muslim women accordingly.
When fact and fiction become muddied, we not only undermine the living, breathing legacy of such women, may Allah be pleased with them all, but we also become complicit in a system that values contributions to society by a measure that is not ours. One may argue that critiquing the mythologizing of Al-Fihri has no benefit, since it only plays into the hands of Islamophobes. Or that there’s no harm in perpetuating an untruth, because the general idea — that Muslim women were vital to society’s growth and often go unacknowledged by both Muslims and non-Muslims — is true.
Yes, the itch to debunk, for some, arises from an impulse to further malign Muslim women, or Muslims as a whole. A link to an article critiquing the popular perception of Al-Fihri’s founding of a university even made its way to a Council of Ex-Muslims forum.  But my argument is this: clinging on to exaggerations of kernels of truth undermines the truth of our history. Not only do falsities cast skepticism on truth, but as Muslims our tongues should be far from lies.
Myths serve the collective consciousness in trying to actualize ideals. What one views as greatness or value is evidenced by one’s shaping of history. Audiences hearing these stories will likely leave with the same biases they arrived with. Even if convinced that Muslim women had a fundamental role to play in families, communities, societies, successes will be considered anomalies: arising from some extraneous factors or luck or the presence of ideas outside of Islam i.e. accomplishments despite Islamic doctrine, not because of it.
This as symptomatic of the “women and Islam” fervor that has characterized US imperialism and politics for at least the last two decades. Its opposing form, that of the maligned and subjugated Muslim woman in dire need, has similarly been used in India to justify its occupation of Kashmir, in Israel to continue its violence against Palestine, and in the backlash against the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is likely nothing new to the average critical reader, but its “positive” form, the continuous insistence on contributions of the modern variety, accompanies a similar pretext: measuring a Muslim woman against the powerhouse of a Western woman.
Founding a university is worthy of praise. But must it be a university? Does the building of a masjid not stand on its own? What is emphasized in our history and the basis for which we laud different figures shifts with time and motivations. For example, one group can highlight Khadeeja’s (RA) obedience as a wife and her domesticity for one end, and another can speak of her running a business and history as divorcee for another end. Both are attempts to make sense of a pre-modern pious woman in relation to our reality today as modern subjects. This is the fundamental problem with our approach to female figures in history — in trying to make sense of them using imperfect lens, we lose sight of who they actually were and the legacies they left for us.
Although in all honesty we may never know the truth of the matter, one historian notes, “…medieval Muslims’ intellectual achievements… are spectacular enough that they can stand to lose one untruth.”  This applies to the subsect of Muslim women, whose achievements are so vast, beyond what we could ever adequately acknowledge, that it can stand to lose some glamour. Ultimately, at the very least, Al-Fihri used her wealth to create a space of worship. There is absolutely nothing more noble than that.
Photo by Carlos Leret on Unsplash
About the Author: Farhana K. is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.
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2 thoughts on “In the Spirit of Fatima Al-Fihri”
Can I translate this into my native language, Malayalam and post it on my facebook wall by giving you credits? I believe there are a lot of people who needs to read this.
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Please link to the original article if you translate it. Also, if you send us the translation, we will be happy to publish the Malayalam translation on the site in the future as well and credit you inshaAllah. JazakAllahu khairan.