The Madrassa Al-Karouian is not only one of the oldest Islamic sites in North Africa, it is culturally one of the most important institutions in the world. Founded in the mid-9th century, Al-Karouian is generally recognized as the oldest continually operational university of higher education on Earth. This is not merely an Islamic tradition; this recognition comes from Christians and Jews as well, and some scholars trace the roots of the European and American university systems back to Fes. Although primarily a religious institution, Al-Kairouian has also been a long contributor to the formalized study of law, mathematics and other disciplines. It is still active today as one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the Islamic world. The Madrassa Al-Kairouian is part of the Medina of Fes UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The mosque that would later become Al-Kairouian University was founded in 859 AD by the prominent Al-Fihri family from Tunisia. The Al-Fihris, a wealthy and educated merchant clan, had migrated from the pilgrimage city of Kairouan in the mid 9th century. When the head of the family passed away, he left considerable sums of money to his two daughters, Fatima and Mariam. These sisters magnanimously pledged virtually their entire inheritance to the construction of a magnificent mosque in honor of the Masjid Uqba which they had left behind in Kairouan, for which the new mosque was named.
When the mosque was completed, there was some money left over; so additional facilites were added for use by local scholars and instructors. This marked the beginning of Al-Kairouian’s long history as an educational institution. Within a few years it was the most important school in Fes, and by the late Middle Ages it was the most renowned university in North Africa. Al Kairouian’s instructors and theologians became the most important adjudicators of Islamic law west of Cairo, and their dictates were sought out and respected from Spain to Mauritania.
The 11th and 12th centuries were a golden age for the Islamic kingdoms in the west and for Al-Kairouian University in particular. Some of the greatest academics of the Middle Ages taught and studied here, including the Sufi mystic Abu Imran Al-Fasi; cartographer Muhammad Al-Idrissi; and theological lawyer Ibn Al-Arabi. Even the famed Jewish scholar Ibn Maimun spent time here before becoming the personal physician to Saladin. Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest historians in Muslim history, studied and taught at Al-Karouian in the 14th century.
Al-Kairuoian University enjoyed many long years of uninterrupted academic prosperity and growth, especially in the late 15th and early 16th century, when many highly educated scholars from Spain took refuge in Fes after fleeing the Inquisition. In the years following World War II, Al-Kairouian took a great academic leap forward. Modern scientific coursework such as advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry was added to the ancient curriculum of theology, law and such. Today Al-Kairouian enjoys one of the finest reputations of any academic institution in Africa and in the Islamic world.
The main mosque of Al-Kairouian, originally constructed in the 9th century, has been rebuilt and expanded on a number of occasions. It is now the second largest mosque in Morocco and one of the largest in Africa. Most of the current structure dates from an expansion completed in 1136 AD and renovations in the 16th century. The architectural style borrows significantly from Andalusian Spain, and has drawn comparisons with the Mezquita of Cordoba for its many columns and arches.
The most famous part of the mosque is its minaret, which houses the room known as the Dar Al-Muwaqqit. For many centuries this was one of the most important places in Fes. An ancient water clock, which once kept the official time for the city and determined the times of prayer for the muezzins, is still here. Beyond the main mosque are additional buildings for the university, including more modern facilities added in the 20th century to accommodate new subjects. Other treasures of Al-Kairouian include an extremely old copy of the Qur’an and an original writing of Ibn Khaldun.
The Madrassa Al-Kairouian is located close to the heart of the old medina on the eastern end of Fes, approximately 110 miles west of Fes. It is open to Muslims only, though there may also be restrictions to some areas on the premises to non-scholars. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.visitmorocco.com (official tourism website of Morocco)
Fes is home to some of Morocco’s oldest Islamic sites, most notably the Tomb of Moulay Idris II, one of the earliest Muslim kings of North Africa. Also in Fes is the 14th century Dar Al-Magana Palace, the oldest palace in North Africa.