Muslim Universities Are The Oldest In History

On the 2015 list of the top 200 universities, published by the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, only four universities were from Muslim countries. They all were Turkish universities, namely the Middle East Technical University, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul Technical University and Sabancı University. They were ranked at the 85th, 139th, 165th and 182nd positions respectively. The lists of the past few years were not different in the sense they lacked the presence of universities from the Muslim world. This news is unfortunate, especially when we know that the oldest three universities in history—the University of Al-Karaouine, Al-Azhar University and Nizamiyya— were founded by Muslims. The following highlights the foundation and main contribution of these great universities.



Located in Fes, Morocco, the University of Al-Karaouine (Also known as the University of Al-Qarawiyyin) was founded in 859 AD and is considered the oldest university in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records has recorded this as the oldest continuously-operating degree-granting university. The university was established by a woman called Fatima Al-Fihri who belonged to a wealthy family. She had decided to build the university attached to a mosque, which is called Masjid Al-Qarawiyyin, as she and her sister received a sizable inheritance after the death of her father, husband and brother. Fatima was very concerned about the construction process which was accomplished within two years. She has proven the significant role of women in Muslim history, which counters the current hearsay about Islam’s discrimination against women.

One of the remarkable and amazing traditions in the University of Al-Karaouine was the ‘caliph of one hour’. A special event would be organised on the eve of spring, where students chose among themselves a governor for a week, from Friday to Friday. The elected student had the privilege to meet with the real king for an hour and had the right to discuss political and religious affairs as well as communicate his own thoughts openly without fear of repercussion. The university, however, underwent different reformations based on the ruling power in the country, especially after the end of Muslims’ mandate in Al-Andalus. The university was credited with producing many distinguished Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers including: Abul-Abbas, the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi, the famous author and traveller Leo Africanus, the Maliki jurist Ibn al-Arabi, the historian Ibn Khaldun and the astronomer al-Bitruji (Alpetragius).



Founded in Cairo, Egypt, during the time of the Caliph Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah in 972 AD, Al-Azhar University is considered thesecond oldest university in the world. It was a natural expansion of the great mosque of Al-Azhar and is also considered as one of the premier educational institutions in the Islamic world. Al-Azhar University was nationalised and again underwent substantial reforms in the early 1960s. Since that time, faculties such as those of medicine and engineering have been established. The modern university offers regional facilities as well as a number of faculties; some of them are allocated only for women, who were first enrolled in 1962. A total number of 90,000 students are currently enrolled in the university to obtain degrees in various fields.

Along the history of the university, students have come from all over the Muslim world to gain knowledge by the prominent Muslim scholars and learn the Arabic language. Those scholars include Abu al-’Abbas al-Qalqashandi, Taqi al-Din Ahmad al-Maqrizi, Ibn Hajjar al-’Asqalani, Badr al-Din al-’Ayni, Siraj al-Din al-Balqini, Sharaf al-Din al-Munawi, Abu al-Mahasin Ibn-Taghribirdi, Shams al-Din al-Sakhawi, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Iyas, Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Fasi and Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun. Among the graduates of Al-Azhar University are some of the renowned and influential leaders such as Egyptian Islamic jurist Muhammad Abduh, Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, the great Egyptian Muslim jurist Muhammad Metwally El-Shaarawy, a Malaysian politician and Muslim cleric Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the former Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote and the American-Muslim imam Suhaib Webb.



The Nizamiyya was not one university, rather a series of universities started by Khwaja Nizam Al-Mulk, in Iran in the 11th century AD. These eclipsed all other educational centres. The notorious university in this series is the Al-Nizammiya of Baghdad, founded in 1065 AD. Others were in Amul, Mosul, Basra, Herat, Damascus and Nishapur. The education was offered to students free of charge in all Nizamiyya branches. The number of students kept increasing to reach 3,000 by the year 1096. The Nizamiyya universities served as a model for today’s universities. Al-Ghazali was one of the earliest scholars who contributed to the success of the university. Other lecturers were Muhammad al-Shahrastani and Beha Ud-Din. Among the famous graduates were Ibn Tumart, founder of the Berber Almohad dynasty and Persian poet Sa’di.

Apparently, the contribution of Muslims to education and modern civilisation is remarkable. Scientists from the Muslim world were the pioneers in different fields of knowledge including medicine, physics, mathematics, philosophy and psychology. Unfortunately, acknowledgment has not fairly been given to these efforts. For example, most contemporary sources and references highlight the University of Bologna as the oldest university in the world, even though it was founded in 1088 AD, over 200 years after Al-Karaouine University in Fes, which UNESCO considers to have been a university since its foundation. It is the responsibility of Muslims today to appreciate what their ancestors have grounded and work towards fulfilling the mission of serving humanity at large.