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#01 Fatima Al Fihri's Life

The stereotype Muslim woman is an oppressed uneducated woman on the western media. I got asked so many times if I’m being oppressed or they feel bad for me for wearing my hijab or when I fast in the month of Ramadan. Also, our savior, who believes they are democratic and try to save us by banning the hijab in education. We as Muslims must continually explain ourselves and convince them that we are not oppressed. Or at least a big portion is not. This is so tragicomic because their sincerity lies somewhere else. And we are here trying to like the cat and the crying woman meme 😊 At the university and in my team at the office I was always in the minority because women are not IT and especially Muslim women. At an iftar event for a women tech community I had the chance to give a speech to the attendees. I said Being a Muslim woman in tech makes me feel like a unicorn in the industry. I feel like a push myself to be the spokesperson/ representative of all Muslim women…

It is true that in history there were misogynistic practices and I know that is today still the case. but people love to attribute it to Islam. But the reality is there were so many other Muslim women like Fatima al fihri. Warrior women like Nassiba binti Ka ab, the first martyr of Islam Somaya Bint Khayyat teachers, physician Rofayda Al Aslamiya and scientist, rulers Like Altuncan Hatun…  Maybe I should dedicate a whole episode for these women what do you think? Also, I’m working on inviting inspiring women in the industry as well to this podcast. Can’t wait.

I couldn’t think about a better topic as the first episode of The Thinkwork Podcast.  first university in the History - Qarawiyyin university in Morocco which is now under protection of UNESCO and hast the Guinness World record of the oldest degree granting university, preceding Europe’s oldest universities.  But what’s interesting is the founder was a Muslim women called Fatima Al-Fihri. Let’s Talk about her and try to understand this inspiring woman who was an illumination for the Dark Middle Ages.

Her family and Qaiorwan

Much of the information of her early life of Fatima is lost to time duet o a fire in the library of the Qaraouine university. Hundreds of manuscripts are destroyed after the fire in 1323. What we do know is that she was born in Tunisia during the Umayyad Dynasty around  800 AD in the city called Kaioran. It was first a military base where the name Qayrawan is coming from.  The It means military column in Arabic.  The city quickly became hotspot for Islamic Scholarship in North Africa. It was host of many dynasties throughout the history and is now under protection of UNESCO. After doing some research about this city I immediately added it to my bucket list. There are so many well-preserved buildings ush as the great Qayrawan mosque, the Ribat of Sousse. So good preserved!

So, Fatima was born in this amazing city surrounded by knowledge. Can you imagine the intellectual conversations in the marketplace, mosques… Although they were not rich in the beginning her father became a successful merchant, so this wealth of her father gave her the opportunity to e highly educated with. She also had a sister Mariam and in some sources a brother.  Later family Al fihri together with the community Qarawiyyin they had to migrate to Fez City in Morocco due to a rebellion in the city. It was like leaving a paradise of knowledge to build another paradise of knowledge.

Fez City

The city was the Capital city of another dynasty, the Idrisids. Fez became this powerful city and the apple of the Islamic worlds eye 😊 well I don’t think I should mention the beauty in detail of Morocco, right. This is not a travel destinations podcast. But ehm, it is also on my bucket list. I know I live not that far from it, but I would love to go there.

Fatima married in also Fez but a short time after the wedding, her father husband and brother died. She and her sister Mariam inherited this huge fortune their dad- all for themselves. They were financially independent.

Meeting the needs of the city

The city was a melting pot of cultures, Religion, and trades… it was a city that didn’t sleep. But something was missing in this huge city… Fatima and her sister saw that the mosques in Fez were not enough to accommodate the growing population of Muslims. The Muslim Spain was also going through a rough and turbulent time, so there were al lot refugees in the city. Mariam saw this and took action to build the Andalusian Mosque. The name choice is also very interesting, looking from the refugees that were exactly coming from Andalusia. It’s like a consolation for the Muslims.

But the Fihris were not done here. Instead of using the fortune for their future and security as women.  Fatima took the generosity to another level. She bought land from Hwarra tribe. That will be the foundation of the University. First, she built a mosque. The qarawiyyin Mosque. Referring to their homeland. But the mosque was also not enough to accommodate all Muslims, so she builds a complex around it which became the first university in history. Historical references note that she directly guided the construction process in detail although she had no expertise in the field. She made sure everything was according to plan.


The Qarawiyyin university

The Qarawiyyin university became quick the hub for all scholars from around the world. Fiqh, Math, Medicine, astronomy, poetry even music. It provided education for many philosophers and scholars who went on to significantly contribute to the cumulative knowledge of humanity.

  • The great Sufi Islamic Jurist Ibn Al Arabi,

  • the father of sociology Ibn Haldun,

  •  the geographer Muhammed Al Idrisithe

  • famous astronomer Nuraddin Al Bitruji aka Alpetragius.

  • Western scholars graduated from Al-Qarawiyyin such as

  • Pope Silvester II[1]( 946 - 1003),

  • Nicolas Cleynaerts[2] (1495 – 1542)  Flemish grammarian and traveler

  • Jacobus Golius[3](1596 - 1667). The Dutch orientalist mathematician AND SO MANY MORE

 The university was the of many education concepts.

  1. teaching chairs

  2. obtaining degrees

  3. wearing tassels and academic robes

  4. to presenting an oral defense.  

While I’m speaking about these topics, I fade away and go back in time. To the heated debates in the classrooms. Can you imagine attending lectures of Ibn Khaldun? Ibn-ul Arabi just in front of you? The halls where students are comparing their notes. The ateliers for art creation, the astronomy practice lab… Being able to students studying in the library. Well with the last one I can’t really relate because I studied 15 minutes to take a 2h break at the university. 😊

A look on her in 21st century

Looking to Fatima’s Life and achievements in her life I can’t stop admiring her. Fatima and Mariam could easily use the fortune they inherited to secure their future. But they give back to the community. They were educated and realized it is now to give back the community. But the is it is not a community that was affected. She enlightened the so many scholars and philosophers. Fatima inspired founding Europe’s oldest universities; She is the great example of dedication. She fasted until the end of construction of the university complex. That’s 18 years. The university is still in operation, it is a sadaqa jarahiya which means continuous charity because for centuries there is this production of knowledge that is beneficial to the humanity.

Yes, she had money, but she made a choice, she lived in an age where women were literally hunted for being witches.  She is a brilliant role model for everyone, empowering others, dedication, self-discipline, generosity.


I hope this episode inspired take the right intentions and shoot in action to take initiatives. Whether it is the new project in your head, the job, your start-up. Because Fatima did it and we are here still talking about her after 1200 years here in 2023.

May Allah grant her and her family Jannah and make us step in her footsteps. Thank you for tuning in to this episode message me via the Think work podcast Instagram. I would love to hear from you. Next week I’ll be here again with some thinking work to do.

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