Powerful Women and Higher Education of Ancient Islam

The evolution of ‘higher education’ in the ancient world led to variations of standards in different cultures. In ancient Egypt, higher education originated from copying religious texts for use in temples which led to the development of theology and medical practices, as medicine was closely associated with religion at the time. Later, the ancient Greeks developed a somewhat more inclusive system of education aimed mostly at freemen for the sake of knowledge itself in the areas of mathematics, music and astronomy. In the fourth century BC, the philosopher Plato put forth the idea that education should not only be public and obligatory, but also that women should be allowed full access to it.

Smiling black student waving hand at laptop during lesson

In the early history of Islam, from the Prophet Muhammad’s first revelations in 610 CE until the disintegration of the Rashidun Caliphate in 661 CE, women were allowed full access to higher education in which they were very active. For example, Aisha bint Abi Bakr (613 – 678 CE), one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, was among the prominent Islamic jurists of her time. She was involved in a number of political events after the death of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (579 – 656 CE), and was also the initial source of many hadiths (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, revered and received as a major source of religious law and moral guidance). Although certain restrictions were later applied to them by the feudal dynasties succeeding the Great Caliphs, many daughters and wives of rich men were still allowed to receive educations, teach others and sponsor educational institutions. One such woman was Fatima Al-Fihri, the founder of the University of Al-Qarawiyyin (in modern Fes, Morocco) – a university founded in 859 CE and recognized today by UNESCO as the oldest existing and continuously operating university, as well as the first institution to issue educational degrees.

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The oldest university of the world, Al Qarawiyine university in Fès.

The University of Al-Qarawiyyin, first founded as an extension of a mosque, was an important center of education and one of the most respected universities in the world. It is also host to the oldest library in the world where, on an old slate, the name Fatima Al-Fihri is inscribed in fine but jaded Arabic prints. The courses offered by the university were free and wide ranging – they included music, geology, astrology, grammar, chemistry, medicine and mathematics – directed for Muslim, Christian and Jewish students. 

The university attracted a number of sultans and wealthy merchants who wished to grant their children first-class educations. These sultans and merchants became patrons of the university and lavished subsidies, gifts and treasures on the institution – particularly books and manuscripts which were in short supply in the 9th century.

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University of Qarawiyyin fountain

The collection in the library includes a treatise on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence written by the grandfather of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rochd and a ninth century version of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic (the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy) on camel skin. The library also has an original copy of Muqaddimah, the most important Islamic history of the pre-modern world written by the 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun and a 12th century treatise in astronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi, which shows the course of the planet Jupiter. Not confining their collection to Islamic writings, the library also hosts a rare 12th century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.

The University of al-Qarawiyyin is also known for its famous graduates from a wide range of faiths and backgrounds, which include the jurist Ahmad Ibn Idris Al-Fasi (1760 – 1837), a distinguished Muslim thinker of his time; the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406); geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099 – 1165); famous author and traveler Leo Africanus (1494 – 1554); Maimonides (1138-1204) the Jewish rabbi and philosopher, and Gerbert of Aurillac (circa  946 – 1003) who later became Pope Sylvester II.

The Great Mosque of Kairouan also known as the Mosque of Uqba (Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba)

Fatima Al-Fihri was born in Qayrawan, in present day Tunisia, which was ruled by the Aghlabid dynasty under the Abbasid Caliphate during the eighth and ninth centuries, who brought peace to the region Ifriqiyya and conquered Sicily. She was one of two daughters of a merchant named Muhammad Al-Fihri. Although retellings of Fatima’s life often say that she came from humble beginnings, Muhammad Al-Fihri was already wealthy merchant even in Qayrawan. In the early ninth century CE, when he took Fatima and her sister Mariam from Qayrawan to the city of Fes in Morocco, they were essentially leaving one paradise in order to create another as, during the rule of Idrees II (802 – 828), Fes was already a bustling metropolis. Therefore, the family traded a good life for an even better one.

Fatima was well versed in classical Islamic learning such as fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith which indicates her father’s affluence. After the deaths of their husbands and father in short succession, Fatima and Mariam received sizable inheritances which assured their financial independence.

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City of Fes, Morocco

Observing that the local mosques in Fes could not accommodate the growing population of worshipers, many of whom were refugees from Spain, Mariam sponsored the Andalusian Mosque in 859 AD which still stands today. For her part, Fatima began buying properties adjacent to the mosque, thereby significantly increasing the size of the mosque to found the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University.

Fatima and Mariam were not the only women who used their resources and influences to sponsor buildings for their communities. Before their endeavor, Zubayda bint Abu Ja’far, the wife of Harun ar-Rashid (766 — 809 CE), the fifth Abbasid Caliph, embarked on a massive project to build service stations with water wells all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca. The Zubayda water spring (Ayn Zubayda) in the outskirts of Mecca was named after them.

Dhayfa Khatun (1186 – 1242) was the Queen of Aleppo (Syria) for six years during which she faced threats from Mongols, Seljuks and Khuarzmein. Despite these threats, Dhayfa was a prominent architectural patron and founded two schools: the Al-Firdaous School which specialized in Islamic studies and law, boasting several buildings which included the school, a residential hall for students and a mosque; and the Khankah School, which was located in Mahalat al-Frafera.

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The courtyard of the Madrasa Firdows or School of Paradise. It was built by Daifa Khatun, widow of Sultan al-Zaher Ghazi in 1234-7. She was regent at the time for her grandson, al-Nasr Yusuf II (r 1242-60) and had taken a particular interest in encouraging Sufi mysticism.

Hurrem Sultana, also called Roxelana, was captured during the Crimean Turks raids on Ukraine during the reign of Yavuz Sultan Selim and presented to the Ottoman palace as a slave. She became the most beloved concubine of Sulaiman the Magnificent and later became his chief consort. Her royal position enabled her to found a number of institutions, including a mosque complex in Istanbul and the Haseki Kulliye complex, which consists of a mosque, a school and an imaret (public kitchen). She also built a çifte hamam (double bathhouse with separate sections for men and women), two schools and a women’s hospital. She also commissioned the building of four schools in Mecca and a mosque in Jerusalem.

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The prayer hall of the Madrasa Firdows or School of Paradise. It was built by Daifa Khatun

The first known reference to Cleopatra of Egypt by an Arab historian is found in Ibn ‘Abd Al-Hakam (Futuh: 40-41), who wrote his history of the Muslim annexation of Egypt in the early ninth century CE. This reference provides one with a different depiction of a powerful woman to the more familiar Greco-Roman sources, which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman. The Arabic image of Cleopatra referred to her as a strong and able monarch, making no reference to her morals or seductive powers.

A possible reason for this is that, from the early years of Islam, women’s contributions in their society were freely acknowledged even by men. In his book AI-Fihrist, scholar Ibn al-Nadim names women with a varied range of skills. Two of these women were grammarians related to the use of the full range of excellence of the Arabic language. There was a woman scholar of Arab dialects: “whose origin was among the tribes”, and another: “acquainted with tribal legends and colloquialisms”. He also mentions a third woman who wrote a book about rare forms and sources of verbal nouns.

One of the many contributions in literature by women came from an 11th century professor Mariam bint Abu Ya’qub, who wrote satiric epigrams and was known for her biting wit. She made her home in Seville, one of the cultural centers of Islamic Spain.

Umm al-Sa’d Al-Askandariyyah was born into a poor family in a town called Bandaariya, one of the towns of the larger city Munofiya in the north of Cairo. She was afflicted by blindness shortly after her first birthday and, as was the practice of many in rural areas in dealing with blindness, her family sent her to learn the Qur’an. She became famous for her familiarity with Muslim tradition. Labana of Cordoba was an Andalusian intellectual and mathematician of the second half of the 10th century famous for her knowledge of grammar and the quality of her poetry. Originally a slave girl of Spanish origin, her vast acquaintance with general literature obtained her employment as the private secretary to the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

Although the first nurse of Islam is officially recorded as Rufayda Bint Saad Al Aslamiyya, names of other women were also recorded as nurses and practitioners of medicine in early Islam. Nusayba Bint Kaab Al-Mazeneya was only one of the Muslim women who provided nursing services to warriors at the battle of Uhud. Umm Sinan Al-Islami asked and received permission from the Prophet Muhammad to go out with the warriors to nurse the injured and provide water to the thirsty. Umm Waraqa Bint Hareth participated in gathering the Qur’an and providing her nursing services to the warriors at the battle of Badr in 624 CE.

Concentrated young African American female employee in elegant suit and traditional hijab working on tablet and looking away on street

The production of astrolabes, historically used by astronomers and navigators to measure the inclined position in the sky of a celestial body, day or night, was practiced by Al-‘Ijliyah bint al-‘Ijli al-Asturlabi, who was employed at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah, one of the Hamdanid rulers in northern Syria, who guarded the frontier with the Byzantine empire in the tenth century CE.

In Muslim civilization, no woman who had held power had borne the title of caliph or imam as caliph had been a title exclusively reserved to a minority of men. However, this did not stop the women to rule through titles such as Sultanas and Malikas (Queens). Sitt al-Mulk (970 – 1023), the Fatimid Princess in Egypt, carried out virtually all the functions of caliph and directed the affairs of the empire effectively as regent for her nephew, who was too young to rule. Shajarat al-Durr was the widow of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub who played a crucial role after his death during the Seventh Crusade against Egypt (1249 – 1250). She was a military leader and a sultana during the period in which she reigned, which included the shift of the Egyptian sultanate from the Ayyubids to the Mamluks in the 1250s. In the midst of this hectic environment, Shajarat al-Durr rose to pre-eminence, reestablished political stability and held on to political power for seven years.

Busy Muslim lady working on laptop in light room

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