Fatima al-Fihri

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Fatima al-Fihri (Al-Fihriyya)
فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية
Fatima Fihria.jpg
Statue of Fatima al-Fihria at Jordan museum
Bornc. 800 AD
Diedc. 880 AD
Known forFinancing of the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque

Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihriyya (Arabic: فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية) was an Arab woman who is credited with founding the al-Qarawiyyin mosque in 857–859 AD in Fez, Morocco. She is also known as "Umm al-Banayn". Al-Fihri died around 880 AD.[1] The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque subsequently developed into a teaching institution, which became the University of al-Qarawiyyin in 1963.[2] Her story is told by Ibn Abi Zar' (d. between 1310 and 1320) in The Garden of Pages (Rawd al-Qirtas) as founding the Qarawiyyin Mosque.[3] Since she was first mentioned many centuries after her death, her story has been hard to substantiate and some modern historians doubt she ever existed.[4][5][6][7]


Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University

Story according to traditional accounts[edit]

Little is known about her personal life, except for what was recorded by 14th century historian Ibn Abi-Zar’.[5] Fatima was born around 800 AD in the town of Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia. She is of Arab Qurayshi descent, hence the nisba "al-Qurashiyya", 'the Qurayshi one'. Her family was part of a large migration to Fez from Kairouan. Although her family did not start out wealthy, her father, Mohammed al-Fihri, became a successful merchant.[1] When he died, this wealth was inherited by Fatima, and her sister Maryam. It is with this money that they went on to leave their legacy. Al-Fihri was married, but both her husband and father died shortly after the wedding.[citation needed] Her father left his wealth to both Fatima and her sister, his only children. She and her sister Maryam were well-educated and studied the Islamic jurisprudence Fiqh and the Hadith, or the records of Prophet Muhammed.[2] Both went on to found mosques in Fes: Fatima founded Al-Qarawiyyin and Maryam founded the Al-Andalusiyyin Mosque.[8] This idea was spurred on by the fact that due to all the Muslims fleeing like Fatima and her family, they were all gathering immigrants that were devout worshippers keen on learning and studying their faith. With as many immigrants as there were, there was overcrowding and not enough space, resources, or teachers to accommodate them.[citation needed]


The historicity of this story has been questioned by some modern historians who see the symmetry of two sisters founding the two most famous mosques of Fes as too convenient and likely originating from legend.[6][5][7]: 42  Ibn Abi Zar is also judged by contemporary historians to be a relatively unreliable source.[5] Moreover, one of the biggest challenges to this story is a foundation inscription that was rediscovered during renovations to the mosque in the 20th century, previously hidden under layers of plaster for centuries. This inscription, carved onto cedar wood panels and written in a Kufic script very similar to foundation inscriptions in 9th-century Tunisia, was found on a wall above the probable site of the mosque's original mihrab (prior to the building's later expansions). The inscription, recorded and deciphered by Gaston Deverdun, proclaims the foundation of "this mosque" (Arabic: "هذا المسجد") by Dawud ibn Idris (a son of Idris II who governed this region of Morocco at the time) in Dhu al-Qadah 263 AH (July–August of 877 CE).[9] Deverdun suggested the inscription may have come from another unidentified mosque and was moved here at a later period (probably 15th or 16th century) when the veneration of the Idrisids was resurgent in Fes and such relics would have held enough religious significance to be reused in this way.[9] However, scholar Chafik Benchekroun argued more recently that a more likely explanation is that this inscription is the original foundation inscription of the Qarawiyyin Mosque itself and that it might have been covered up in the 12th century just before the arrival of the Almohads in the city.[5] Based on this evidence and on the many doubts about Ibn Abi Zar's narrative, he argues that Fatima al-Fihri is quite possibly a legendary figure rather than a historical one.[5]

Similarly, historian Roger Le Tourneau doubts the truth of the traditional account of Fatima building the Qarawiyyin mosque and her sister Maryam building the Andalusiyyin Mosque. He notes that the perfect parallelism of two sisters and two mosques is too good to be true, and likely a pious legend.[6] Jonathan Bloom writes also about the unlikelihood of the parallelisms, and states that the traditional story of the founding of the mosque belongs more "to the realm of traditional collective imagination that the discipline of history" and points out that no part of the mosque is older than the tenth century.[10]

Founding of Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque[edit]

According to Ibn Abi Zar', Fatima used the money inherited from her father to build the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, named for the immigrants from her city. When Fatima's community outgrew the mosque, she purchased a mosque built around 845 AD under the supervision of King Yahya ibn Muhammad and rebuilt it, doubling its size.

The construction project was supervised by Fatima herself. As Tunisian historian Hassan Hosni Abdelwahab noted in his book Famous Tunisian Women: "She committed to only using the land she had purchased. She dug deep into the land, unearthing yellow sand, plaster, and stone to use, so as not to draw suspicion from others [for using too many resources]".[11]

The mosque took 18 years to construct.[8] According to Moroccan historian Abdelhadi Tazi, Al-Fihri fasted until the project's completion. When it was finished, she went inside and prayed to God, thanking him for his blessings.[12] She named it after the immigrants from her hometown of Kairouan.

According to tradition, Fatima's sister, Mariam, also founded a similar mosque in the district across the river around the same time (859–60), with help from local Andalusian families, which became known as the Al-Andalusiyyin Mosque (Mosque of the Andalusians).[13][6]


  1. ^ a b "Meet Fatima al-Fihri: The founder of the world's first Library". January 26, 2017.
  2. ^ a b Kenney, Jeffrey T.; Moosa, Ebrahim (August 15, 2013). Islam in the Modern World. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 9781135007959.
  3. ^ ʻAlī ibn ʻAbd Allāh Ibn Abī Zarʻ al-Fāsī (1964). Rawd Al-Qirtas (in Spanish). Valencia: J. Nácher.
  4. ^ "Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fes: Brainchild of a Muslim Woman". Inside Arabia. September 15, 2019. Retrieved August 11, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Benchekroun, Chafik T. (2011). "Les Idrissides: L'histoire contre son histoire". Al-Masaq (in French). 23 (3): 171–188. doi:10.1080/09503110.2011.617063. S2CID 161308864.
  6. ^ a b c d Le Tourneau, Roger (1949). Fès avant le protectorat: étude économique et sociale d'une ville de l'occident musulman (in French). Casablanca: Société Marocaine de Librairie et d'Édition. pp. 48–49. La tradition, à ce sujet, est édifiante mais un peu incertaine. Les uns rapportent qu'une femme originaire de Kairouan, Fatima, fille de Mohammed el-Fihri, vint s'installer à Fès. Coup sur coup, son mari et sa sœur moururent, lui laissant une fortune considérable. Fatima ne chercha pas à la faire fructifier, mais à la dépenser en des œuvres pies; c'est pourquoi elle décida d'acheter un terrain boisé qui se trouvait encore libre de constructions et d'y faire élever la mosquée qui reçut par la suite le nom de Mosquée des Kairouanais (Jama' el-Karawiyin). Selon d'autres auteurs, Mohammed el-Fihri avait deux filles, Fatima et Mariam, auxquelles il laissa en mourant une grande fortune. Prises d'une sainte émulation, les deux sœurs firent bâtir chacune une mosquée, Fatima la Mosquée des Kairouanais, Mariam la Mosquée des Andalous; cette dernière fut d'ailleurs aidée dans son entreprise par les Andalous établis dans ce quartier. Nous n'avons aucune raison valable de nous prononcer en faveur de l'un de ces récits plutôt que de l'autre. Tout au plus pourrait-on dire que le second, avec son parallélisme si parfait entre les deux sœurs et les deux mosquées, paraît trop beau pour être vrai.
  7. ^ a b Bloom, Jonathan M. (2020). Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 700-1800. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300218701.
  8. ^ a b Kahera, Akel; Abdulmalik, Latif; Anz, Craig (October 26, 2009). Design Criteria for Mosques and Islamic Centres. Routledge. p. 81. ISBN 9781136441271.
  9. ^ a b Deverdun, Gaston (1957). "Une nouvelle inscription idrisite (265 H = 877 J.C.)". Mélanges d'histoire et d'archéologie de l'occident musulman - Tome II - Hommage à Georges Marçais (in French). Imprimerie officielle du Gouvernement Général de l'Algérie. pp. 129–146.
  10. ^ Bloom, Jonathan (2020). Architecture of the Islamic west : North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 700-1800. Nicholas Warner. New Haven. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-300-21870-1. OCLC 1121602964.
  11. ^ "كتاب - شهيرات التونسيات" [Famous-Tunisian]. k-tb.com (in Arabic). Archived from the original on January 1, 2020. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  12. ^ التحرير, هيئة (April 9, 2019). "فاطمة الفهرية أم البنين مؤسسة أول جامعة في العالم". Ejadidanews.com - الجديدة نيوز (in Arabic). Archived from the original on November 1, 2020. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  13. ^ Terrasse, Henri; Colin, Georges Séraphin (1942). La mosquée des Andalous à Fès (in French). Paris: Les Éditions d'art et d'histoire. pp. 7–8.

Further reading[edit]