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Fatima Al-Fihri – How Her Empowered Belief Led Her to Become a Trailblazer

by in Culture on 1st February, 2024

The 7th until the 16th century was an era of significant scientific, religious, philosophical and cultural development for Muslims around the globe. The Islamic Civilisation stretched from Southern Spain to as far as China. It thrived, pushing boundaries like no other nation encompassing many diverse cultures, religions and traditions from various countries around the world which enriched the golden age of scientific discoveries.

Whilst the topic of the legacy of the Muslim Civilisation is vast and it is highly recommended to learn about this era, one figure that stood out to me was Fatima al-Fihri.  Hers is not a name I was familiar with during my early years of education. Even though she was a female pioneer from the Intellectual Golden Ages of Islam, due to the lack of exposure in both mainstream and Islamic Sunday schools, my knowledge of her and this period of Muslim Civilisation had been non-existent. 

Fatima al-Fihri was born in Tunisia in 800 A.D and came from a wealthy family. She migrated with her father and sister Maryam al-Fihri to Fez, Morocco. After the death of her father she inherited a large fortune which she used to establish the world’s oldest university, the University of Al-Qarawiyin. Formed in the year 859 the University was named after her birthplace in Tunisia and taught many subjects including astronomy, Quran sciences, theology, law, arithmetic, geography and medicine, bringing about a wealth of knowledge to educate others. To fulfil the needs of her Muslim community the institution started as a madrassa and a mosque, growing into the university which still functions today. Scholars and students around the Muslim world visited and enrolled in this institution. There are famous works by the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun and texts such as the Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik (a collection of hadith texts) currently held there. It attracted Muslim scholars like Ibn Rushd and Mohammed al-Idrisi, and Christian scholars such as Pope Sylvester 11 (946-1003). After seeing this way of educating and learning, European countries were inspired to establish their own universities.

Thus, Fatima al-Fihri’s influence reached all corners of the globe. She was the first person to do something so unprecedented and laid the foundation for others to follow. While some information about her life has been preserved, details about her journey and the remarkable  accomplishment of establishing Al-Qarawiyin University are limited. Building such an educational establishment was undoubtedly a challenging task, and I can only imagine the long days, the endless meetings, constant coordination  with others and tireless work required to accomplish the mammoth task she had set over two years.   

Fatima al-Fihri had firm belief in her abilities and judgement which propelled her forward in her pursuits. She chose an unfamiliar path and would have come across many challenges and setbacks, however, her self-confidence and trust in Allah were strong enough to get her through whatever she was facing. So how exactly did she cultivate her self-belief and self-esteem to become a trailblazer? Is it something we are born with, or can it be learned over time?

Social Modelling

There is no way to reach the end without mastering the beginning.

Al-Ghazali

From an early age, Fatima al-Fihri and her sister Maryam al-Fihri were taught and encouraged to learn and educate themselves. Born into a family of merchants who valued women’s education, both sisters were inspired by their father, a successful merchant, who played a pertinent role in their nurturing; his influence was a precursor to the self-belief Fatima al-Fihri would  cultivate.  The more she learned, the more confident she grew in her abilities to progress and evolve. Consequently, her environment influenced her thinking and decision-making.  

The social cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura developed the Social Learning Theory, which states that people learn behaviour through observing and imitating others, subsequently influencing their self-efficacy. Our parents, relatives, friends, colleagues and others, can impact our beliefs about the goals we pursue, how we accomplish them and whether we can believe in our ability to achieve them. Observing people who succeed or fail can affect our belief in our talents. According to Bandura and other researchers, this  impact can extend from mental and emotional states to behaviour and motivation. Having inspiring role models, especially those with healthy levels of self-belief, can instil positive beliefs about yourself. Fatima al-Fihri, for instance, observed her father who was a thriving businessman and her sister Maryam al-Fihri who constructed the Andalusian mosque in Fez, and this inspired a ‘can-do’ attitude.

Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet said, “A man is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī

While the Prophet’s ﷺ wise words referred to a religious context, this hadith can also be an analogy for how others can affect you in various aspects of life.   

Asma Elbadawi is a basketball player and poet, who was part of a collective that campaigned for change by lobbying the International Basketball Federation to overturn the ruling to ban religious headgear in professional basketball. One of the ways she achieved this was by observing others doing something similar.  She says:

“In my university basketball team, I saw people come and play against us and they were wearing the hijab. I remember there was a specific team we played, who were actually from my hometown, and one girl was wearing a hijab. It made me feel like I could play in that team when I moved home.” 

This encounter changed her self-belief.  

“It can change your whole perspective of yourself. Your whole dreams can alter the moment you see someone who looks like you. You think ‘I can do that, I’m going to do it really well, and I’m going to win’.”   

Witness other people’s endeavours, work ethic, and beliefs. Consume knowledge and content that is beneficial for you. Then observe how your self-belief and capabilities  develop.    

Moving out of Your Comfort Zone

No matter what you learn, it will never be enough because there is always something more to learn.

Ibn Rushd

Leading a project like building a mosque and university was not an easy task for Fatima al-Fihri in many ways than one. The cultural expectations of that era meant it was unusual for women to pursue such a path. Yet, she did not allow cultural norms to deter her; rather she stepped into the unfamiliar. She expanded her skillset, learned new concepts and ideas, and interacted with people she would not normally communicate with. No doubt, it would have felt uncomfortable as stepping out of your comfort zone often does. However, moving through something unknown increased her confidence and, in turn, her belief in herself to keep moving forward one step at a time.

When we stay in our comfort zone and only pursue routine and easy tasks, we limit our human capacity to grow. We hold onto beliefs and perceptions that no longer serve us when there is a vast world to benefit from. Confining yourself to what is easy and known also weakens self-esteem.  Stepping out of your comfort zone does not necessarily mean doing something extraordinary like building an educational establishment; it can be the small things within your reach and capabilities. This may be learning new ways to approach things, engaging in new ideas, meeting new people, seeing new places and expanding your mind. I have always found that I learn so much more about myself and what I am capable of when I step out of my self-imposed boundaries.   

Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi British architect, became one of the world’s most famous female architects in the 21st century. She is another example of someone who decided to expand her mind to achieve her potential. In an industry predominantly occupied by white males, she stood out as a female, a foreigner and a designer of expensive and unusual-looking buildings. Despite facing various challenges due to her gender and identity, which she described as a ‘continuous beating’, she persevered in pursuing her goals and did not let these biases deter her from succeeding. Her belief in her work and talents helped her in achieving success, making her a role model, and paving the way for others in the industry. .  She said:

“This is a very tough profession. But hopefully, it makes it easier for other people in the future. That has also changed a lot in the last 10 years – that young people are getting large projects. I am maybe the figurehead.”

It is never easy to step into the unknown. Setting new goals and acquiring new skills can be nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time. But the confidence you gain and the self-worth you build is priceless.

Developing Strength through Struggles

Whatever you are looking for can only be found inside of you.

Rumi

Prior to the inception of the university, Fatima al-Fihri lost both her father and husband in a short succession. This would have undoubtedly caused her tremendous grief,  necessitating a period of acceptance and adjustment to her circumstances. Instead of dwelling on her sorrow, she acknowledged her pain and found ways to cope with it.  She found meaning in her loss and the difficulties she experienced by reframing her present circumstances. Utilising the wealth her father had left behind, she created  a facility that would benefit her local community. Additionally, she  directed her energy towards helping  refugees who had migrated from Andalusian Spain.  

Sometimes constant setbacks can be seen as signs to give up because the journey is long and arduous. You may even begin to think life is working ‘against’ you. However, when you reframe your thoughts about the obstacles, they can help you evolve rather than deter you from your objective.  

While many of us would prefer not to go through difficulties and uncomfortable emotions, it is ironically this gift that allows us to become more resilient. Our struggles develop our inner strength and, in turn, our self-belief is strengthened. If we persist through our struggles, there is a belief within us that sustains our drive and optimism and above all our hope. Therefore, to be better at navigating challenges is to accept them and remind yourself of the active role they play in transforming you.  

British Journalist and newsreader Mishal Hussain shares some gems about facing obstacles in her book called The Skills.  Being in the public eye, she is open to more criticism and sees it as something beneficial rather than detrimental.  In fact, she thrives in this kind of environment.  

“We’re all going to be hit with harsh comments at some point, so we might as well learn to look at it as ‘feedback’ that can be used as fuel. In fact, the worse the better — it’ll only make us more resilient”

Adversities are inevitable in life, a certainty for all of us. Viewing them through an empowering lens not only gives you the  ability to overcome them, but also raises your self-belief.

Unwavering Faith 

When we set out to complete a task, meet an objective or wish to fulfil our needs and desires, many of us will take the necessary steps like Fatima al-Fihri did to achieve what we have set out to do. However, these steps must be coupled with faith, particularly having Allah by your side throughout the journey. Turning to Him so He sheds light on your path and acknowledging that only He has the true power, is in its very nature, humbling and establishes a reliance on Allah, recognizing that the ultimate outcome is beyond our personal control.  

Despite having the attributes to build Al-Qarawiyin University and mosque, it was Fatima al-Fihri’s unwavering faith and belief in Allah All-Mighty that navigated her path. Some sources have stated she fasted every day until the project was complete. Her fasts reminded her that her rizq came from Allah alone. Unwavering faith does not mean you will not have days where your efforts do not seem to be achieving much or that you will fall into despair and want to give up. Instead, it means embracing your human side and then leaning on your spiritual side to get back up again and again, and keep going with the self-belief and self-esteem that you are continuously developing.  

Our beloved Prophet ﷺ never gave up trying to achieve what he ﷺ set out to do.  He ﷺ believed he was capable enough to carry his ﷺ message. As I write this, the people of Gaza and Palestine are being brutally murdered and ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Whilst many of us are protesting, boycotting, posting on social media etc the genocide continues. Nevertheless, if we persist in our actions, trust ourselves to keep moving forward and most importantly trust in Allah, then we will inshaAllah have epic results, the way Fatima al-Fihri did.


References:

Al-Hassani, Salim T.S (2012) 1001 Inventions; the Enduring Legacy of the Muslim Civilisation, Disney Publishing Worldwide

Sakay, Nicola Yasemin (2020)  Al-Qarawiyyin, world’s oldest, continually operating university, was founded by a Muslim woman, Daily Sabah 

Muslim Heritage, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya

Lopez-Garrido, Gabriel (2023) Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory of Motivation In Psychology, Simple Psychology

Fejzic-Cengic, Fahira (2020) Fatima Al-Fihri Founder of the First World University, RedFame

Elias, Abu Amina (2010) Hadith on Friendship: A person follows religion of his best friend, Daily Hadith online

Hastings, Christobel (2020) I fought the law so female basketball players could wear Hijabs, Stylist 

Butler, Kristen (2023) The Comfort Zone; Create a life you really love with less stress and more flow, Hay House UK

Icon (2003) Interview: Zaha Hadid – ‘I don’t have an identity’

McGonigal, Kelly (2016) The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at It, Avery Publishing 

Warna Emily (2018) Five Long Skills from Mishal Hussain’s ‘The Skills’

Talbi Ilham (2020) Fatim al-Fihri: Founder of the world’s oldest university

Rebecca Mortimer (2018) Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of the World’s First University

Aaisha Mukhtar

Aaisha Mukhtar

Aaisha is a senior quantity surveyor working in the construction industry. She believes the key to a successful life is nourishing the mind, body and soul using Quranic and Prophetic practices as well as secular practices to enhance our understanding of ourselves and our connection to Allah. In her spare time she makes her own raw chocolate filled medjool dates and other refined sugar free snacks IG: @majesticmedjewels