Buildings within a human context can have multiple functions. These constructions can be viewed as statements of power, authority, wealth or timelessness of individuals or institutions. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the practical aspects of the building in its common or private usage, as well as the statement it makes about the people to whom it applies. In our studies on the growing and developing urban character of the various Islamic empires, the mosque as a necessary addition to preexisting settlements or a central feature of newly established urban centers has been at the fore. It functioned as a place of gathering for believers to fulfill their religious obligations, as a medium for rulers to address and reinforce their relation to their subjects, as well as a statement of the dominance of Islam as the official religion. For the purpose of this inquiry, I will be looking at the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and Madrasa of Fez as an expression of the origins of the city of Fez, and as the center of scholastic Islam for centuries to come, attracting scholars and students from across the Mediterranean.
The physical location of Morocco made it into a cultural crossroad, linking North Africa to the rest of the African continent, and Europe through Gibraltar. The city of Fez perhaps best exemplifies the unique character of Morocco throughout the ages, as its humble origins as a small Berber village grew into two separate cities on both banks of the Oued Fez. With the advents of the Almoravid dynasty, both centers, respectively made up of Andalusians and Tunisian refugees from Qairouan, were unified within a single wall into Fas al-Bali (Bonine 1990: 55). The Mosque cum Madrasa is known to have been founded in 859 CE by Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Qairouan in Tunisia, as a waqf (pious endowment) for their deceased father (Landau 1958: 104).
Though the Mosque acted as the center of congregation for only part of the city early on, by the 10th century it became the official mosque visited by the sultan every Friday (Landau 1958: 104). Of modest size in the first stage of construction, it was greatly enlarged and embellished by successive ruling dynasties, yet only reached its current size (Figure 2) under the Almoravid Sultan Ali ibn Yusuf in the 12th century. As the largest mosque in Africa, with enough space to accommodate 22,000 worshippers, it incorporated various styles, such as the horseshoe arch, Andalusian green tiling, North African zellij and the square minaret typically found in the Maghreb.
The Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque soon became the chief center of scholasticism in Africa, and one of the leading ones in the Islamic world. It is considered the oldest scholastic foundation ever established, and witnessed such distinguished teachers and students as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Rushd and even Gerbert of Auvergne, the future Pope Sylvester II (Landau 1958: 105). It was famed for its fabulously large library, a repository of knowledge compromised of thousands of scrolls and volumes, such as an original copy of History by Ibn Khaldun and works by al-Bukhari (Landau 1958: 105).
Al-Qarawiyyin can be characterized as a reflection of the people of Fez. Its origins as a public endowment, and its location at the very heart of the old city illustrate how integrated it is in the culture of Fez. It’s incorporation of North African and Andalusian styles is a testament to the mixed nature of the people of Fez, and its current form is a product of years of embellishments by ruling dynasties seeking to leave their mark on the city. Not only did it pander to religious needs, but the academic nature of the original endowment meant that it was established to produce and refine knowledge as diverse as its architectural and artistic styles.
Bonine, Michael E. “The Sacred Direction and City Structure: A Preliminary Analysis of the Islamic Cities of Morocco.” Muqarnas, Vol. 7, (1990): 50-72.
Landau, Rom. “The Karaouine at Fez.” Muslim World 48, No. 2, April 1958: 104-112.