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The origins of the university and modern civilisation


Posted 14 April 2010. Updated 15 January 2017.

This was originally published on the Daily Telegraph blogging website in 2010 and then copied here.

Mohammed Amin Telegraph blog

I regularly read comments online and in many other places from people questioning what Muslims have contributed to modern civilisation. Accordingly I thought that it would be illuminating to look at some concrete examples, and have started with an institution that is integral to civilisation: the university.

Forty years ago, I had the privilege of attending Clare College, the second oldest college in Cambridge University. I have never forgotten the story of how Lady Elizabeth de Clare was widowed three times before the age of 30, getting richer each time! She then decided not to remarry, and endowed Clare College which had been founded in 1326. There were many wealthy widows at that time, now forgotten, but unlike theirs her name will live forever due to her generosity and vision.

I can think of no other institution more fundamental to our modern civilisation than universities. From them have come most of our greatest scientific achievements, and also our greatest advances in the humanities.

So what makes a university? In my view, universities have the following characteristics:  

  1. An endowment fund, the income of which covers part or all of the running costs. The endowment can be enormous. For example the world’s largest at Harvard stood at $26 billion at 30 June 2009, after a year in which it had fallen by 27.3% due to stock market fluctuations.
  2. A permanent body of teachers who also do research, with the most senior ones holding professorships, designated as “chairs.”
  3. Students who live at the university, often in purpose built residential blocks.
  4. It is organised as a continuing entity, intended to endure well beyond the lives of those who are present at the university at any point in time.

Not all universities have all of the above characteristics; for example some may have no endowment, others might do no research or have no residential student facilities.

While it is hard to imagine a time before universities, they did not always exist.

Cambridge itself was founded in 1209 by scholars who had left Oxford after a dispute. Oxford is the oldest university in Britain, and dates back to at least 1096 although its precise date of origin is apparently unknown. However, Oxford was modelled on the University of Paris, which British scholars used to attend until Henry II stopped them from going. The oldest university in Christian Europe appears to be Bologna which dates back to 1088.

However, the above mentioned universities are in fact substantially younger than their predecessors in some Muslim majority countries.  Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which President Obama chose for his speech aimed at Muslims around the world, dates back to 970, but the oldest university of all is Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, which was founded in 841. The founder was actually a woman, Fatima al-Fihri who was educated herself and who inherited a fortune from her father which she devoted to building and endowing this institution.

The campus included residential facilities for the students, who paid no fees but instead received food and accommodation allowances from the endowment. Demand for places exceeded availability, so there was a selection process based upon testing for knowledge of Arabic, the Quran and general science. As well as religion, studies included law, arithmetic, geography, medicine and astronomy.

The scholars who taught and researched at Al-Qarawiyin were not just Muslims. Probably the most famous non-Muslim who was there is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides.

At that time, there was no “iron curtain” between the Muslim ruled lands and Christian ruled Europe. Accordingly, although some have argued to the contrary, I have no doubt that educated Europeans were aware of how Al-Qarawiyin operated, and chose to replicate the same organisational structure in Europe.

The key point is that as citizens of the modern world, we are the inheritors of a civilisation built by the shared contribution of Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as followers of other religions. None of us can claim exclusive ownership of civilisation; nor should anyone try to reject modern civilisation as un-Islamic since Muslims were a key contributor to its construction.

Mohammed Amin

Addendum 15 January 2017

This addendum was added as a response to a Disqus comment by someone called John Thimakis (which should be below) which I have reproduced here for permanence.

John Thimakis comment

I'm sorry but you are factually wrong. Aside from the ancient Greeks having places of learning hundreds of years BCE. There is a university even older.

Muslims once again trying to take credit for something that they merely stumbled into because of conquest and war.

The comment has prompted me to update the page.

I subscribe to the New York Review of Books, although I am often behind with reading my copies. During 2016 I read a fascinating article in the 13 August 2015 issue "India: The Stormy Revival of an International University" by Amartya Sen. The New York Review of Books has a paywall, but if you have a subscription you can read the article on the NYR website.

The article was about attempts to revive Nalanda Mahavihara. Sen calls it the oldest university in the world, saying that it began in the early fifth century (AD). The institution Sen describes appears to have worked in a very similar manner to Al-Qarawiyin described above. Nalanda Mahavihara was clearly several hundred years older.

What I would like someone to research is if there is any evidence of westward cross fertilisation of the idea. There was certainly significant commercial and traveller traffic between India and the Muslim majority areas to its west. It is possible that the founder of Al-Qarawiyin could have got the idea from India; at present we don't seem to know. However Al-Qarawiyin's priority within what is most correctly called Judeo-Christian-Muslim civilisation remains undiminished by India's priority.

The link in John Thimakis's comment to Quora leads to an answer by Anubhav Srivastava. Srivasta states that Taxila, founded 2700 years ago, also in India, was the oldest university. The Wikipedia article on Taxila outlines those features it had in common with later universities, and where it differed.

The most important aspect of this page is that it shows how many parts of the world have contributed to the development of our modern civilisation, rebutting the Eurocentric views which dominated until recent decades.


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