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What to know about the world’s four oldest universities

It is believed that university education was first located somewhere in the territories of ancient Greece or Europe, since some believe knowledge originated from there and having renowned scholars and inventors such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others.

Even though, according to some historians, knowledge originated from the Greeks or Europeans, Africa standardised it by being the first pioneer in the establishment of first world’s universities.

From a research report by Erudera, the world’s first education research platform, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Mali are the top four countries with the oldest universities in the world that are still in operation till date.

Finding of these universities showed that they were public ones and were first built as Madrasa, an Islamic college, before subsequently becoming a university.

On this note, BusinessDay will be profiling each of these universities in the particular order they were established. They are:

Ez-Zitouna University

Ez-Zitouna was established in 737AD as a madrasa Islamic college and subsequently as a university in 1956.

The university, located in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, has produced notable and renowned scholars like Ibn Khaldun, an Arab sociologist, philosopher and historian who has been described as the percussive founder of the proto-disciplines that would become historiography, sociology, economics, and demography.

Also, Aboul-Qacem Echebbi, a Tunisian poet probably best known for writing the final two verses of the current National Anthem of Tunisia, Humat al-Hima (Defenders of the Homeland).

The present-day institution has about 1,200 undergraduate students, 350 postgraduates and 90 academic staff, divided between two associated institutes — the Higher Institute of Theology and the Higher Institute of Islamic Civilization in Tunis — and a research institution, the Centre of Islamic Studies Salem Bouyahia (President).

Starting from the 13th Century, Tunis became the capital of Ifriqiya under Almohad and Hafsid rule. This shift in power helped Ez-Zitouna to flourish and become one of the major centres of Islamic learning, and Ibn Khaldun, the first social historian in history was one of its products.

The flourishing university attracted students and men of learning from all parts of the known world at the time. Along with theology; mainly the Qur’an, the university taught jurisprudence, history, grammar, science and medicine.

When it comes to books and libraries, Ez-Zituna libraries were the richest among their North African counterparts. It had several collections totalling in the tens of thousands of books. One of its libraries, el-Abdaliyah included a large collection of rare and unique manuscripts.

The manuscripts covered almost all subjects and sciences, including grammar, logic, documentations, and etiquette of research, cosmology, arithmetic, geometry, minerals, and vocational training, among others.

Read also: Competence-based education way forward for Nigeria- Nwachukwu

University of Al-Qarawiyyin

University of Al-Qarawiyyin, located in Fez, Morocco, is known to be one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world.

It was founded as a mosque by Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab woman in 859 who is believed to have used the money inherited from her father to build the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque.

The mosque building itself is a significant complex of historical Moroccan and Islamic architecture encompassing elements from many different periods of Moroccan history.

It was later incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963 and was officially renamed University of Al Quaraouiyine two years later.

The university is attended by students from all over Morocco and Muslim West Africa, with some also coming from abroad. As of 2012, the university has about 8,120 students and 708 administrative staff.

Teaching is still delivered in the traditional methods as students are seated in a semi-circle position around a sheikh who prompts them to read certain texts, asks them questions, and explains difficult points to them.

Education taught at the university concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in, Classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Maliki Sharia, although lessons on other non-Islamic subjects are also offered to students.

Al-Azhar University

Located in Cairo, Egypt, this university is renowned as the most prestigious university for Islamic learning.

The university attracts 30,000 students yearly from over 100 different countries. Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian business mogul and Africa’s richest man, studied Business at Al-Azhar University.

Al-Azhar was first built as a mosque in 970 AD during the Fatmid era, a dynasty of Arab origin, and became a Sunni institution after the conquest by Saladin in 1171. Al-Azhar is inclusive of the four major Sunni schools of law, the Ashari and Maturidi schools of theology, and seven major Sufi orders.

In 1961, under Law 103, the state of Egypt turned al-Azhar into a state-owned university as this was meant to modernise al-Azhar and to introduce an up-to-date curriculum, which included subjects such as medicine, engineering and economics.

Sankore Mosque and University:

The Sankore University was founded in 989 AD by Mansa Musa, the richest man in history.

Located in Timbuktu, Mali, this university started off as an Islamic school inside the masjid, went on to become one of the largest universities in the world at the time, hosting in its height 25,000 students and a library of 700,000 manuscripts, making it the largest library in Africa since the library of Alexandri.

The curriculum consisted not just of Islamic subjects, but science, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and even the occult science and medicine.

For example, recent studies have shown a mathematics test that was used to teach the students studying in this university 600 years ago.

And when this text was translated from Arabic into French, and sent to Sorbonne University in Paris. They confirmed that the level of mathematics being taught 600 years ago at this university was equivalent to the second year of their mathematical degree programme, which is one of the hardest to get into in France and in the Western world.

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