FEZ, Morocco: In the narrow streets of the Old City of Fez, Morocco’s first capital, centuries-old places of learning are being revived to promote moderation in Islam, as its founders originally intended.
Studying at the 14th-century Bou Inania madrasah (religious school), inside the UNESCO-listed walled city, offers a life “in the embrace of a venerable academic history,” according to student Moaz Soueif.
The Bou Inania madrasa is one of six such institutions that have been renovated since 2017, as part of a program funded by the Moroccan government to preserve the city’s heritage and promote tourism.
Soueif, 25, shares the top floor of the madrasah with about 40 students from Qarawiyyin University, which was a world-leading spiritual and educational center centuries before the European Renaissance.
Fully adorned with intricate inscriptions and mosaics, students are not the only visitors to Bou Inania. Tourists also flock to see the elegant open-air courtyard, graced by a central fountain and carefully maintained tiled walls.
The madrasah is located just inside the Bab Boujelloud, one of the main entrances to the Old City and a key landmark for tourists.
The nearby Cherratine and Attarine madrasas have also been recently renovated for the benefit of tourists, who “generally say that their time here feels spiritual and that the Old City is really genuine,” according to guide Sabah Alawi.
Today, Fez serves as a monument to a high point of Islamic civilization, the 13th and 14th centuries, when Muslim rulers ruled from Morocco to western China.
That period also represents a golden age in the history of the city, which had just been reinstated as the capital of Morocco after three centuries of being overshadowed by Marrakech further south.
In a steep alley in Bou Inania lined with stalls selling traditional goods and local food, is the Qarawiyyin Mosque, built when the city was founded in the 9th century.
It later became the heart of the university of the same name, one of the oldest in the world.
University of Fez history professor El-Hajj Moussa Aouni said the city prospered in the 13th and 14th centuries along with other centers in the Maghreb region, from Marrakech to Oran in Algeria and Kairouan in Tunisia.
The Fez madrasas are “add-ons to the main university, used to teach sciences such as mathematics, medicine, mechanics and music, as well as Islamic studies and literature,” he said.
The Qarawiyyin Mosque has a large roofless courtyard surrounded by pillars separating it from the covered sections, which are reserved for prayer and study.
The site is off-limits to tourists, although some take advantage of the fact that the gates open shortly before prayers to take photos in the courtyard.
At the time of its establishment, the university was one of the best in the world and was home to prominent academics such as the Tunisian Ibn Khaldoun, considered the founding father of sociology.
Another prominent figure believed to have studied there was Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar who introduced Arabic numerals to Europe, is credited with inventing the mechanical clock, and later became Pope Sylvester II.
In addition to preserving the city’s architectural treasures, the renovation work is part of Morocco’s broader efforts to promote moderation in Islam.
Scholars have left their mark on the city, such as the Qarawiyyin library, home to some 4,000 manuscripts, including an original donated by Ibn Khaldoun himself.
“It is one of the oldest libraries in the Islamic world,” said its rector Abdulfattah Boukachouf.
The 14th-century institution sits in a courtyard filled with the sound of workers’ hammers made of brass and silver. But in the reading room, recently enlarged by Sultan Mohammed V – grandfather of the current King Mohammed VI – silence reigns.
In one corner, a team of women skillfully restores delicate manuscripts.
Qarawiyyin University has started a new program for postgraduate students who have excelled in writing and memorizing the Qur’an.
The students cover “various Islamic studies, comparative religion, French, English and Hebrew, which enables them to understand other cultures,” said Soueif, from the northern city of Ksar El-Kebir.
“We should be a role model for tolerant Islam, on the same level as the great scholars who passed through here before us,” he said.