One Woman’s Legacy: Teaching Ideas for One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University
One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University
Written by M.O. Yuksel, illustrated by Mariam Quarishi
Published by Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2022
“Fatima’s faith taught her that knowledge was like the full moon–lighting the dark night bright.” While little is known about her childhood and early years, Fatima al-Fihri was a devout Muslim living first in al-Qarawiyyin, Tunisia, then in Fez, Morocco, in the 9th century CE. She received a strong and comprehensive education at home because there was no school that permitted her to attend, even though Fez was an intellectual hub, like many cities in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Iberian Peninsula during the Islamic Golden Age. Fatima was surrounded by “lively debates about the stars, planets, and distant lands and languages.” When her father and husband died, Fatima became a wealthy woman, and the Islamic concept of “sadaqah jariyah-continuous charity” guided her actions, “like planting a single seed from which thousands of wildflowers continuously bloomed.” In 859 CE, Fatima opened the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, with a specific focus on education, including a library. The school, now called The University of Al-Karaouine and incorporated into the Moroccan public university system, is the oldest continuously operating university in the world! Mariam Quraishi’s gouache and watercolor illustrations deftly bring Fatima’s 9th century world to life, capturing the colors of the desert, the intricacies of Islamic architecture, the vibrancy of the souq, the determination of Fatima al-Fihri, and the joyful energy of al-Qarawiyyin. The author’s note reveals that Yuksel “took the liberty of reconstructing her early years based on historical and cultural information.” As such, it is unclear whether Fatima always had “one wish” to build a school, or whether that idea came to her as a wealthy and independent woman later in life. One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University is a gorgeous introduction into the medieval Islamic world, the thriving city of Fez, and the ongoing cultural and scientific discoveries and exchanges of the Islamic Golden Age. It also demonstrates the power of one woman’s determination to bring education to girls and women, an action that has transformed lives and reverberated over 1,200 years.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
What Do You Wonder? On the first page of the book, the reader learns that for Fatima al-Fihri as a little girl, “[u]nknown worlds opened to her/like a window as she read. Her heart swelled with excitement-/she wanted to know/how birds flew,/why the sky was blue,/and how flowers grew.” Create a Wonder Wall in your classroom where students can write down their questions about the world. Carve out a portion of each week, and create wonder bins/baskets/bags, where students can keep track of their various questions and the answers they find. Offer opportunities for students to share their findings and new questions with one another as a part of this weekly ritual.
History of Your School. The school that Fatima created during her lifetime is the oldest continuously operating university in the world! What is the history of your school? How has it changed over the years? Who or what is it named after and why? Do your students learn in the original building? First, have students walk around the school looking for plaques, markers, or architectural features that might give them clues about the school’s history and its relative age. Work with your local library and historical society to obtain resources about the history of your school building and its founding. Who attended? Who didn’t? Why? When did that change? Have students write their own history of the school, and publish this shared writing as a PDF on your school’s website. Have students create illustrations. They may want to adopt the book design of One Wish, showing a photograph or student-created illustration of the original school building on the first end pages and of the current school on the back end pages. If students attend a newly built school, have them interview local leaders about the decision to build a new school site and why and how their physical location and school name was selected.
Learning Outside of School. During Fatima’s childhood, she was not allowed to attend the local mosque school because she was a girl, and this remained unchanged when she moved from Tunisia to Morocco. But, taught at home, she was still a very learned little girl who grew up to be a learned woman with a constant hunger to learn. Over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned that learning can take place anywhere, outside of the boundaries of the classroom. Ask students to make a list of the ways that they learn things about the world outside of school. Who are their teachers and mentors at home, in their neighborhoods, or in the larger community? Perhaps they are parents, grandparents, neighbors, members of the students’ religious community or staff at the local YMCA or afterschool program. Ask your students how they could bring more of their informal learning into your classroom life, and develop a plan for sharing their learning and their informal educators with one another via classroom visits, in-person or virtual.
The Refugee Experience. Fatima’s family had to flee Tunisia and the life they built there due to war. They journeyed to Fez, Morocco, where they would make their home for the rest of their lives. In this, their experience in the 9th century is not so different from the experiences of many families in the 21st, fleeing gang violence, political violence, sectarian fighting, and invading armies, such as the situation in Ukraine at this very moment. Before or after reading One Wish, read aloud some other picture books that focus on the refugee experience, with sensitivity to any students who have recently arrived in your community from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, where they may have witnessed or experienced terrible violence and deprivation. You can find titles in our 2015 entry on the Syrian Refugee Crisis, our 2018 entry on global literature that includes Marwan’s Journey, our 2020 entry Room on Our Rock, and our recent entry on How War Changed Rondo, set in Ukraine. If you work with upper elementary and middle level students, you could have students in book clubs reading novels such as The Red Pencil, Inside Out and Back Again, Escape from Aleppo, Boy, Everywhere, Indian No More, and The Night Diary.
What is a University? If you work with younger students, they may not know what a university is and the role it serves to both educate people and expand knowledge. Older students might have a sense that people attend university to get a degree and then get a job, but they, too, may not understand the university’s role in knowledge production. After reading One Wish, share information from this BBC Travel online article, “The World’s Oldest Centre of Learning,” including the short video, so that students can see what Fatima’s school looked like. What is the value of going to a university? Have students explore – via a read aloud or on their own, depending on their age -The College Board/Big Future’s “College: What It’s All About and Why It Matters.” Next, explore local colleges and universities in your area. If you work with young children, you may want to show a slideshow of photographs. If you work with older students, you might have them explore the websites of the different colleges and universities in your area. Invite several people who work at a local college or university to come talk to your class about what they do. If possible, arrange a class trip to a local college or university. Finally, provide students with the opportunity to work in small groups and design their own school – K-12 or university – as Fatima did over a thousand years ago. Invite parents and community members, as well as representatives of those local colleges and universities, to come explore your students’ designs.
More About Mosques. After being forced to leave their home and relocate to Morocco, Fatima’s family flourished; their faith and the continuity of the extended Muslim community helped to ease the trauma of relocation.Throughout One Wish, the author references the “soothing call to prayer from the tall minarets of mosques.” Ask your students what they know about mosques, recognizing the expertise of your Muslim students. Why did Fatima begin her school within the mosque? With younger students, share Yuksel’s In My Mosque, illustrated by Hatem Aly. With older readers, share The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Saved Jews During the Holocaust, written and illustrated by Karen Gray Ruelle. Both groups of students may want to explore David Macaulay’s Mosque. Allow students time to discuss the range of activities that take place in mosques, and the roles they serve in their communities. If possible, bring students on a tour of a local mosque. Students may also enjoy photos of mosques from around the world curated on a travel blog, to see a range of architectural styles over the centuries.
Female Education Advocates. Fatima al-Fihri is one of the earliest advocates of female education that we know of in the western world. In al-Fihri’s case, she used her resources – her tenacity, vision, and financial wealth, to build a school that allowed for girls to study alongside boys. Use al-Fihri’s work as a launching point to explore other efforts to educate girls and women around the world. Provide students with time to explore the following picture books: Malala’s Magic Pencil, Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala, Malala; Activist for Girls’ Education, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her Secret School, and All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything, and A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés. Ask students to notice common themes and differences across books and the different types of educational access for which the girls and women advocate. Older students can also read this history of women’s access to higher education in the United States.
Grades 5 and Up
Understanding the Medieval Muslim Impact on Today’s Knowledge & Technology. In her author’s note, M.O. Yuskel tells her readers that her inspiration for this book came from seeing the 1001 Inventions exhibit in New York City in 2010. 1001 Inventions is a U.K.-based nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the scientific and technological discoveries and inventions during the Golden Age of Muslim culture during the 1,000 years of what is called the medieval period, beginning in the 7th Century. Start with this short 12-minute video. After watching the video, allow students time to explore transmedia available on the site, and/or they can explore the related National Geographic book, 1001 Inventions and Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilizations, as well as other books and multimedia in Further Explorations below.
The College Board/Big Future’s “College: What It’s All About and Why It Matters.”
Alexander, E. (2007). Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. Ill. by F. Cooper. Wordsong.
Barnard, B. (2011). The genius of Islam: How Muslims made the modern world. Alfred A. Knopf.
Friere, R. (2017). Malala; Activist for Girls’ Education. Il., by A. Fronty. Charlesbridge.
Goodman, S. (2016). The first step: How one girl put segregation on trial, Ill. by E.B. Lewis. Bloomsbury.
Halfmann, J. (2018). Midnight teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her secret school. Ill. by L. Ladd. Lee and Low Books.
Macaulay, D. (2003). Mosque. Houghton Mifflin.
Maslo, L. (2018). Free as a bird: The story of Malala. Balzar & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins.
Mora, P. (2002). A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés. Ill. by B. Vidal. Lee and Low Books.
Nadro, D. (2015). Daily life in the Islamic Golden Age. [Daily Life in Ancient Civilizations]. Heinemann Raintree.
Pimental, A.B. (2021). All the way to the top: How one girl’s fight for Americans with disabilities changed everything. Ill. by N. Ali. Sourcebooks.
Romero, L. (2016). Ibn al-Haytham: The man who discovered how we see. [National Geographic Readers.] National Geographic.
Ruelle, K.G. (2009). The Grand Mosque of Paris: A story of how Muslims saved Jews during the Holocaust. Holiday House.
Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal: Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight for desegregation. Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Yousafzai, M. (2017). Malala’s magic pencil, Ill,. by Kerascoet. Little, Brown and Company.
Yuksel, M.O. (2021). In My Mosque. Ill. by H. Aly. Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins.
(2009). [Life in the Medieval Muslim World]. Marshall Cavendish Books.
(2005). [Great Muslim Philosophers and Scientists of the Medieval World]. Rosen Central.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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