Moroccan Scientists’ Accomplishments During the Medieval Period
Author: Karim Moutchou
Institution: Medical Student, Fez Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy
Editors: Akihiko Ozaki, MD., PhD., Yuki Senoo
The medieval period between the 5th and late 15th centuries created a significant setback to the role of the European empires as scientific leaders in the Mediterranean region. Political corruption, religious censorship, and successive pandemics handicapped the work of European scientists in all fields. This void was filled by the Islamic empire, which not only extended its territory beyond the Middle East to Northern Africa and Southern Europe but also took great interest in the ancient and modern sciences.
Morocco was known at that time under different names depending on the ruling family—Fatima, Merinides, or Almohidines, for example. It extended as a country far beyond its current territories. For centuries the royal families in Morocco controlled great portions of North Africa and the southern part of the Spanish peninsula. This gave the country the opportunity to receive, develop, and then spread science back to the world.
In this two-part article, we explore some of the scientific contributions of scientists in the middle ages who lived in the region that later became Morocco.
Translation, A Powerful Tool
The first Arabic immigration to north Africa began 12 centuries ago. They brought a new monotheistic religion, and they took power and took charge over the region that was previously controlled by native inhabitants and the Byzantine Empire.1
The Arabic language was a primary tool in the hands of those who mastered it. The Quran, the Muslims’ holy book, was written in Arabic, which practically forces every Muslim to learn it. This strong association between the language and the religion hastened the spread of Arabic, turning it into one of the most spoken languages in the Mediterranean region.
The spread of Arabic in North Africa was accompanied by a wave of translations from other ancient or modern Mediterranean languages such as Latin and Greek to Arabic. Simultaneously, Persian and South Asian books were translated in the Middle East,2 and this opened new doors for Muslim scientists into the ancient and modern sciences. The opposite was happening in Europe, where the church was burning the same books and punishing many scientists with jail and death sentences.
Thanks mainly to its location, Morocco became a crossroads for many cultures—the European, Arabic, Berber, Nomadic, Sub-Saharan, and others. Science was circulating from and to the Arabic world through Morocco. Eventually, the country and its capital Fez shone as a lighthouse for science in the region.
Al-Qaraouyine University: the Heritage of Fatima that Enlightened the World
The immigration flow from different Muslim regions to Morocco after its establishment as an Islamic country brought many scholars, scientists, and wealthy people. Among them was a rich, influential Tunisian merchant called Mohammed Al-Fihri and his two daughters.
After his death, one of his daughters, Fatima, pledged to spend some of her inheritance on building a mosque in the city of Fez. That is how the University of Al-Qaraouyine, whose name is derived from Kairouan, the Tunisian region from where the family immigrated, saw the light in 859.
The mosque turned out to be a madrassa—that is, a school. It is now recognized by UNESCO3 and in Guinness World Records4 as the oldest university in the world.
This new style of higher education took centuries to spread in other regions of the world. Fez had already been one of the region’s most important cities politically and economically; the university gave it an additional scientific value.
The university offered teaching in all the liberal arts and sciences, including but not limited to literature, translation, sociology, and medicine. After the establishment of a modern university in 1975, Al-Quarawayine’s courses were limited to Islamic and Arabic studies.
Figure: The First Medical Degree
The original version of the first medical degree issued by AlQaraouyine University (source unknown)
In 2018 the historian and transcripts analyst Mohammed Zin El Abidine Al Husseini published a book titled AlQaraouyine University Issued the First Medical Degree in History.5 He described how the university was the first institution to issue a medical degree as a structured diploma testifying that its holder had finished the required courses and had successfully defended his thesis.
Abdullah Ben Salah Alkoutami received his diploma in 603 after he defended his thesis in front of a judge and several famous physicians of the era who specialized in different treatment methods using herbs and plants.
The faculty of medicine at Fez keeps a replica of this medical degree and convenes a yearly congress about the participation of the city and Arabic culture in the development of medicine.