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For Your Consideration:
What is barakah? How did Idris I demonstrate it?
Idris and the wealthy elite of ancient Fes filled the city with fountains, madrasas (schools), library, the world’s first university, and community ovens for baking bread. They also built strong walls and thick gates to protect the residents of Fez – and traveling merchants spending the night. What kind of services and amenities does your city government provide for you? Did the people of Fes get better or worse care than you do?
How similar are the classes described at University of al-Qarawiyyin to those conducted in your school? Compare and contrast these two educational institutions.
The prosperous economy of Fes was based on its position along the trade routes linking sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean world. What is the economy of your town based on? Provide specific industries, companies, dollar values, percentages, and numbers of people if you can. Do these industries make your town relatively wealthy, while employing a large number of people? How does the unemployment rate in your town compare that of the rest of your country?
Fes is the ancient capital of the first unified Moroccan state, founded in 803 CE when Idris I, the great-great-great grandson of Muhammad the Prophet, subdued local Berber tribes.
Idris I was a refugee of sorts – a member of the ruling class of the largest Arab empire based in Baghdad. A successful rebellion led to the death of his brothers, and he fled west, across the harsh Sahara to the land known as the Maghreb – today`s Morocco. There, he settled near the ruins of Roman Volubilis, where he was welcomed by the local Berber tribe – many of whom had converted to Islam after the religion was carried alongside gold, spices, and ivory in the trans-Saharan trade.
Moroccans, like many Muslims, look for a leader who has a quality they call barakah – blessed by God. This quality can be demonstrated in many ways – the leader brings prosperity to the country, he leads the army to great victories, a drought ends on his watch. It must have seemed miraculous to these Berbers, living at an unremarkable juncture on the Saharan trade routes that a descendant of the Prophet had come to live among them, and before long he was their leader, further demonstrating his barakah by conquering many neighboring Berber tribes and founding the Idrisid Dynasty, the first great Moroccan-based empire, with Fes as its capital.
As these thing go, this success ruined his hiding spot. The Arab rebels – known as the Abbasids – who had killed his family and sent him into hiding, eventually had Idris I assassinated, too.
His son, Idris II attained even greater success in unifying the Maghreb. Fes was an important part of this success, as it occupies a pass in the Rif Mountains – guarding a main trade route between the Sahara and the Mediterranean Coast. Placing his capital at Fes meant that Idris could wield economic as well as military power over his people at their neighbors. He could tax goods as they moved through Fes’s many markets and funduqs. He could use this revenue to fund massive unlicensed works – fountains to provide beauty and freshwater to the city’s residents, for example, or communal ovens and local schools. Fes’s residents were merchants and innkeepers who prospered on his watch. In short, the quality of life for the average Berber under Idris I and II was pretty good. This is the epitome of barakah – which flows from God to those that are closest to God, such as saints and prophets. Those that have received barakah are thought to have the abilities to perform miracles (karamat) – in the case of a king, this could mean bringing peace and prosperity, good harvests, and good health to his people.
While it is not exactly the same thing, barakah could loosely be compared to what Enlightenment thinkers in Europe might have called “the social contract.” If the people of a kingdom are happy and safe, they will accept the rule of their emir. Idris could exercise all of this “soft power” before ever ordering a single act of violence or repression by his great army – and why would he ever need to do anything by force when life for his subjects was so good?
Fes became the center of culture and learning in the Maghreb. While most Europeans of the time were living in what a previous generation of historians called “The Dark Ages,” in Fes, the world’s oldest functioning university – University of al-Qarawiyyin – began operation in 859 CE.
As it has for over 1100 years, education at Al Quaraouiyine University concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in, Classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Islamic law, although a few lessons on other non-Islamic subjects such as French, English are also offered to students. Teaching is delivered in the traditional method, in which students are seated in a semi-circle (halqa) around a sheikh, who prompts them to read sections of a particular text, asks them questions on particular points of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points. Students from all over Morocco and Islamic West Africa attend the Qarawiyyin, although a few might come from as far afield as Muslim Central Asia. Even Spanish Muslim converts frequently attend the institution, largely attracted by the fact that the sheikhs of the Qarawiyyin, and Islamic scholarship in Morocco in general, are heirs to the rich religious and scholarly heritage of Muslim al-Andalus.
Most students at the Qarawiyyin range from between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degrees, although Muslims with a sufficiently high level of Arabic are also able to attend lecture circles on an informal basis, given the traditional category of “visitors in search of knowledge.”
After the reign of Idris II, the dynasty began to fracture. Royal brother fought royal brother for control of the empire. They would eventually be conquered by a new dynasty arising in the south of Morocco, but the owing to its status as a center of trade and learning, the glory of Fes would not really fade.
Fes remains perhaps the greatest symbol of Morocco, a country at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean, reflected in the cosmopolitan flavor of a city founded by an Arab ruler leading a pan-Berber empire, accepting immigrants from as far afield as modern Spain, and protecting the diversity of Jews and Christians who have long called the city home.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.