The Qarawiyin Mosque Gives Fez an Aura of Learning and Holiness
By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
The fountainhead of Morocco’s religious life, Fez’s Qarawiyin mosque, also spelled Kairoyuine, Karaouiyine and Kairaouaine, is the symbol of the country and its most prestigious historic site. From it, as they have for eleven centuries, religious scholars control the timing of Ramadan and the many Islamic festivals for which this North African land is renowned. In the world of Islam, its influence has been felt, far beyond the country’s borders, for centuries. Among Moroccans there is a saying that all roads lead to Fez, then to its heart, the Qarawiyin – considered to be the artistic epitome of Arabic-Spanish civilization.
This venerable mosque, established in the 9th century and became North Africa’s top mosque in the 10th century is the crowning jewel of the 365 mosques to be found in the city. Five times a day, the voices of the muezzins calling the faithful to prayers from these many mosques, topped by the Qarawiyin, create a hypnotic aura which engulfs the whole of Fez al- Bali or ancient Fez – still enclosed within its medieval walls.
No motor vehicles can enter this venerable city that oozes with the aura of the magical and mysterious world of the Orient. Life carries on as if one is still living in the Middle Ages. Every street has its special craft. Coppersmiths, leather artisans and wood craftsmen turn out r products, as had their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Small eating places, beautifully decorated
medersas (Muslim schools) and mosques, dominated by the majestic Qarawiyin, all instill a feeling that one has travelled back to the past ages.
The spiritual capital of Morocco, Fez does not easily reveal its secrets. For strangers, it must be discovered little by little by foot, preferably accompanied by a professional guide. Only in this way will it unfold its architectural splendour and will its artisans at work be fully appreciated. Its swirl of activity, captivating sounds, fragrances, colours and charms usually captivate and hold most visitors spellbound. Seemingly aloof from all this pageantry stands the Qarawiyin Mosque, giving an aura of holiness to the city.
Until the King Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca opened its doors, in the early 1990s, the Qarawiyin was the largest mosque in Morocco. However, even though dwarfed by Casablanca’s huge mosque, the second largest in the Muslim world, the Qarawiyin has much more stature and remains the centre of Moroccan religious life.
Folk tales tell of how the mosque was founded in 857 A.D. by one of two wealthy sisters who were jealous rivals and had come with others as refugees from the city of Karaouin in Tunisia. The mosque was built in the part of the city where these refugees settled – hence its name.
Almost from its inception, it became an important Islamic religious centre. Later, it hosted the first university in the West and, at the dawn of the second millennium A.D., it became the world’s most renowned centre of learning. A library attached to the mosque was established in the 10th century that was enlarged in the 14th century by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan.
In those medieval centuries, renowned scholars and Muslim religious officials from Africa and Europe travelled to Fez to teach and, at the same time, study the thousands of manuscripts and rare books in the library of this renowned institution.
From among these distinguished scholars were the famous Andalusian philosopher/physician Averroës (Ibn Rushd); the Arab/Jewish philosopher/physician Maimonides (Ibn Maymun); and Sylvester II, pope from 999 to 1003, who was a famous mathematician, credited with introducing the Arabic numerals
into Europe. Today, this illustrious intellectual past has not been forgotten. This oldest of universities concentrates on graduating judges, lawyers and specialists in Quranic studies. Students still come to visit its library to examine its historically important 30,000 books and 10,000 rare manuscripts.
The most splendid of Fez’s mosques, the Qarawiyin is a huge structure that can accommodate more than 20,000 worshipers. There are 14 doors through which worshiper may enter – the main one, a large carved and painted cedarwood gate. Its prayer hall measures 73 by 87 m (240 by 285 ft) and incorporates 270 marble columns, distributed over 16 bays. From the ceiling hangs a 13th century Almohade chandelier and its minbar was especially made for the Qarawiyin in Cordoba – at that time, capital of Arab Spain. The courtyard has a 12th century ablution fountain and at each end, kiosks resembling those in the Court of the Lions in Granada’s Alhambra.
Non-Muslims are not allowed into the mosque, but they can peer through the main doorway to get an idea of the enormous size of the building. From the outside a traveller cannot see much of the mosque. It is so enmeshed with surrounding homes and shops that it is almost impossible to get a sense of its size and shape.
The best vantage point from where to view the mosque is from the top of the nearby Palais de Fez Restaurant. From this observation angle, the attractive green roof and the courtyard can be seen in all their splendour. From here, one can visualize emirs and sultans coming for the Friday prayers, paying homage to God for whom they erected this magnificent structure – today engulfed in history. Standing on this spot and fantasizing about the past of this structure defusing centuries of holiness and learning, the saying ‘all roads lead to Fez, then to its heart, the Qarawiyin’ becomes a reality.