The new life of the Medersas of Fez, between tourist visits and Islam of the "golden mean"

The medersas of the former capital of the kingdom have been renovated in order to safeguard the historical heritage and to promote religious education open to the world.

Mouad Souief is very proud to live in the Bou Inania medersa, a recently renovated Koranic school in the heart of the medieval old town of Fez, the former capital of the Kingdom of Morocco. The 25-year-old student feels “the heir to the prestigious history” of this medersa founded in the XIVe century, rehabilitated since 2017 and which has revived its centuries-old tradition of an Islam of “middle ground”. Bou Inania, named after the sultan of the Marinid dynasty Abou Inan Faris (1329-1358), is the most famous medersa in Fez, depositary of Arab-Andalusian civilization, where students could both stay and study.

Mouad Souief occupies one of the school’s 40 student rooms within the walls of the venerable Al-Qaraouiyine University. The oldest in the world according to some historians – it was built in 859, under the Idrissid dynasty – it houses five other medersas, recently restored as part of the program to safeguard the historic sites of Fez, abandoned or threatened with ruin. Students share this heritage with tourists, who discover open-air patios, fountains and colorful mosaic walls.

This site bears witness to the “golden age” of Fez, which once again became the capital of the kingdom under the Merinid dynasty, which reigned from the 13the in the 15the century, episodically controlling other parts of the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula, after being eclipsed by Marrakech for three centuries.

Averroes, Ibn Khaldoun, Pope Sylvester II…

The Bou Inania medersa is located near Bab Boujloud, one of the gates of the old city. It is one of the first stages of a tourist circuit which includes two other renowned schools, Cherratine and Attarine, which have also been restored. “Spiritual and authentic! This is what tourists who visit Fez often tell me”explains to AFP the guide Sabah Alaoui by making discover Bou Inania to two Spanish tourists.

Visitors are fascinated by the verses of the Koran and the Arabic poems painted on the zelliges (Moroccan earthenware tiles). “We can read a verse that speaks in the name of the school: ‘I am a place of knowledge, be welcome'”explains Lhaj Moussa Aouni, professor of Islamic history and archeology at the University of Fez. “These schools were annexes of the great Al-Qaraouiyine Universityhe recalls. In addition to Islamic sciences and Arabic literature, mathematics, medicine, mechanics and music were studied there. »

Leaving the Bou Inania medersa, at the end of an alley lined with craft shops, stands the Al-Quaraouiyine mosque, which dates back to the development of Fez in the 9th century.e century, inseparable from the university. “All the scholars who mattered in the Islamic West went through Al-Quaraouiyine”, emphasizes Professor Aouni. Averroès, Ibn Khaldoun… But it also attracted European students, like the Frenchman Gerbert d’Aurillac, mathematician, mechanic and future Pope Sylvester II (999-1003). This is the time when the cities of Fez, Marrakech, Tlemcen, Oran (Algeria), Kairouan (Tunisia) and the Muslim kingdoms of Andalusia shine.

A graduate degree in Islamic sciences

The university preserves traces of scholars and philosophers in its library founded in the XIVe century and which contains about 4,000 manuscripts “among the oldest in the Islamic world”, specifies its curator, Abdelfattah Boukchouf. The calm that emanates from the reading room – enlarged to the XXe century by King Mohammed V – contrasts with the incessant hubbub of artisans in the neighborhood.

Among its treasures kept in a special room, a manuscript from the 12the century of medicine by Ibn Tofail or a copy of the Kitab al-ibar, the “book of examples” of the Tunisian historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406), which he himself offered to the library. Modernized, it has been equipped with a laboratory “in order to restore the damaged parts and prolong the life of the manuscripts”explains its director, Sabah El Bazi.

The rehabilitation of the medersas of Fez is also part of Morocco’s efforts to promote religious education in “middle ground” in order to respond to extremist Islamist currents. Thus, parallel to the restoration, a new five-year course was launched at the University of Al-Qaraouiyine which leads to a diploma of advanced studies in Islamic sciences. It is open to high school graduates after a competition and a Koran memorization test.

“We study the different Islamic sciences, comparative religions, French, English and Hebrew languages, everything that can allow us to open up to other cultures”explains the student Mouad Souief in his small room, which he “prefer to [sa] home “. “We must be the example of a tolerant Islam and at the level of the great scholars who have passed through here”he pleads.

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