Today, in “women I wish we knew more about,” Fatima al-Fihri.

Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya was probably born around 810 AD in Kairouan, modern day Tunisia. Her father was a wealthy merchant who ended up on the wrong side of politics and her family, along with 2,000 others, were expelled. They settled n the Moroccan town of Fez in such great numbers that a district of the town was named for the city they fled.

We know little about Fatima. Kairouan was a center of learning, and we know that Fatima was well educated. We know that her father did very well as a merchant in Fez, and that she and her sister inherited quite a sum. We know that she was married, and then widowed, all of which left her a wealthy, educated woman with control over how her wealth was to be spent (which was a significantly more likely combination in the Islamic world than it was in Europe in the 800s AD).

Her sister built a mosque, and she built a neighboring madrassa in 859, which still exists today as the University of Al Quaraouiyine (pronounced the same as the city of her birth). In addition to religion, her university taught mathematics and astronomy, and it taught a much broader range of students than was the norm. It is the oldest continually operating degree-awarding educational institution in the world.

One of its students was a French Christian monk named Gerbert of Aurillac, who would go on to be Pope Sylvester II. Pope Sylvester had a brief four year tenure as the Pontiff, but during that time he decreed the Catholic Church switch to the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which he had learned at the University of Al Quaraouiyine.

While I have no doubt that the Arabic numeral system would have eventually become dominant throughout Europe, there is also no doubt that it would have taken a lot longer had it not been helped along by a Pope. A Pope who had the ability to, as a Christian monk, study in an Islamic center of learning that had a very broad understanding of who could be a student.

An Islamic university founded by Fatima al-Fihri.