Graduation Garments & Universities in Islamic history

Many people may not think too deeply about the academic apparel required for their graduation ceremony. But the familiar graduation outfit worn throughout the world today originated from the Arabic clothing - thawb.

Founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima El-Fihriya in 859, Al-Qarawiyyan University, Fez in Morocco is one of the oldest universities in the world & the oldest library in Africa. It also holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest working university, & is still in use today.

Al-Qarawiyyan University initially focused on Islamic studies but expanded it’s curriculum to include mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, grammar and was free of charge.

Al-Qarawiyyan University alumni include Ibn Rushd (Averreos), Hassan al-Wazzan (Leo Africanus), Jewish philosopher Moses bin Maimon (Maimonides), Dutch orientalist Jacob van Gool + Gerbert de Aurillac (Pope 999-1003 who introduced Arabic numerals to Europe).

The practices established at Al-Qarawiyyan University are still used today. It has one of the oldest libraries with a collection of 4,000 books & ancient manuscripts written by renowned scholars, including a manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence written by philosopher Averroes.

The development of Universities & libraries across the Muslim world flourished, with people travelling far & wide to learn from these education establishments and learning centres Al Azhar University in Cairo established in 10th c is Egypt's oldest degree-granting university.

When students from Europe learned & graduated from these universities and returned to their lands, they used to dress in Muslim robes (Thawb or Qamees) and that would become an indication that this particular student graduated from the university of the Muslims.

This imitation of wearing the Arab / Muslim garb (which is baggy and wide in design) has stayed with them to this day and spread all across the world.

The first university in Europe was established by Muslims in the 9th century, in the city of Salerno (Italy). It was an extension of the Muslim universities in the east. Then the universities in Toledo, Seville, and Granada were opened The Madraza of Granada, founded in 1349.

The graduation gown worn today is known as the subfusc and the flat hat with the tassels is called the mortar board.

Jack Goody in his book titled "Islam in Europe" says that "The Arabic clothing (Thawb) has remained the purest & clearest sign of scholastic integrity up to this day of ours, especially during scholastic events such as debating and graduations.”

This is why when we graduate from university today, we wear these gowns known as subfusc which are very similar to the thawb.

Even the 'mortar boards' of graduates are Islamic and derive from the flat hats of the scholars there who would rest the Qur'an on the 'mortar' to symbolize the primacy of Scripture over the intellect.

The tassel at the back of the 'mortar board' was for bookmarking the pages of the Quran. When in subfusc, students carry their carry mortar board, a tradition based on students carrying their Qurans with them - the right to put it on your head only comes once you’ve graduated.