The Zitouna Great Mosque is one of the oldest and most famous mosques throughout the Islamic World. It was founded in 116 A.H (734 C.E) by Obeid Allah Ibn Al-Habhab. The mosque is renowned as a place of worship and more particularly for the leading and long-standing scientific and cultural role it has assumed since the early second century of Hegira.
Dispensing a teaching of Islamic Sciences since the year 120 of Hegira (737 C.E.), the Zitouna Mosque is the oldest Arab-Islamic University and has continuously performed its educational role for thirteen centuries. This original fact was pointed up by the historian Hassan Hosni AbdulWahab who asserted: “The Zitouna Mosque is historically the earliest and the oldest teaching establishment in the Arab World.”
In its double capacity as a university and a place of worship, the Zitouna Mosque experienced times of prosperity until the end of the reign of the Hafsids (634-981 A.H/1237-1573 C.E). According to the scholar Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun—an alumnus of the Zitouna—the latter ranked above any other teaching establishment in the Islamic Maghrib in the 14th and 15th centuries (C.E). The teaching at the Zitouna encompassed varied syllabuses including Islamic religious and literary subjects, philosophy, intellectual sciences, mathematics, medicine and astronomy.
After the fall of the Hafsid Dynasty the Zitouna Mosque’s academic standard experienced a period of decline marked, however, by several reform attempts:
- Ahmed Bey the First issues a decree organizing education at the Zitouna Mosque (November 26, 1842 [C.E]).
- In order to give impetus to the teaching activity at the Great Mosque, Prime Minister and reformer Kheireddine Pacha issues a decree dated January 27, 1876 (C.E). Nonetheless, the decree was never put into operation with respect to modern sciences which Kheireddine sought to include in the Zitouna curriculum owing to the opposition exerted by certain leading conservative Sheikhs.
- Under the French Protectorate (1881-1956 C.E), the colonial authorities did their utmost to impose their educational policy in order to marginalize and muzzle the Zitouna Mosque which they considered a cultural resistance bastion against the French influence and colonial penetration in Tunisia.
Nevertheless, demands for reform continued as before; and in response to those formulated by the National Movement activists, a series of statutory measures were taken. Hereinafter are the most important ones:
- A new statute organizing the educational system at the Zitouna Mosque was published on December 16, 1912; it divided it into three cycles:
1. A primary cycle leading to the Aptitude (Al-Ahlya) Degree;
2. An intermediate cycle leading to the Proficiency (At-Tahcil) Degree; and
3. A higher education cycle leading to the Scholarship (Al-Alimya) Degree.
- April 1933: Improvement of the syllabuses by virtue of which the “At-Tatwii” degree became “At-Tahcil” in the scientific branch.
- April 1951: Creation of a modern branch; a two-stage “At-Tahcil” degree was instituted (similar to the Baccalaureat or “A” levels).
However, this modern branch experienced a period of decline in the course of the 1959-1960 academic year onwards, following the rise of the unified secondary education system whose syllabuses had been gradually introduced by the Tunisian government starting from October 1958.
The Zitouna University following Tunisia’s Independence (1956)
After Tunisia gained national independence, the following decrees organizing the Zitouna establishment were published:
* April 26, 1956: Creation of the Zitouna University.
* June 30, 1958: Proclamation of the public education reform and standardization of the curricula. Under this reform the Zitouna departments became intermediate schools integrated into the public education system.
* Following the creation of the Tunisian University (March 31st 1960) which encompassed several higher institutes and faculties, the Zitouna Faculty of Shari’a and Theology was founded on Match 1st 1961, thus succeeding the Zitouna University and became one of the components of the Tunisian University.
* October 27, 1961: Finalization of the curricula for the bachelor’s degree in Shari’a sciences and theology.
* February 15, 1980: Determination of the mission of the Zitouna Faculty of Shari’a and Theology and organization of the Faculty’s three cycles of studies.