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The Evolution of the Graduation Gown: A Legacy Rooted in Islamic Tradition of Thobe

20 May 2024 0 Comments
Jack Goody in his book titled "Islam in Europe" says that "The Arabic clothing (Thawb or Thobe) 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, upon graduating from university today, we wear gowns known as subfusc that are very similar to the thobe. As students prepare for their graduation ceremonies, adorned in caps and gowns, it’s fascinating to explore the deep-rooted history of this academic attire, which finds its origins in Islamic culture and the Golden Age of Islam. The traditional graduation gown and cap have origins influenced by the Islamic Golden Age and Arab culture, a history unknown to many.

The Foundation of the First University

In 859, Fatima Al-Fahri, a Muslim woman, established the world’s oldest university, Al-Qarawiyyan, in Fez, Morocco. 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, attracting students from Europe and beyond, was where the concept of the graduation gown (thobe) began.

Expansion to Other Universities

The first recognized university in Europe is the University of Bologna, established in 1088 in Italy. While Islamic scholars and universities had a significant influence on European education during the Middle Ages, the University of Bologna was not founded by Muslims. These universities adopted the tradition of the graduation gown inspired by Arab culture.


Spanning from the mid-7th to the mid-13th century, the Islamic Golden Age was a time of immense intellectual and cultural flourishing. Contributions from Muslim scholars in various fields laid the groundwork for much of today's knowledge in mathematics, medicine, and more. During this era, many universities were established, emphasizing the value of education. Graduation ceremonies for medical students included wearing thobe-like robes, a tradition that signified their academic achievements.

Evolution of the Graduation Gown & The Thobe's Legacy 

Western students graduating from Islamic universities adopted the thobe-like gowns, symbolizing their scholarly success. This attire, originating from traditional Arab dress, evolved into the graduation gowns we recognize today. The thobe, an ancient Arabian garment, was refined during the Islamic Golden Age with high collars and quality materials to provide sun protection. Scholars and students wore this attire, allowing them to study outdoors comfortably. While today's graduation gowns are not identical to the thobe, they retain its essence, reflecting a long-standing tradition. This tradition can still be seen in various forms of modest Islamic apparel, such as those offered by brands like Ainsunnah that celebrate this cultural heritage.


Medieval Academic Dress 

Over the centuries, the design of the graduation gown has undergone various modifications. Initially, a cloak accompanied the gown, but by the 16th century, universities like Cambridge and Oxford standardized the gown alone. Hoods and capes were later introduced, with the liripipe, a flat hood, still in use today. The colors of these hoods often indicate different fields of study.

The Cap and Tassel 

The graduation cap and tassel also have historical significance. The flat-top hat is believed to symbolize the Qur’an, representing the importance of the holy book above human intellect. The tassel resembles a bookmark used in the Qur’an, marking students’ place in their studies.

This historical influence underscores the profound impact of the Muslim world on Western academic traditions and graduation attire.


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