The first Muslim college in the United States began classes earlier this week.
The inaugural freshmen class of the non-profit Islamic institution known as Zaytuna College has just fifteen students, yet the school is making headlines across the globe. Zaytuna College wants to become the first fully accredited Muslim institution of higher education and its students are excited to be a part of history.
Located in Berkeley, California, which is often considered one of the most politically liberal towns in the United States, Zaytuna College has some conservatives questioning the founders’ motives. The school was started by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an American-born convert from the San Francisco Bay Area who studied Islam abroad; Imam Zaid Shakir, a Berkeley convert who studied Islam abroad; and Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and a Palestinian native who’s lived in the Bay Area for nearly 27 years, who hope to “prepare morally committed human beings that can go out and make a difference in the world as Muslims.”
According to an NPR article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Yusuf also says that Zaytuna has a deeper motive than just making the students feel at home. He wants to separate the religion of Islam from the customs and ideas of the Middle East.
There are other Muslim institutions of higher education in the United States, but Zaytuna College—which grew out of the Zaytuna Institute, a seminary founded by Yusuf in 1996—is calling itself “America’s First Muslim College” while it actively seeks accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States. Zaytuna also wants recognition from major educational institutions in the Muslim world, such as al-Azhar University in Egypt.
Bazian said that the process of gaining accreditation “is a daunting task, there is no question about it. But I’m completely confident and comforted that almost every major private university began with one classroom and possibly one building and sometimes it was a rented facility to begin with."
Perhaps it’s simply poor timing—the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 Al-Quaeda terrorist attacks is quickly approaching, and a planned Islamic community center and mosque located near site of the former World Trade Center has caused storms of protest—but Muslims in America are causing quite a stir. A pastor in Florida has been threatening to burn copies of the Quran on September 11th and outspoken personalities such as Newt Gingrich equte Muslims with terrorists and Nazis.
Almost ironically, Zaytuna College currently exists in space rented in a Baptist seminary. Its two majors for the time being are Arabic language and Islamic legal and theological studies.
Some Muslims also oppose the idea of an Islamic college. A May 2009 Associated Press article by Rachel Zoll, published while Zaytuna College was still in its planning stages, reported that Mahmoud Ayoub, a retired professor of Islamic studies Temple University, is among those who don’t support the idea of a U.S. Muslim college—not only because of the enormous expense and risk involved, but also because he believes Muslims are better off attending established American schools.
Ayoub’s opinion? “I don’t know that I would send my child to go to a college where they can only learn tradition. Young people have to live,” said Ayoub who has worked with the U.S. State Department, representing America in the Muslim world. “I like mixing people. I don’t like ghettos."
Of course, Zaytuna College’s founders and students feel otherwise. Zaytuna’s founders hope to enroll more students, add more majors, offer graduate programs and have its own campus.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.