America's New Muslim College

Near where I live in Berkeley, the country’s first four-year Muslim college just started its first semester. Zaytuna College, which for the time being is run out of the American Baptist Seminary that also houses the U.C. Berkeley program where I used to teach, has just 15 students right now. But it’s seeking accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, as well as recognition from the top Muslim universities around the world.

Zaytuna—the name means “olive tree” in Arabic—offers degrees in just two subjects, Islamic Law and Theology and Arabic. The college developed out of an Islamic seminary founded in nearby Hayward in the 1990s by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an Muslim scholar with ties to both Stanford and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. According to its founders, its mission is to teach Islam in the context of Western history and culture, as well as to promote understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds.

“We feel the college is very important in that it provides a grounding for the community in its own tradition—not in a sense to create a difference with the larger society, but to actually normalize its presence within the larger society, that there is no contradiction between being an American and being Muslim,” Zaytuna co-founder Hatem Bazian told the Religion News Service. The Muslim community, both in the U.S. and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has grown substantially over the last 40 years. As Don Lattin pointed out in a California Magazine profile of Zaytuna earlier this year, the number of students enrolling in classes on Islam and Islamic culture has been growing steadily both at U.C. Berkeley and at the Graduate Theological Union. Farid Senzai, a member of Zaytuna’s management committee, told the Religion News Service that American Muslims now are starting to build their own academic institutions, just as did earlier generations of American Jews and Catholics.

In spite of the manufactured controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” the creation of schools like this is a good thing. As Matt Krupnick points out, many of the country’s best colleges and universities originally had religious roots. In any case, as I’ve repeatedly argued, Islam in general is not to blame for the rise of anti-Western terrorism, even though Muslims make easy targets for politicians looking to score political points. You don’t have to accept either the tenets of Islam or the perspective of Zaytuna’s professors to see that the more Muslims flourish in America—rather than being stigmatized or ostracized—the more they will become an integral parts of our community, just as people of different faiths and backgrounds have since the country’s founding.

Photo credit: Meera Garud

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