Sheik Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir share a vision for the next step in the evolution of Islam in America: creating the country's first four-year, accredited Muslim college.
The two men, American scholars of Islam and leaders in the Muslim community, are criss-crossing the country building support for an institution they call Zaytuna College, which they plan to open next fall. The college will serve the nation's growing Muslim population, blending traditional Islam and American culture and establishing a permanent place for the religion in American society.
Before any of that can happen, Zaytuna's founders face steep challenges. They must hire a staff, establish a curriculum, develop admissions policies, and raise at least $5-million just to open their doors—all during a particularly trying time for college fund raising. At the same time, government scrutiny has put a chill on Muslim philanthropy.
Despite the compressed timeline, they have yet to hire a permanent development director and are just completing a search for a vice president of operations. What they have going for them: Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Shakir have built a following with their inspirational lectures and willingness to take a critical look at Islam. Young people flock to their events. They have experience raising money for Islamic charities, and they are starting small, with plans for an entering class of just 20 to 30 students in rented classroom space.
They have no doubt that this is the moment to start educating a generation of homegrown Islamic leaders. "Nothing is harder to stop than an idea whose time has come," says Mr. Shakir.
Although the two scholars are far from their goal, some Muslim observers say they are on the right path. Yet they will need to broaden their reach beyond the Islamic community, which has traditionally focused its philanthropy on immediate needs and local causes, says Tariq H. Cheema, executive director of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists, which promotes effective and accountable giving in the Islamic community.
U.S.-born converts who studied Arabic and Islam abroad, Mr. Shakir, 53, and Mr. Yusuf, 50, see a need for a college that would teach traditional Arabic and Islamic studies in the context of American culture, which they believe would appeal to the children of immigrants who were raised here and know this country better than their parents' homelands. A well-regarded Islamic college would also be good for the Muslim faith, the scholars say, easing suspicions that it is an outsider religion.
"For us to really take our proper place in the mosaic of the country and make a contribution, we're going to need to produce our own scholars," Mr. Shakir says.
Their idea capitalizes on the growing Muslim population in the United States. There are between 2.5 million and seven million Muslims in this country, according to various estimates. The majority are foreign born, but the percentage is shifting as the numbers of converts and American-born children of immigrants grow. In New York City alone, some 10 percent of public-school students are Muslim.
Zaytuna's founders say new leaders are urgently needed for the estimated 2,200 mosques and 500 Islamic elementary and secondary schools across the country. Many mosques have to import clerics from Muslim countries, who don't always understand American culture.
Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in the Near Eastern-studies department at the University of California at Berkeley, has seen the growing need and is working with Zaytuna officials to raise money and develop a curriculum.
"Something real is taking place," he says. "Zaytuna College is part of this transformation."
Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf have been practicing Islam since the late 1970s. Mr. Shakir, who was raised Baptist in Connecticut and Georgia, converted to Islam after meeting other converts in the U.S. Air Force. The religion's combination of spirituality and social activism appealed to him. Mr. Yusuf grew up Greek Orthodox in Northern California and converted after a near-fatal car accident as a teenager.
In 1996, Mr. Yusuf started an educational nonprofit organization, Zaytuna Institute, that was the precursor of the new college. The institute offers classes and recorded lectures in Islamic studies. Mr. Shakir joined in 2003, after spending years leading a mosque in Connecticut. The next year, he introduced a pilot seminary program to test the waters for a religious college. The program graduated five students last year.
Elements of those programs will be incorporated into the college, which will offer majors in Arabic and Islamic studies. The intention is to eventually expand the offerings, then add graduate programs. Mr. Shakir expects the first students to be almost all Muslims, but says Zaytuna's doors will be open to all faiths. (An Arabic-immersion course the institute offered last summer drew students from a variety of backgrounds.) The hope is that Zaytuna College will also be attractive to donors who are interested in promoting religious understanding.
Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf are frequently called on to speak for mainstream Islam. Mr. Yusuf met with President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and he and Mr. Shakir have appeared on CNN, NPR, and in The New York Times.
At the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, held this summer in Washington, more than 500 people crowded into a convention hall to hear the two scholars make the case for Zaytuna College. Mr. Shakir, a tall, bearded man in a white prayer cap and flowing black jacket, spoke eloquently about how the country's economic crisis highlighted the need for more-ethical leaders. Mr. Yusuf, who has a trimmed goatee and wore a sports jacket without a tie, said Islam was in a crisis, too, pointing out that learning the religion solely by memorizing the Koran—something done in madrassas in other countries—hurts the cause. The religion needs a place where people can study the text in depth and with critical intellect, he said.
Their pitch received enthusiastic support, with some people snapping pictures and swarming around the men after they finished speaking. One woman said she would rather have her 10-year-old triplets attend Zaytuna College than Stanford University.
Zaytuna's leaders seemed to relate well to the many students in the crowd. Maqbool Halepota and his wife, Farnaz, observed that firsthand when they held a 200-person fund raiser for Zaytuna College at their house near Scottsdale, Ariz., this spring. The scholars stayed in their home and played pool and basketball with the couple's 10- and 20-year-old sons.
That impressed Dr. Halepota, who came to the United States from Pakistan after medical school. "I don't even know how to hold a basketball," he says.
House parties have so far been Zaytuna's main method of raising money, bringing in a total of about $500,000. More are planned for this fall, including events where Mr. Yusuf will appear by live video in several houses on the same night.
Zaytuna is also running a monthlong online campaign centered around Ramadan, a traditional time for giving that ends this week. The institute placed banner ads on Muslim Web sites, blasted e-mail fund-raising pleas, and recorded videos with Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf explaining why it was important to give to their aspiring college. The scholars hope to bring in about $200,000 from the drive. Another small campaign, called "Count Me In," encourages people to give what they can on a regular basis.
In addition to those efforts, Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf have started a campaign to raise $5-million by next fall. They plan to rely on major gifts from the college's board of trustees and management committee, which is developing a detailed start-up plan for the college.
Major gifts will also be needed to meet Zaytuna's bigger fund-raising goals: $15- to $20-million to establish a campus in the Bay Area, and $50-million or more for an endowment. They expect to do most of their fund raising in the United States, though they are open to donations from individuals abroad. (They say they will not accept money from foreign governments.)
Those goals are a major leap for Zaytuna, whose institute has raised between $1-million and $2-million a year over the last few years.
The timing couldn't be much more difficult, as many college fund raisers are seeing a slowdown in big-gift commitments. Zaytuna founders and supporters say they believe the capacity to give is there. For example, about 10 percent of the members of one Silicon Valley mosque make more than $1-million a year, according to research done by a member of Zaytuna's management committee. Some of these prospects may not have been tapped for major gifts before, Zaytuna leaders say.
Dr. Halepota, who estimates he has spent $30,000 setting up fund raisers for Zaytuna College, says he is concerned about the economic downturn. "With the economy, I think it will be a little harder, but I think it's still doable," he says. "I'm confident it's going to happen."
If Zaytuna officials do not meet their financial goals, the college may start on a smaller scale and use the institute's existing teachers, space, and other resources, Mr. Shakir says. But he isn't worried yet: "We're still forging ahead with Plan A."
A New Approach
Charitable giving is built into the Muslim faith. One of the five Pillars of Islam is zakat, or giving a small portion of one's income to charity. But Muslim charity has tended more toward grass-roots efforts for immediate needs, such as aid to poor Muslims abroad. Many Muslims also give to their local mosques. Giving in a sustainable, strategic way to build an enduring institution such as Zaytuna College will be a departure, philanthropy experts say.
But Ms. Halepota, who is on the board of her local Islamic center in Arizona, says she is noticing a shift. Now that many communities have built impressive religious centers, they are becoming more responsive to requests for education donations.
"People are now realizing that they have their grocery stores, restaurants, and masjids," or mosques, she says. "They need something more everlasting."
Another challenge facing Zaytuna College is a changed attitude toward giving to Muslim charities. The U.S. government crackdown on several Muslim organizations following the terrorist attacks has led to a pervasive fear among Muslim donors that they could be questioned by law-enforcement officials for donations given in good faith, according to a June report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Zaytuna's leaders say they haven't seen skittish donors. The college will spend its money in the United States, not overseas, unlike most of the charities that were investigated.
The college plans to apply for accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a multiyear process that will closely examine its financial operations and business plan. Zaytuna's leaders believe that should help ease any suspicion about how it uses its money.
"We're trying to build a foundation that could withstand any audit, any inspection, whether it's rooted in fear and prejudice or good business practice," says Diane Bauer, co-chair of the management committee.
Accreditation is important to Sumaya I. Mehai, a 20-year-old Muslim from Santa Barbara, Calif., who attended Zaytuna's intensive Arabic course and is considering applying to the college. She would like to transfer to Zaytuna or Berkeley when she finishes her second year at Santa Barbara City College, but the choice will depend on price and whether she can transfer credits.
She's interested in a place where she wouldn't have to sacrifice studying her religion for pursuing a career.
"Zaytuna," she says, "makes it possible to do both at the same time."