Sheik Hamza Yusuf has made up a word to describe the kind of education he wants future students to gain at Zaytuna College. The word is "acadevotional," and he uses it to convey the college's goal: "We want academic rigor within a devotional context."
Creating institutions of higher education is part of what religious groups do as they integrate into American life. While there have been several other attempts to open a Muslim college over the years, none have taken off. Zaytuna's founders hope to change that.
Founding a college is a way for a religious group, especially one in the minority, to fit into the establishment. "On the one hand, you want to make it in the system, but you also want to preserve your identity," says John L. Esposito, a university professor and director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Studying at Zaytuna will be quite different from studying Islam at other colleges. Mr. Yusuf majored in religious studies at San Jose State University in the early 1990s, after studying Islam abroad. At San Jose State, Mr. Yusuf says, he was told his papers were "too devotional."
"Western academia has this idea of objectivity," he says. "It's such a fallacy in my opinion. People have points of view." Zaytuna, in contrast, will allow Muslim students to learn about Islam from within their own religious tradition.
Another big goal of the start-up college is to train imams. Many American mosques are led by imams from overseas, and not all of them are well equipped to communicate with young Muslims who grew up in the United States. Younger Muslims "need to see an Islam that's sound in its orthodoxy but also relevant to the cultural landscape they find themselves in," Mr. Yusuf says.
Training American imams could be a niche for Zaytuna, Mr. Esposito says. Imam Muhammad Abdul Latif Finch finished a pilot seminary program last year at the institute that is starting Zaytuna College.
Mr. Finch is now the imam at the Lighthouse Mosque, in Oakland, Calif., and teaches Arabic, Koranic recitation, and Islamic studies to home-schooled students. He had considered moving to Yemen to study. But he wanted what Zaytuna plans to offer: "Why not have an institution where you can learn your religion amongst your own people in a context dealing with your issues?"
Scholars of Islam say American Muslims really don't have a place in this country for their leaders to be trained. Hartford Seminary has a program for training Muslim chaplains, but no equivalent program exists for leaders to serve mosques.
"It's utterly embarrassing to Muslims that there's not a viable Muslim seminary in America," says Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For that reason, some observers are surprised that Zaytuna is attempting to establish a whole college rather than just a seminary. "My sense is, where we are right now, we do need a seminary first," Mr. Safi says.
A full college will have to excel in a host of programs, he says. "The question is, Why would a kid go to Zaytuna College to study medicine when they could go to Berkeley?"
It would make more sense, Mr. Safi says, to have students earn, or at least start, a bachelor's degree elsewhere and then come to Zaytuna.
But Mr. Yusuf thinks it's important that his college get students right out of high school. Classical Islamic learning requires lots of memorization, he says, something that students should begin in college, if not before: "You have to get minds when they are fresh."