The long history of Islamic scholarship has just gotten a novel addition: a college in California that seeks to educate Muslim leaders.
Zaytuna College held its inaugural classes August 24 and aims to become America's first four-year, accredited, Islamic institution of higher learning.
Founded by three Muslim-American scholars, Zaytuna focuses on renewing Islam's intellectual tradition while placing it in the context of American society.
"As the years pass, the founding of Zaytuna College will prove to be a milestone in bringing about both a sounder understanding of Islam and better relations between Muslims and members of other faith communities here in the United States — God willing," founder Zaid Shakir said in a news release marking the college's opening.
Dustin Craun, a student from Colorado in Zaytuna's first class, said the college will help Muslims navigate their role in the United States.
"I think that we, as Muslims in America, have to figure out how to learn what Islam is for us as Americans, and that is part of what this institution is about," Craun said. The college is "about being standard-bearers for the Muslims in this country."
Craun and the 14 other students in Zaytuna's initial class can choose from two majors: Islamic law and theology or Arabic. The school's founders expect some of them to become leaders of their communities as imams or in other capacities. Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that would be an important achievement because some foreign-born imams do not understand American culture and society.
"Importing works great for carpets. It doesn't work particularly great for imams in an American context, where they might need to know just as much about marital counseling," Safi said. Future Muslim religious leaders in America "are going to have to be completely up on the world of Facebook and [teenage singer] Justin Bieber, just as they are on the classical aspects of Islamic law."
Other U.S. colleges offer courses in Islamic studies, but Hatem Bazian, the academic affairs chair and a co-founder of Zaytuna, said the fledgling college takes another approach.
"At institutions that teach about Islam, it is teaching from the outside looking in, and often it is from a deconstructing approach," Bazian said. "We will be looking at Islam from within and with a sense of not to seek to deconstruct, but how to take that valuable core of the tradition and build upon it."
Other Americans have tried to launch Islamic colleges, in Chicago and New York. Zaytuna College might have an advantage in that its leadership is affiliated with well-established academic institutions. Bazian is an adjunct professor of religious studies at St. Mary's College of California, and co-founder Hamza Yusuf sits on the board of advisers for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.
Plans for Zaytuna include a campus of its own, but for now its home is at the Graduate Theological Union, where it rents classroom space from the American Baptist Seminary of the West. James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union, said Zaytuna promises to become a bridge for understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in America.
Bazian also envisions a role for Zaytuna as a bridge between the United States and predominantly Muslim countries through exchanges with academic institutions from across the global Muslim community.
"I think there is for the Muslim world now an intellectual address in America where they could feel that they could engage with this institution in conferences, in symposia, in exchanges that could take place," he said. He added that Islamic scholars in other countries have already expressed their interest.
Zaytuna is the fruit of more than a decade of efforts to promote Islamic scholarship in America. It grew out of the Zaytuna Institute, which Yusuf founded in 1996. Beginning in 2004, Shakir led a seminary program at the institute to test the viability of a college, and the institute's Arabic summer program has grown substantially over the past few years.
Application and enrollment procedures at Zaytuna mirror those of other American colleges. Admission decisions take into consideration grade-point averages, standardized tests and essays. Entering students must have a basic level of proficiency in Arabic, the equivalent of one year of university-level study.
Enrollment is open to people of all faiths.
"The first universities that were established in the Muslim world, at that time they were open to all, and our principle is that knowledge belongs to all of humanity," Bazian said.
Faculty positions at the college are fully staffed with both men and women. Zaytuna administrators will be drafting job descriptions as more teaching needs arise.
"Our job description would actually seek not only an individual who is skilled in their particular field, but who has awareness and an understanding of the Islamic intellectual contribution," Bazian said.
Bazian said Zaytuna has substantial challenges ahead. Among them is accreditation, essential for college degrees to be officially recognized in the United States. He said he is confident Zaytuna will receive accreditation, but the process could take four to eight years.
"We feel that it is very critical for an institution like ours, founded in the United States, to have the respect and the recognition of other institutions of higher learning, for us to be accredited," Bazian said.
Zaytuna, like well-established colleges, faces financial hurdles. Once it begins to expand, financing will become more critical.
"Our goal is to have a permanent site, and that is contingent on the financial resources and our fundraising projects and programs," Bazian said. "We are hopeful and positive that the Muslim-American community is forthcoming and will see this as their most important strategic step in strengthening their community institutional framework."
The college's initial endowment stands at $30 million for the next four years while it seeks additional endowments for several chairs in Islamic and Arabic studies. Also, Zaytuna aims to raise another $3 million to $4 million to cover operational expenses.
Bazian has a timeline in mind for Zaytuna. It would have its own permanent home in five to seven years and an enrollment of as many as 500 students in 10 years. As the student body grows, so would the academic offerings, with new majors and a strong research unit.
College administrators expect to offer more courses on Islamic jurisprudence and add studies of Shiite Islam.
Zaytuna might even compete with other colleges and universities on an entirely different level.
"I don't know yet if we will be able to get a football team, but I think a basketball team will be easily manageable in a short period of time," Bazian said.
For Craun, Zaytuna represents another chapter in America's rich cultural and spiritual heritage.
"These types of projects, in my opinion, deepen what is beautiful about this country in terms of its diversity, in terms of its acceptance and in terms of what we would hope would be a deep level of tolerance," he said. "It can bring another level of thought, another perspective, and another tradition to the myriad of opinions and understandings of reality that exist in this country."