Faatimah Knight's college decision came down to eight schools where she would have majored in English, or Zaytuna College, where she could study Islamic classical teachings in an environment that embraces all aspects of her Muslim faith.
The Brooklyn native is part of the inaugural class of what Zaytuna's founders hope will be the country's first accredited, four-year Muslim liberal arts college - a flagship of higher learning with an Islamic identity yet open to all faiths.
Knight, 18, chose Zaytuna, she said, because she wants to grow in her faith, learn more about the religion that inspired her parents to convert from Christianity and be able to defend Islam during a time of stepped-up suspicion.
Knight, an aspiring writer, is one of 15 Zaytuna students who started classes recently. Zaytuna College grew out of a pilot seminary program at the Zaytuna Institute, which a handful of students graduated from in 2008. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an American-born convert from the San Francisco Bay Area who studied Islam abroad, started the institute in 1996 with classes in Arabic and Islamic studies.
Yusuf began planning Zaytuna's transition to a full-fledged college two years ago with 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.
The three are among the best-known and most-respected Muslim scholars in America, said Zahra Billoo, the programs and outreach director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Bay Area chapter.
The college will seek accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and founders hope to graduate students who can work in any profession, including serving the Muslim American community as imams, nonprofit managers and Islamic school teachers.
Though Muslims have been in the U.S. for centuries, most immigrated here within the past 40 years, with 80 percent of U.S. Muslims arriving after 1980, said Farid Senzai, a member of Zaytuna's management committee and the research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan-based think tank focused on U.S. Muslims.
Over several generations, Muslim Americans have built an infrastructure of mosques, schools and advocacy organizations. Now, with a population estimated to range from 2 million to as many as 8 million, and growing financial stability, they're beginning to build academic institutions, Senzai said, just as Catholics and Jews did generations ago.
The college could provide ranks of homegrown imams to lead the country's estimated 2,000 mosques instead of foreign-born leaders who sometimes face cultural, language and generational gaps.
Zaytuna is offering two majors to start: Arabic language, and Islamic law and theology. There are plans to add advanced degrees, adult-education classes and professional certificate programs in areas such as Islamic medical ethics, Islamic finance and religious training for imams and undergraduates.
Zaytuna was intentionally planted in progressive Berkeley, an intellectual hub with a sizable Muslim community. The college will be housed at the American Baptist Seminary of the West for five years until founders can establish its own campus.