I was a bit late for my meeting last week with 19-year-old Musab Abduallah, who I hoped would explain to me why anyone would attend Zaytuna College, an unaccredited, three-year-old Muslim institution with about 30 students and not even 10 professors. I found Mr. Abduallah at Caffe Strada. He had arranged his books on the table as if to answer my question.
By his right hand, he had neatly stacked the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Beneath it was the quadrivium, the Renaissance curriculum, comprising arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. And at the bottom was the trivium, comprising grammar, logic and rhetoric, traditionally taught before the quadrivium. These seven arts were once the basis of a European education, and they have recently become popular with some Christian home-schoolers.
Now, at Zaytuna College, the Greeks, the scholastics and the whole Western tradition are being taught alongside the Koran.
"I believe the liberal arts are key to understanding Islam," Mr. Abduallah said, as he began to sip his tea. Reading scripture alone, he suggested, could lead to closed-mindedness, fear, violence. "We need to understand our tradition trans-historically. When someone makes a lampooning of the Prophet Muhammad, why do we react with violence? Why don't we react with art and literature?"
Ever since Hamza Yusuf, an American convert to Islam, founded Zaytuna in 2001 as a loosely organized seminary, I had heard it described either as a Muslim version of the great Catholic colleges, like Georgetown or Notre Dame, or as the Muslim version of Brandeis, a school without a religious curriculum but with a strong Jewish cultural identity.
But Zaytuna is something different, something quite retro: a Muslim school with a quasi-"great books" curriculum, drawing on the whole Western tradition. It's sort of like Harvard College, circa 1850 — but instead of the Bible, Greek and Latin, and Plato, it's the Koran, Arabic and Plato.
Mahan Mirza, the Pakistani-born scholar whose Koran class I had attended that morning, almost immediately invoked the Encyclopaedia Britannica's "Great Books of the Western World" series, published in 1952.
"The series jumps from Augustine in 400 to Aquinas in the year 1200," said Mr. Mirza, who studied at the University of Texas and Yale, then left Notre Dame for a job here. He reminded me that the intervening years included a golden age of Islamic scholarship. "We consider ourselves part of that conversation, rather than something separate."
Mr. Mirza compared Zaytuna to St. John's College, with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, and to Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California, other "great books" schools often viewed as countercultural options, which offer an education starkly different from the anything-goes menu available at most American universities. But at Zaytuna, the traditionalist curriculum orients its students toward the United States, marking them as more "American," less foreign, than students who might seek an Islamic education abroad.
"One of the aims of the college is to show that you don't have to leave the country to discover yourself as a Muslim," Mr. Mirza said. "The way it's worked historically is a madrassa in South Asia will have an Indian feel, a madrassa in Africa will have an African feel. We will have an American feel. Yet they'll all have something in common."
Mr. Mirza's morning class included nine women and six men. When it was over, I spoke with two female students, Madeeha Gohar, 30, and Reema Lateef, 19.
Ms. Gohar already had a college degree, from the University of California, Riverside. "I wasn't happy with my education there," she said. She wanted to study Arabic further, but "didn't want to go overseas" because she was afraid that instruction in Arab countries consisted of memorization. By contrast, a Zaytuna professor she met emphasized his interest in etymology and philology, in the history of words.
Ms. Lateef, from Orlando, Fla., was home-schooled for most of her education, and was also a competitive rower. She had an acceptance letter from Rollins College near Orlando when she decided to take a chance on Zaytuna.
"I woke up one morning during Ramadan," Ms. Lateef said, "and thought I didn't want to go to the typical American school. I didn't want to do well just to pass the tests."
Ms. Lateef also realized she needed a school that could challenge her. "Even if I were at Yale or UPenn's Arabic program," she said, "I'd already know what they teach you in the fourth year. My goal is to know the Semitic languages — Arabic, Hebrew and Persian — and help people see we all have a common language."
She spoke, too, of her logic class, and the course in which she read "Hamlet" and parts of "The Odyssey."
"And we read Aristotle and the Greek philosophers," Ms. Gohar interjected.
Right now, Zaytuna's mission is strong, its future precarious. Most students are on financial aid, which necessitates constant fund-raising. The annual budget is "between four and five million dollars," Waheed Abdul Rasheed, Zaytuna's chief operating officer, told me. "The majority of the money is from the U.S. And a lot of donors are secular. For them it's important that Islam be seen as an academic endeavor, not just this mullah mind-set."
Scott Korb, author of "Light Without Fire," a new book about Zaytuna, said in an e-mail that he sees no ambivalence about Zaytuna's mission, to foster an American Islam. "The message from the founders is clear: America is home," he wrote. "Now this hasn't been a universal among every Muslim community I've encountered. But at Zaytuna it seems to be."
After 9/11, Ms. Lateef, the student, felt less religious than ever. "I was like, 'Why would God do this, put me in such a position? Is it because I'm American?'" Now, she said, she believes that the two identities are definitely compatible.
"The beautiful part of Zaytuna College is that Muslim is not Middle Eastern," she said. "Being Muslim is whatever you want it to be."