Zaytuna College became the nation's first accredited Muslim liberal arts university earlier this month when it got initial approval from the WASC Senior College and University Commission. Founded in 2009 and located in Berkeley, Calif., the college took in its first freshman class in 2010.
West Coast national research universities, such as Stanford University and UCLA, and member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, such as Biola University and California Baptist University, all have received accreditation through the same commission.
"Accreditation for us means … that Muslims have an academic address in America," said Hatem Bazian, a professor at Zaytuna College and one of its co-founders, in a video on the college's website. By contrast, Congregationalist ministers studied theology at Harvard College for more than a hundred years before the American Revolution. Roman Catholics founded Georgetown in 1789, and Isaac Mayer Wise championed the birth of Hebrew Union College in 1875.
So what makes a liberal arts college specifically Muslim? Zaytuna College invokes Naquib al-Attas, a contemporary Muslim philosopher from Malaysia: "The fundamental element inherent in the concept of education in Islam is the inculcation of adab (ta'dīb)." According to Zaytuna's website, "the term contains a complex set of meanings that includes decency, comportment, decorum, etiquette, manners, morals, propriety, and humaneness." College leaders say they plan to provide students an intellectual foundation in both the Islamic and Western civilizations, emphasizing periods of history and development not often studied at secular schools.
But the college currently offers only one degree, a B.A. in Islamic Law and Theology, a limited level of instruction critics say should have slowed the accreditation process. In addition to coursework, experiential learning, and a senior thesis—fairly common requirements for certain degrees at liberal arts colleges—Zaytuna College requires both the recitation and memorization of the Quran in order to graduate.
The college is small, enrolling just 21 students this year. But Zaytuna is ambitious, hoping to attract thousands of regular donors. In an open letter to prospective supporters, Hamza Yusuf—Zaytuna College's president and a convert to Islam from Eastern Orthodoxy—appealed to all American Muslims to support the college's mission: "As American Muslims, we are all Zaytuna's current caretakers, and we all need to ensure that Zaytuna thrives for those to come after us."
Yusuf is known as a moderate Muslim and serves as an Islamic Studies advisor at both Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, according to Fox News. ISIS issued a death decree for him earlier this year after he condemned the attack at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people. But Bazian has a reputation for stirring up anti-Israeli, and some say anti-American, sentiment. He founded Students for Justice in Palestine and at a 2004 rally seemed to call for a Muslim uprising in the United States.
"Are you angry?" Bazian shouted to protesters in San Francisco. "Well, we've been watching intifada in Palestine, we've been watching an uprising in Iraq, and the question is that what are we doing? How come we don't have an intifada in this country? … and it's about time that we have an intifada in this country that change[s] fundamentally the political dynamics in here."