America’s First Muslim College To Open This Fall

Letters of admission went out last month to the approximately 20 students who will make up the inaugural freshman class of Zaytuna College, which founders hope will become the nation’s first accredited Muslim institution of higher learning.

The founders of the college, which is scheduled to open in Berkeley, Calif., this fall, say Zaytuna will be a Muslim liberal arts college in the same tradition as other sectarian liberal arts colleges that operate in this country. In its early years, Zaytuna will offer bachelor’s degrees in Islamic law and theology and Arabic, according to Dr. Hatem Bazian, a co-founder of the college and chair of its academic affairs committee. As the college grows, he says, it will add majors.

“We are trying to graduate well-rounded students who will be skilled in a liberal arts education with the ability to engage in a wider framework of society and the variety of issues that confront them,” says Bazian. “We want them to have many possibilities in front of them. Those who want to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. or pursue other fields would have that ability. We are thinking of how to set up the students for success. We don’t see any contradiction between religious and secular subjects.”

Bazian, who teaches Near Eastern and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says the college’s co-founders chose the Bay area because of the large Muslim community there and several leading universities. The other two co-founders are Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir. Although they are not professors, they do teach at the college.

The college is open to men and women of all faiths, college officials say. They expect both traditional and nontraditional students in the freshman class.

“We are getting a nice mix of our student body,” Bazian says. “We will have a more diverse class both in terms of gender and age distribution.”

For its first three to five years, the college will use a rented facility near the UC Berkeley campus. Bazian says the college has raised enough funds to carry Zaytuna through the first year and is trying to raise money for a permanent physical structure and to drum up enough financial support for a sizable endowment.

“We are engaged in progressive fundraising efforts that involve going out on a daily basis,” says Bazian. “We are holding fundraising dinners. Our calendar is filled from now till the end of the year with community events. … So far the response from the community has been positive. Members of the Muslim community across many parts of the country are highly professional and very well placed. Among those in the immigrant base, there are many in the upper middle class. We are also seeking assistance from philanthropic individuals across the world. But we do not seek governmental support.”

This is a second incarnation for Zaytuna College. It currently exists as an institute that teaches intensive courses in Arabic. The institute has also run a pilot program in the past that conferred unaccredited degrees on a few students. College officials are working to get Zaytuna accredited through the Accrediting Commission for Schools of the Western Association for Schools and Colleges, which accredits colleges and universities in California, Hawaii and the Pacific region. He says college officials are confident the college will be accredited.

Ray Lui, special assistant to the association’s president, says Zaytuna has yet to file the application for accreditation. He adds that the process for obtaining full accreditation through the association could take anywhere from seven to 10 years. Muslim leaders around the country are bullish about this new college. They say it is a significant milestone for the nation’s estimated 6 million Muslims. Islam is one of the nation’s fastest growing religions, with large pockets of Muslims in major metropolitan areas like Detroit, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and New York and in smaller pockets scattered throughout the country.

Although Muslims have lived in this country for centuries, the largest jump in numbers has occurred only in recent decades. The increase is largely because of immigration and conversions. By some estimates, the number of Muslims in the United States has tripled in the last 30 years.

By establishing Zaytuna College, say Muslim leaders, the nation’s Muslims are following a trail that’s been blazed by other religious groups, particularly mainstream Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Combined, all three groups control or have affiliations with hundreds of colleges and universities.

“I think this is a very positive and natural development for the American Muslim community,” says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C-based civil rights organization.

“It tells me that Muslims are coming of age,” says Safaa Zarzour, secretary general of the Indianapolis-based Islamic Society of North America, an organization that provides such services as chaplains for the U.S. military and technical support to Muslim schools, communities and organizations. “This is one more thing that makes Muslims part of the mainstream of America. It is an important part of the development of our community. This is a natural next step as far as I am concerned.”