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Zaytuna College & ‘American’ Islam

Published: 13/04/2013 12:18:21 PM GMT
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CAIRO - Mixing the Greeks, the scholastics and the whole Western sciences with traditional Qur'an and Arabic subjects, America's first Muslim college is setting a unique example as a Muslim version of the great American unive (more)

CAIRO - Mixing the Greeks, the scholastics and the whole Western sciences with traditional Qur'an and Arabic subjects, America's first Muslim college is setting a unique example as a Muslim version of the great American universities.

“I believe the liberal arts are key to understanding Islam,” Mussab Abouabdalla, 19-year-old Muslim student who attends Zaytuna College, told The New York Times on Saturday, April 13.

“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?”

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Though attending an unaccredited three-year-old Muslim institution seemed strange to some, Abouabdalla was admired by his study at Zaytuna College.

At the Islamic college, the young Muslim was studying the noble Qur'an, the quadrivium, the Renaissance curriculum, comprising arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

These seven arts were once the basis of a European education, and they have recently become popular with some Christian home-schoolers.

Mixing great sciences with Islamic studies, Zaytuna earned its reputation as a great educational institute, being compared to great Catholic colleges, such as Georgetown or Notre Dame.

Being a Muslim school with a quasi-"great books” curriculum, it was also compared to Harvard College, circa 1850 — but instead of the Bible, Greek and Latin, and Plato, it's the Qura'n, Arabic and Plato.

Mahan Mirza, a Pakistani-born scholar, 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 Dr. Mirza, who studied at the University of Texas and Yale, then left Notre Dame for a job here.

He added that intervening years included a golden age of Islamic scholarship.

“We consider ourselves part of that conversation, rather than something separate,” he said.

Zaytuna College, which stems its name from the Arabic word “olive”, opened doors to first students in its rented space in a Baptist seminary in Berkeley in August, 2010.

It offers two majors; Arabic language and Islamic law and theology.

The college, a brainchild of Imam Shakir, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Professor Hatem Bazian, aspires to be America's first accredited, four-year Muslim liberal arts college in the United States.

American Muslim

The unique mix of American and world sciences with Islamic teachings offered American Muslim students a better opportunity for a more “American”, less foreign education.

“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,” Dr. Mirza said.

“The way it's worked historically is a madrasa in South Asia will have an Indian feel, a madrasa in Africa will have an African feel. We will have an American feel. Yet they'll all have something in common.”

Zaytuna also made it less likely for American Muslims to seek Islamic education abroad.

“I wasn't happy with my education there,” Madeeha Gohar, 30-year-old student who had a college degree, from the University of California, Riverside, 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.

Reema Lateef, 19, from Orlando, Fla., turned down an opportunity at Rollins College near Orlando to take a chance on Zaytuna.

“I woke up one morning during Ramadan,” 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.”

“Even if I were at Yale or UPenn's Arabic program, 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 said.

Scott Korb, author of “Light Without Fire,” a new book about Zaytuna, praised Zaytuna's mission in fostering an American Islam.

“The message from the founders is clear: America is home,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Now this hasn't been a universal among every Muslim community I've encountered. But at Zaytuna it seems to be.”

Reproduced with permission from