Zaytuna College: Accreditation and the Context of Education in America

A historical moment was ushered on March 7, 2015 as Zaytuna College and through it the American Muslim community received initial accreditation from WASC Senior College and University Commission. Zaytuna’s accreditation occasion is monumental and opens a much-needed space for Muslims at America’s academic table and with it the ability to offer unique perspectives toward re-centering acquisition of knowledge and education as the highest values in society.

Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and myself founded Zaytuna College in 2007 with the expressed mission “to educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual and spiritual leaders who are grounded in Islamic tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society.” The accreditation is an important and critical step in establishing a viable academic address for Muslims in America that will go a long way in effecting how the community is viewed and approached in the larger society.

In this regard, Zaytuna College aims to graduate students who are not only conversant with Islamic scripture, books of law, and the sciences of the Qur’an and Hadith; but also aim to produce students who are grounded in their knowledge of the particular realities and needs of the American society. The fundamental challenge to Zaytuna’s programs is shaping the message of Islam in a community of diverse nationalities, cultures, theological and ideological outlooks during a time of extreme difficulties at home and abroad.

Zaytuna College believes in an Islam that is removed from excessiveness and extremism; not because it is the slogan of the day or born of the entanglement with current political problems in the world; rather it is a reflection of a firm faith and belief in the correctness of this approach which has an unbroken chain that reaches back to the Messenger of God―God’s blessing and peace upon him. Our approach is not moved by mere reaction to unfolding events; rather we apply our firm principles to respond correctly to the present and help shape the future.

Zaytuna College desires to promote an educational model that suits the Muslim American community and its special circumstances while producing a generation capable of interacting with the cultural, social, political and legal norms of this country without being disconnected from the world. Precisely on this point American Muslims arrival at an accredited college must be placed in its proper historical context.

From Selma, Alabama to Zaytuna College

This moment for American Muslims must be contextualized and considered with an important event and circumstances some 50 years ago, the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. In American civil rights history March 7th, 1965 known as Bloody Sunday, which yearly commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King and civil rights activists March in Selma, Alabama demanding the right to vote, an important tool to bring an end to racial segregation.

The peaceful march led by MLK finally took place on March 21, 1965 but the circumstances that led to the crossing is directly connected to a February murder, whereby an Alabama state trooper fatally shot the unarmed civil rights organizer Jimmy Lee Jackson, who at the time was organizing in Selma for the right to vote. The murder of Jimmy was the cause for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize the march from Selma to Montgomery, a turning point in the struggle for the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

The march on that bridge in 1965 and the civil rights struggle is what made it possible for Muslims today to cross into a new America and have a space at the table. The Civil Rights Act preceded the Voting Rights Act then was followed by the passage and signing into law on October 3, 1965 of the Immigration Rights Act: three major legislations that made it possible for a new America to emerge and Zaytuna College to become a reality. American Muslims and their institutions are direct beneficiaries of the monumental sacrifices made by individuals and groups in the civil rights movement and certainly effected the arrival at a Zaytuna College, an accredited institution and an affirmation of inclusiveness today.

Indeed, before the Selma to Montgomery march, the civil rights activists protested at segregated launch counters, students traveled to the South for Freedom Summer to register African Americans to vote as well as court challenges to ‘separate but equal’ which was a ‘legally’ sanctioned structure of racial inequality and discrimination. Rosa Park, the giant of the civil rights movement, refused to give her seat up for a white person and not because she was physically tired and she might have been; rather because she was tired of sub-humanness, racism and structured violence. We are celebrating the moment and success of American Muslims but it belongs to all those who put their bodies and real lives on the line for a better and more inclusive America to emerge. Certainly, it is to them all as much as anyone else this institution belongs and to be celebrated in unity and affirmation of the long road to equality, fairness and dignity.

Zaytuna College is made possible by the actions of Ruby Bridges, the brave little 6 years old African American girl, the first black child to attend William Frantz Elementary School, an all white school in the South. Ruby confronted racist adults who were infantile in their ignorance facing a dignified child transformed into a universal giant able to move mountains by her innocence and determination. Indeed, Ruby faced parents pulling their kids from the school and teachers refusing to be with her in the same class. One white teacher made difference, Barbara Henry accepted to teach Ruby and for a whole year taught her alone in a classroom while protesters would leave a black doll in a coffin in the room as well as threaten the child daily when coming and leaving the school. The story of Ruby was commemorated by Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, which was published in Look Magazine on January 14, 1964.

The possibilities of Zaytuna College would not have become a reality without those who marched on the bridge in Selma, Alabama. They stretched their bodies for all of us to climb and cross over safely into a different and more inclusive America. Rosa Park, Ruby Bridges, Jimmy Lee Jackson, MLK, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and countless and nameless others struggled to make America live-up to its professed ideals and create the just, fair and inclusive society that we all aspire for and should continue to struggle to actualize.

Arrival and Renewal of Higher Education

Zaytuna College accreditation is an important step and opens a space for Muslims at America’s wide and diverse academic and institutional table but we should not be satisfied with a mere arrival at the door or be happy for getting seat. What we should offer is both a critique of the present conditions of higher education and courage to propose solutions to endemic problems. At a time when higher education has been commodified and transformed into a pure by product of economic imperatives devoid of meaning, ethics and morals then we have a serious crisis at hand. When education is solely understood and measured by a bottom line consideration and the value of a degree is assessed in dollars and cents rather than focus on a higher purpose then we all are diminished.

The net outcome for this approach is an education that is disfigured and transformed into an industrial complex whereby students are customers, faculty are a sales force and administrators are floor managers and bean counters for efficiency’s sake. In such an educational setting, the pre-occupation of all is not to explore the deeper meanings of the human journey; rather how to get into the fastest and quickest path up the fictitious success ladder. In such higher education setting then it should not come as a shock that students are loaded on average with $27,000 debt and sent out to the world burdened and empty shells of their former innocent selves. An indebted youth in the formative period of their age are transformed into cowardly surfs wanting a spot inside the machine and fearing to imagine a possibility of a life outside the institutions that made them nothing more than a plug in a never ending machine.

The best and brightest that are molded in the contemporary educational industrial complex are then unleashed to run and devise the sub-prime lending criminal enterprise, manage and expand the corporate greed machine while destroying the earth on the way. A commodified and industrialized higher education is materially productive and constitutive of relations for society at large. In this context, the purpose of higher education is instrumentalized to produce the needed human replacement parts for the existing and future hoped for distorted economic order. Yes, we do research, hold conferences and publish books and articles but they are all part of a long de-humanizing chain and an enterprise devoid of meaning, morality and ethics

Zaytuna College, as a liberal arts institution, is committed to ask the ethical questions and prepare students to make the right decision when it is a choice between maximum profit through sub-prime mortgage or securing the savings of hard working elders. Today’s problems are ethical ones first and foremost, however current corporate type educational institutions responses are formulated in technical and purely material terms rather than the more difficult philosophical, moral and, dare say, spiritual solutions. Accreditation in this sense is a way for Muslims to enter into the academic round table with a unique educational epistemology and ready to demonstrate in tangible ways that the wisdom that built the Islamic civilization in the past is alive and well and can once again renew, in a serious and sustained manner, its contribution to the betterment of humanity.