Zaytuna College: An academic address for Muslims in America

March 4, 2015, stands as a historic date for American Muslims, as the WASC Senior College and University Commission granted initial accreditation to Zaytuna College, thus becoming the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States. The commission’s letter commended the “institution’s achievements” and praised Zaytuna leadership for “implementing a variety of robust quality assurance measures” that propelled the vote of confidence reflected in granting the initial accreditation. At a time of such an extreme negative news cycle focusing on Muslims, the initial accreditation vote is a most positive development for a community that has been battered for more than a decade.

Zaytuna College was founded in 2007 in Berkeley, California, by Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and myself 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 curriculum recenters Muslim intellectual pursuit in the contemporary world with a robust and broad conceptualization of adab that “includes decency, comportment, decorum, etiquette, manners, morals, proprietary and humaneness.” The purpose of Zaytuna education (and I would argue of Muslim intellectual pursuit) is to bring forth a conscious human being possessing agency that is directly and foundationally connected to the Divine.

The initial accreditation ushers Muslims arrival into the diverse American academic table on equal footing with a profound affirmation of the curriculum and leadership at this young institution. Moreover, the accreditation allows the students, faculty and community to take stock of accomplishment and trust in that a Zaytuna degree is recognizable by all other institutions and creates a seamless process for graduates to pursue further studies at ease.

Zaytuna founders’ aspiration is not merely content with the arrival at the academic table, important and valuable as it may be. The founders in due time and through proactive and deliberate conversations with like-minded liberal arts institutions hope to influence a deeper critique of problematic directions in higher education and education in general. Certainly, education points to the materialistic instrumentalization of knowledge as a pure byproduct of socio-economic and political imperatives. Education is a prerequisite for forging a healthy and ethical society that does not mean reproducing a distorted elitist notion, but grounding knowledge and education in a prophetic tradition rooted in serving humanity as the door to serving the Creator. When education becomes solely about a job, a cubicle and a bottom line dollar amount, then all of us are diminished for the value of the human is measured by the material and not the spiritual or metaphysical.

Yet possibly most critical in the context of Zaytuna at this period of time where Islam is defined by a fringe emptied of moral and ethical values is that Muslims can point to an academic address for Islam in America. Who to ask about Islam and Muslims in the local and global context can, not exclusively, but with a certain level of methodological authority, provide answers and responses grounded in moral and ethical values. Arriving in America’s academic space will translate to Zaytuna being a recognizable and critical partner in shaping higher education in the period to come. Higher education is going through a profound transformation driven by economic imperatives, information technology advancement and corporatization and commodification of knowledge being the pinnacle of the value pyramid.

An accredited institution makes it possible to open many doors and creates local, regional, national and international academic relations. In a short period of time, Zaytuna College will be ready to welcome students from across the globe and provide the much needed context to understanding Muslim circumstances in the West as well as provide diverse opportunities to engage in conversations with faith and civil society partners that are dedicated to seeing and bringing forth a different world.

The Zaytuna College curriculum is a unique mix and attempts to construct as well as revive classical Islamic education, which was rooted in the liberal arts. The distinction between secular and religious is a modern phenomena. In the past, Islamic education classified knowledge into individual obligations versus communal ones and categorized it for being useful or harmful to society. Both harmful and useful knowledge are to be studied so as to help society navigate the challenges posed by those who utilize the resultant powers embedded in pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

For the American Muslim community, which has attempted in the past to establish a college and sought accreditation, this is a monumental development to be celebrated and embraced by all. The work at the college has just begun: What is needed is long-term investment and the building of an endowment that can sustain the college for the foreseeable future. With the accreditation in hand, a graduating class is already making its mark on the world and another is a few months away from joining them. Then, strategic investments and partnerships will make for a qualitative difference in positioning the college for success. We ask Allah to continue the success and call on all people of goodwill who think and act strategically to embrace Zaytuna College as their own and assist the founders, faculty, staff and students to make a different world possible.