An Islamic College in Berkeley?

A Muslim educational institute seeks to become a four-year, accredited college -- a first for the United States.
May 20, 2009

The proposed Zaytuna College would be a first: a four-year, accredited, Islamic college in the United States.

"Part of the process of indigenizing Islam in America is for the community to begin to develop its own leadership from inside the country, develop its own scholars," said Hatem Bazian, chair of the management board for Zaytuna College and a senior lecturer of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

"There is a growing need in the Muslim community to provide a variety of trained specialists to fulfill a growing and diverse community infrastructure and institutional framework," Bazian said -- to work as imams, as chaplains, or within the growing network of Islamic non-profit organizations. Currently, Bazian said, American students who seek a high-level Islamic education must study in the Muslim world.

The proposed college would be built out of an existing institute with significant influence in the Islamic community. The Zaytuna Institute and Academy, an Islamic educational institute founded in 1996, is transitioning into Zaytuna College; the Berkeley-based institute already offers classes, but not for university credit.

Those behind the transition from institute to college plan to seek accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges – a daunting and multi-year process, they realize. “We know what is required. We know how difficult it is in terms of maintaining solvency and making sure that the management structure is strong. Those are things that WASC is looking for – making sure that the caliber of the education is at the level it should be, making sure that the organization is solvent and will continue to be around years from now," said Farid Senzai, a member of Zaytuna’s management board, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University.

“Many other colleges started out very small and we anticipate that we will start very small and slowly transition to a much bigger college over time,” said Senzai.

The planned Zaytuna College could start offering classes in either fall 2010 or 2011 (a final decision on a launch date has not yet been made). An estimated $2.5 to $4 million is needed to cover the costs of starting up -- a manageable amount, said Bazian, who also cited a need to raise another $10 to $20 million to start an endowment. The college would launch in rented space in Berkeley, although officials are identifying potential permanent locations in the Bay Area.

In terms of curriculum, the plan is to start with just two majors, in Arabic language and Islamic law and theology. All students would be required to take an intensive summer Arabic course, or otherwise demonstrate proficiency, prior to their freshman fall. Students would also take anywhere from 54 to 70 credits in general education.

“One thing that will be very unique about it is having a belief or being a person of faith is going to be celebrated,” said Senzai. “There’s nothing wrong with having a spiritual component in the educational process. So very much in line with many of the Jesuit schools that exist in the United States, we’re seen as the Muslim version of Georgetown University, for instance.”

Bazian softened the analogy a bit. As for Georgetown -- "That's setting the target way too high. I will be satisfied with [being akin to] a functioning community college that's not running in the red!" Still, he continued, "The mission of the institution has a flag planted in the ethical values of Islam and its long, varied and diverse tradition that has been transmitted to us through generations."

The college would be open to interested individuals of all faiths (not only Muslims) and would be co-ed. Senzai is co-editor of the 2009 book, Educating the Muslims of America (Oxford University Press), which offers this description of the Zaytuna Institute’s mosque, or masjid: “The Zaytuna masjid does have a partition, but unlike partitions in most mosques it is also pleasing to the eye…. Because the masjid is used as a classroom space as well, there is a stage immediately in front of the end of the partition that enables both men and women to see the teacher equally, the partition dividing the room in half… The raison d’être for the partition in this structure seems to be so male students can focus during class on the sacred texts rather than the sisters while still allowing female students to interact with their male instructors.”

That description refers to the mosque (which doubles as classroom space) in the Zaytuna Institute, and not to the proposed college or its classrooms. When asked about this topic, Bazian said there would be no barriers separating the genders at Zaytuna College but that men and women typically would sit on opposite sides of a classroom because of cultural norms.

Bazian said he doesn't expect that the Islamic character of the college will present any obstacle in the accreditation process, pointing out that Zaytuna would follow in a long tradition of faith-based institutions. Attaining accreditation will be a challenge, but not for that reason, he said. "I'm confident that Zaytuna will be welcomed not only by WASC but also by other institutions that see the value of developing an American Muslim institution that is intended to develop a unique program to fit the needs of a growing Muslim population -- in conversation with other academic institutions both in California and around the country," he said.

"This is not to say that people of ill will, outside or in the general arena, will not take issue with this. I think this is part of the period that we are in, that Islam is under the microscope... and some individuals of ill will will find the opportunity to express their ill will, but we will not be distracted by some who desire to make a career out of criticism. We'd rather build."

There is, after all, much work to be done.

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