In late August of this year, the first Muslim four-year liberal arts college in the United States opened its doors to students in rented classroom space at a Baptist seminary. Zaytuna College is not yet accredited and building a physical campus will not even be considered for another five years, but the inaugural class made up of only fifteen students is hopeful and convinced that they have made the right decision to attend school there. Berkeley, California, is the home base of the college and the Q'uran is the main school textbook. Students are required to have a working knowledge of Arabic - the equivalent of one year's study of university level Arabic. Their admissions policy states that non-Muslim students and faculty are also welcome at the school. ZC envisions its enrollment to grow to 2000 in the next ten years.
"Zaytuna College is committed to demonstrating, through practice, teaching, and the free exchange of ideas, Islam’s critical role in the modern world," states their website. ZC is offering two majors in their Bachelor's Program: Islamic Law and Theology, and Arabic Language.
The Arabic word "zaytuna" means "olives." The olive branch has long been considered a symbol of peace and the olive tree is a symbol of longevity. The tree and its many products are a lifeblood of the Middle East region. It is also revered in verses from the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
All fifteen inaugural students are U S citizens from across the country. Their heritages are Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian. They all have excellent academic backgrounds, impressive community service records, and are of high morals and character with a desire to make a difference in the world.
One of Zaytuna's founders, the charismatic Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, is considered an Islamic rock star of sorts among his followers. Yusuf is US born and bred, converting to Islam at the age of 17 and studying with prominent Islamic scholars for more than ten years in Saudi Arabia, parts of Africa, and the U.A.E. Very shortly after 9/11 happened, he was personally consulted by President Bush for advice. Yusuf is regarded as very moderate and is highly critical of Islamic radical terrorists and preaches for a return to true Islam - "stripped of violence, intolerance and hatred." The Sheikh has a large following around the world and often leads groups of religious pilgrims on organized tours through the Sacred Caravan to Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia, offering lectures and and classes in the process. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of spending a delightful evening here in Jeddah with the women from one of these Omra groups led by Yusuf.
Yusuf was famously quoted in The Guardian (newspaper of the U.K) as saying, "Many people in the west do not realise how oppressive some Muslim states are - both for men and for women. This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here."
Regarding the location of the proposed building of the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Yusuf wrote an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he asked, "How can you say ‘How dare they?’ when the American Muslims building the mosque are fighting the fanaticism and xenophobia of those who flew the planes into the twin towers?”
To read more about Zaytuna College and how its founders hope to change the negative image many Americans have now about Islam, you can listen to and/or read a story NPR did about it last month.