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First US Muslim college aims to stand against Islamophobia

'We believe that Islam calls us to knowledge, learning and understanding which are the opposite of ignorance and narrow mindedness that produces violence and terrorism.'

17.03.2015
First US Muslim college aims to stand against Islamophobia

By M. Bilal Kenasari

WASHINGTON

The first officially recognized Islamic institution of higher education in the U.S. aims to educate future leaders to challenge the structured Islamophobia faced by Muslims.

Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, has no intention of becoming an educational institution where Islam or Muslims are classified as good or bad, but it wants to have a deeper critique of societal structures to understand Muslims and Islam.

"We will graduate future leaders who are able to embody Islam in their own life and with their actions while they have all the needed skills to counter the structured Islamophobia deployed against Muslims in America and around the globe," said the school’s co-founder Hatem Bazian, who also teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

The college intends to teach Islam with sophistication and the highest moral and ethical values. It offers courses in Islamic law and theology but also provides studies in economics, the U.S. Constitution, science, comparative religion, history and astronomy.

"We believe that Islam calls us to knowledge, learning and understanding which are the opposite of ignorance and narrow mindedness that produces violence and terrorism," said the Berkeley academic who argued that the school now allow Muslims to point to an academic address in the U.S. that can begin to authoritatively answer all their difficult question, and where they can feel they have a group of scholars who are able to guide and navigate community needs at the highest levels of discourse.

President, co-founder and renowned scholar Hamza Yusuf said Muslims need spaces where devotion and academia are not mutually exclusive. 

"In secular colleges, Muslims as well as other believers feel repressed and often ridiculed for belief,” he said. "Islam is a religion rooted in and sustained by the preservation and advancement of knowledge. Despite that, Muslims have been absent from the knowledge table for far too long," he said.

"In the current climate of confusion, misunderstanding, and retaliatory violence on all sides, usually against innocents, Muslims need an academic address where their religion can be accurately represented for all sincere seekers of truth," he added.

Zaytuna College became the first officially recognized Islamic College in the United States after receiving formal academic initial accreditation last week.

The private liberal-arts college was launched in 2009 by Bazian, Yusuf and Zaid Shakir as a summer Arabic intensive language course. 

The undergraduate program welcomed its inaugural freshman class in the fall 2010 semester, and graduated its first students last year.

Princeton University professor Robert P. George, who is also vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, commended the school in a tweet. "Congratulations to Zaytuna College on its accreditation. It combines traditional Western liberal arts study with classical Islamic learning."

The U.S. is home to a number of religiously-affiliated schools, including the University of Notre Dame, American Jewish University and Buddha Dharma University.

As part of its objective, Zaytuna College said "clarity and intentionality are the most vital elements" and these two terms are derived from the Arabic word adab, which contains a complex set of meanings that includes decency, comportment, etiquette, manners, morals and humaneness.

Zaytuna College adapts the meaning of adab from contemporary Muslim philosopher Naquib al-Attas, who said, “The fundamental element inherent in the concept of education in Islam is the inculcation of adab.” 

Instructors begin their classes with a du’a, or prayer, and try to foster an environment where adab is present before, during and after the lesson, said Bazian.

"We have a major responsibility to transform the world into something better and in it we have to be ready to critique ourselves first and foremost and the world that is around us, but doing so in a constructive manner so it leads to building rather than further destruction," he added.

He drew a corollary between the school’s push to get accreditation with the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, as blacks demanded the right to vote and an end to racial segregation a half century earlier.

"This moment for American Muslims must be contextualized and considered with Selma," said Bazian, as he referenced one of the seminal moments in the fight for civil rights in U.S. history.

American Muslims and their institutions such as Zaytuna College are directly benefiting from the monumental sacrifices made by individuals and groups in the civil rights movement and which made it possible to launch the first Muslim college, said Bazian.

"We are celebrating the success of American Muslims," but it belongs to all those who sacrificed their lives for a better America, he said.

The reaction to Zaytuna College’s accreditation has been overwhelmingly positive, said Bazian, and U.S. media coverage has been positive and supportive, with the exception of the conservative national outlet Fox News.

"Fox attacked the college through me being a Palestinian," said Bazian, as it lashed out at the school in an article headlined, "Muslim college co-founded by anti-Israel firebrand receives accreditation." 

Bazian brushed off the criticism with a determination to equip the Islamic community with the necessary tools to tackle such inveighs against Muslims.

"Islam in America is here to stay and flourish and Zaytuna College is to make sure that future generations have the needed knowledge of Islam and for us to graduate leaders to help the community in all its affairs," he said. "We believe that Islam calls us to knowledge, learning and understanding which are the opposite of ignorance and narrow mindedness that produces violence and terrorism," he added.

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