Zaytuna and Institutionalizing Islamic Higher Education in America

The institutionalization of Islam in the US began with mosques across the country, followed by schools and not for profit organizations, and then specialized national organizations’ serving the diverse needs of an ever growing community...

Zaytuna and Institutionalizing Islamic Higher Education in America

Dr. Hatem Bazian

Much is said about the present and future of Muslims―not only in America, but in the West in general; and the Muslim world as well.  Indeed, conflicts in Muslim majority countries and fear and suspicion in the West with the view that this religious minority poses a domestic threat and is seen by some as a fifth column. We also find challenges related to the politics of integrating a religious and an ethnic minority of significant numbers composed of immigrants and converts to Islam. Furthermore, how to view the ambitions of immigrants of diverse nationalities, ideas, and socio-economic backgrounds endeavoring to make a place for themselves in a community that has begun to take racist and Islamophobic stances and erect legal and political barriers in front of this community.

Anyone observing these conditions in America from afar might ask, what future does Islam and Muslims have in this country considering the constant Islamophobic attacks, criminalization of Muslim identity and violating the privacy of the community through massive surveillance and deployment of informants in mosques; and more critically how could one possibly overcome these challenges; both real and fictitious?!

Responding to these challenges and emerging from similar historical strategies developed by other religious and ethnic minority communities in America is Zaytuna College―a liberal arts Islamic educational project in America that in its mission seeks to: “educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders, who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society.”  

While this is a critical development at present; however one must be reminded that Islam in America has a long history and despite current challenges the move toward systematic institutional development has been under way for over 90 years if not before starting with small mosques in various parts of the country and at present witnessing the emergence of colleges to address Muslim higher educational needs.

Looking Back Before Moving Forward

Islam in America traces its roots to the earliest periods and research points to Muslims arriving to this land immediately after the Native Americans discovered that Columbus was lost on his way to India in 1492.  Some theories of pre-Columbus contact have been introduced; nevertheless the uncontested evidence of post-Columbus presence is firmly established in the sources for us to argue about the earlier possible contact.    

In the Spanish era we find as early as May 11, 1526, the introduction of exclusionary measures directed at specifically West African tribes and slaves brought from the East, which at the time also meant Ottoman territories.[1]  The intent, as far as we can ascertain from these measures, was to stop the flow of Muslims into the new lands and the fear that their presence might impact the spread of Christianity, the new religion, among the natives.  Even before the slave period got into full swing, the first Africans to be introduced in the new world, were the Ladinos, who came directly from Africa spent time in Castile or Portugal and many Muslims were among them.  The Ladinos or Negros Ladinos, a term used for those African who spent time in Europe before being expelled or sent to exile by the Spanish Crown between 1502-1518, and ended up in various parts of the new world including the Americas. 

The Spanish exclusionary measures were introduced five times in a period of fifty years, a clear indication of their failure in stopping early West African Muslims attempting to settle in the new world.  Incidentally, “the Crowns fears were well expressed in a royal order of 1543, which stated that the Muslims should not be introduced to Spain’s American possessions because “in a new land like this one where faith is only recently being sowed, it is necessary to not to allow to spread there the sect of Mohomet or any other.”[2] While the Spanish resisted Muslims movement into the new colonies, the same cannot be said about both the French and English who from the beginning “introduced to their American positions” Mohammadans, including Marabouts.[3]   

We can also mention that the initial journey by Columbus into the “new world” was influenced, in part, by the strategic presence of Islam and Muslims in European trade routes to India, which made the dream of finding an alternative path one among the many motivations.  In addition, the sea journey itself would not have been possible without the contribution of Muslim navigators before and during the expedition.  The exact numbers of Muslims in this early period are hard to estimate; however we are able to approximate the percentages for the slave period with 10-20% of all the slaves brought to America have been of Muslims and some areas having even a larger percentage.  While Islam was present in this early period, the ability to sustain and transmit the faith to the next generation was not successful due to a number of factors including the hardship of slavery, selling and separating family members, forced conversion to Christianity, and torture to name a few but the lack of institutions made the effort to sustain their Islamic identity a mission impossible.  We do have evidence of individual Muslim slaves and some small groups managing to keep practicing Islam and doing so under extreme circumstances and more research is needed in this area, but what is certain is their inability to transmit their religion to the following generations and it is certain that without an institution task must been daunting.  Muslim Americans must think of institutional building and do so in a very short period of time since the challenges they face are likewise daunting even though different in nature.

Building Institutions and Building Communities

In early 20th century America a number of factors influenced the re-emergence of Islam and sawed the early seeds for what we are experiencing today.  As the period of reconstruction fails to address the deteriorating conditions for African Americans after the end of slavery, increasing attacks and lynching, and southern black migration to the industrial northeast intensifies the racial tension; the search for alternatives leads some into a renewed affinity with Islam, which was further strengthened by travels to Africa to reconnect with their lost roots.  A second important factor was the arrival of a significant number of Muslim immigrants from various parts of the Ottoman territories and managing to settle in the eastern sea board of the US and initiating the first effort at institutional building of mosques and also coming in direct contact with African Americans.  A third but less significant in early 20th century America is the US becoming a major superpower and a sizable number of Americans coming into direct contact with Muslims aboard leading some to convert to Islam, a fact that is far more critical at present but marginal in the early period.  The initial steady and limited arrival of Muslims increased rapidly post 1965 immigration reforms and the Civil Rights period, which also witnessed the emergence of Malcolm X through the Nation of Islam and in 1976 the overwhelming majority shifting into Sunni Islam thus helping in the development of the Muslim American community.

The institutionalization of Islam in the US began with mosques across the country , followed by schools and not for profit organizations, and then specialized national organizations’ serving the diverse needs of an ever growing community.  The imams for these mosques mostly came from overseas while some communities did send some members to study abroad and return to serve across the country.  However, as the community expands the religious and professional needs became more urgent and the small numbers of religious leaders arriving from overseas was not sufficient to fill the gap, not to mention the myriad of cultural problems emerging from this approach.  At present, the difficulties of bringing religious leaders from abroad include the limitations emerging from post 9/11 which likewise impacted the ability of students to go abroad from the US to study in areas witnessing high political instability and violence.

American Muslims: The Challenge of Diversity and Growth

At present, the Muslim community in America is comprised of three to seven million people ascending from diverse ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures. This community has also witnessed exponential growth of unprecedented proportions.  In fewer than thirty years, this country has witnessed growth in the Muslim population starting in the tens of thousands, and now reaching close to seven millions. Likewise, the number of mosques has grown from a time when they could be counted on one hand in major cities to more than twenty-two hundred mosques, Muslim student associations at every university and college in America as well as four hundred and fifty schools serving the needs of the community.

http://www.ispu.org/content/The_Bay_Area_Muslim_Study_Establishing_Identity_and_Community 

However, with all these institutions the community still lacks an accredited college or university; one where if Zaytuna College succeeds would make it possible to solidify, on an academic and intellectual levels, a place for the immigrant and convert communities in this country.  Thereby, in due time Zaytuna college can begin to graduate leaders dedicated to helping heal the society and guide the next generation to shape a better future. It can graduate individuals to take on the development of a more humane non-profit sector, in addition to aiding effectively in educating the general population of Muslims and those of special skill in the fundamentals of Islam and its teachings. Not to imply or strengthen the existing modern notion that education’s purpose is only to serve a utilitarian, materialistic function and being an engine for economic growth; rather what we seek is an education rooted in teaching values, morals and preparing students with the tools for life-long learning.

Zaytuna College is the academic child of the Muslim American community and an expression of its hopes as a diverse community with a history intertwined with the American experience and its future and present aspirations all at once are connected to the success of the project. The founders with the support and prayers of many people are attempting to build for the long term future of the community through education.  Those involved in the Zaytuna project are individuals who have lived and interacted with Islam and Muslims in contemporary America as well as in the Islamic world.  Indeed, the idea of Zaytuna is a response and a duty to tackle the imminent challenges of the Muslim community in America.  And even though there is a significant number of Muslims in America they lack a college level academic institution.  Muslims are the only religious group in today’s America that has no institution of higher learning and communities that just arrived recently already have such colleges and universities.  Indeed, Muslims also lack research and studies centers founded upon sound scientific and scholarly criteria; just as they lack the needed funding to support these projects.  Funding for Zaytuna College―despite all it has―is, therefore, an indispensable element of the grounding and deepening of the roots of Islam in this country.

Today, the Muslim community remains subjected to negative campaigns and demonization with limited capacity to challenge and alter the terms of discourse, which is partly due to the lack of sound education and leadership training. However, were we to look closely at the institutions of the Muslim community―mosques, schools, charities, social service companies, media resources, and political organizations, we will notice that they lack people acquainted with the basics of Islam and its teachings in such a way that would qualify them to steer the Muslim community while simultaneously engaging in a high level dialogue with individuals from across section of the American society.

Frankly, Zaytuna College mission is centered on serving the Muslim American community and through it everyone else in this country.  America, as a country―as is the case with the Muslim community―is comprised of a number of ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, and languages and Zaytuna is an attempt to engage with it through a liberal arts educational approach.  One can reflect on the fact that in every mosque, big or small, diversity is the norm. It is even possible to say that in diversity terms it is on par with the Hajj or ‘Umra in Mecca. This diversity and relations among people of differing cultures and backgrounds is one of the strongest assets for Muslims in America, however, and at the same time represents the greatest challenge to the way we decide to build a community that embraces diversity while nurturing a model of ideological diversity; a kind of building the sum of whose parts reinforce one another.  

Zaytuna’s Educational Model: Text and Context

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.   When it comes to Islamic institutions in the US today we find most of the Imams of mosques have studied and graduated from Islamic institutions and universities located in the Muslim world, though most of them are not proficient or sometimes do not speak English at all; a thing that has a profound impact on their ability to relate to the younger generation born in America not to mention the ability to communicate with others outside of the Muslim community.  Not to imply that they have not done a good job for most have lead institutions with limited resources and very small base of support.  However, the Muslim American community is witnessing rabid changes and transformation needing some immediate attention from individuals possessing knowledge of Islam first and how to apply it in an American setting.

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 shapping 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 on him, his companions, their successors, the successors’ successors, and most of the scholars of this community until this day.  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.

This project embraces a methodology supported fundamentally by an Islamic authenticity and tied with the culture and diversity of America along with the needs of the Muslim American community.  Zaytuna is aware that educational approaches must be connected to Islamic scripture as well as the lived reality of the community i.e. the text and context together.  Indeed, students in the program will study jurisprudence (fiqh) in its different schools, Islamic history with its depth and historical contributions, the Qur’an, Hadith, and Arabic but at the same time will learn political science, economics, English composition, philosophy, logic, and astronomy within a distinct Islamic epistemology.  In addition, there are graduate prerequisites that relate to volunteerism and community service in charitable institutions and organizations of the public sector.  Zaytuna aspires to sink roots of Islam and Muslims in American society through an academic program that is almost unique in both the Western and Islamic worlds (without constituting a binary in approach), while firmly building upon shared moral and ethical values and construct cooperation so as to promote the best that we have for the service of all humanity.

At Zaytuna we say, “We are Muslims and Americans.” Our association with America does not mean the blind acceptance of its foreign and domestic policies, and uncritical quietism when it departs from principle and commonly affirmed moral values. And our association with Islam does not mean that we will wrestle with our neighbors of faith who adopt other beliefs and ideas that differ from our own.  Rather, we will be people of goodwill, inviting, and upholding our moral and ethical values all the time.  

Indeed, Islam shall endure in this land as will Muslims. Their existence will evolve in the coming years, God-willing, with the growth and success at Zaytuna College and the commencement of the education of a Muslim generation aware of the principles of Islam; not only in mosques, but in every profession. Whether that graduate becomes an attorney, physician, accountant, carpenter, or blacksmith, he/she will engage his occupation with an Islamic mindset, with its high moral values and a culture connected with responsibility before God, firstly, the Prophet (PBBH), the Muslim community and before all of humanity.

Finally, even though Muslims in this country have attempted to open independent colleges and universities before, they have all faced challenges that resulted in disrupting each of the projects.   Zaytuna must work hard to alter the existing trajectory for institutional development and failure is not an option for the founders and the community.  To be exact, none of the previous attempts have been recognized or accredited by an Academic institution inside or outside America and while applications to accreditation bodies were made none managed to make it to the end line. In my view, Zaytuna represents a qualitative jump forward for the Muslim community in light of the fact that it has been founded upon the basis of being a private Muslim liberal arts college and seeking accreditation by the American Academy; and in particular by the Western Association for Schools and Colleges (WASC); one of the largest academic accrediting institutions in America. To be sure the road to accreditation is long and arduous; however the difficulties should not be confused with the need to engage and see this process through for it provides an opportunity to be examined and, in reality, to share our unique educational philosophy with the broader academic community. 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 to ourselves first and foremost and subsequently to the accrediting body 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 way, its contribution to the betterment of the humanity.


[1] Sylviane D., Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in theAmericas,New YorkUniversity Press, 1998, pp. 17-18

[2] Ibid. pp. 17-18

[3] Ibid. p. 18


Dr. Hatem Bazian is co-founder of Zaytuna College. 

Last Mod: 20 Kasım 2013, 11:13
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