America's First Muslim College, Zaytuna, Opens

If you think the ground zero mosque is radioactive, imagine the response to next week's opening of a new college firmly rooted in traditional Islamic teachings. Reza Aslan reports.

If the construction of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan—you know, the “ mosque at ground zero,” which is neither a mosque nor at ground zero—has driven a large segment of American society into a frenzy of openly hostile religious bigotry, imagine what the response may be to next week’s opening of America’s first Muslim college.

Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, is aiming to become the first accredited Muslim college in the U.S. Founded by America’s best known and most highly respected Muslim cleric, Hamza Yusuf, the school will function, according to its website, at a level “comparable to the best of religious seminaries and general institutions of higher education the U.S.” The curriculum will be based in Islamic studies and Arabic but also will contain humanities and social sciences.

The ultimate purpose of Zaytuna College is to become the bulwark for a wholly new construction of Islam, one firmly rooted in traditional Islamic teachings, yet uniquely and unapologetically American.

Thus far, Zaytuna has yet to receive much criticism from the anti-Islam forces that have lately spanned the country, picketing mosques and Islamic centers in California, Tennessee, Wyoming, and New York, or planning “burn the Koran” rallies in suburban churches.

“We have seen a lot of support for the idea of the college,” said Omar Nawaf, vice president of administrations and operations at Zaytuna College. “Throughout the history of the United States, different faiths have found a home in America.”

Full coverage of the mosque debateThis doesn’t mean Nawaf doesn’t see criticism as a possibility in the future. “Every new idea receives some level of criticism, and we expect that some people will have a negative reaction to the idea of Zaytuna College,” he said.

Zaytuna began as a modest Islamic seminary nestled in the mellow suburbs of Hayward, California, in 1996. Its goal was to revive the traditional Islamic sciences, though with a distinctly American flavor, so as to train a new generation of American imams who could relate to the unique cultural identity of the American Muslim community.

For years mosques needing trained and qualified imams to lead their congregations have been forced to import them from countries like Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, countries whose customs and traditions are far removed from America’s. For Sheikh Hamza, as he is known, such a situation created a huge cultural divide between the imam and his congregation.

“You can’t have somebody from Egypt give a fatwa to people who are living in America, but that’s what’s been happening,” he told me in an interview last year. “If you don’t know the custom of a people, you can’t help them navigate their spiritual and legal concerns.”

After graduating its first class of seminary students in 2008, Zaytuna’s board decided to make the difficult transition from an Islamic seminary to a full-fledged college—the first four-year, accredited, liberal arts Muslim college in the United States. Students need not be Muslim to attend the school, though at present the first incoming class of students has only two majors to choose from: Islamic law and theology and Arabic language. The school hopes eventually to hand out degrees in science, math, literature—all the disciplines one would expect to study at any liberal arts college in America.

Zaytuna views its attempt to create a Muslim college in the U.S. as a vital part of Islam’s acculturation into American society. The school points out that with six million to eight million Muslims in the U.S. and a rapidly growing base of Muslims in Europe and Canada, few institutions exist that can train students in the varied sciences of Islam while at the same time instilling in them what the school calls “a sophisticated understanding of the intellectual history and culture of the West.” Zaytuna envisions its graduates working as Muslim community and religious leaders, entering into public service, and continuing and succeeding at graduate and professional schools.

But it is clear that, for Sheikh Hamza, the ultimate purpose of the college is to become the bulwark for a wholly new construction of Islam, one firmly rooted in traditional Islamic teachings, yet uniquely and unapologetically American.

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“Islam to me is like water,” he said. “It takes on the form of the vessel in which it’s poured. And America is a vessel. The essence of Islam is what has to be preserved and protected. The external elements of Islam, which involve culture, which involve geography, which involve social personality; all of those things are going to differ [from country to country].”

For Sheikh Hamza, the concept of a distinctly American Islam is more than a matter of theological doctrine or legal theory. Born Mark Hanson, a middle-class Christian kid from Walla Walla, Washington, he converted to Islam at 17 after a near-death experience. He spent more than a decade bouncing from Morocco to Yemen, Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Algeria to Mauritania, studying the traditional Islamic sciences at the feet of the world’s most renowned scholars and teachers. Today, at 50—though with the looks of a youthful 30-year-old—he is not only one of the most influential imams in America. For millions of his followers in North America and Europe, he is a rock star: a Westernized, moderate, respected Islamic scholar and American Muslim who embodies the best attributes of his faith and his nationality.

Ever since the colonial slave ships brought the first Muslims into this country, Islam has rooted itself firmly in the fertile soil of American religiosity. Already the largest non-Christian religion in the U.S., Islam is fast becoming a dominant, and permanent, feature in America’s religious landscape. This partly has to do with Islam’s historic malleability, its ability to absorb the traditions, practices, and beliefs of every culture with which it comes into contact. But it also has to do with what I used to think was America’s unshakable commitment to the freedoms of faith and conscience.

Now, the leading GOP presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, openly and repeatedly equates all American Muslims with al Qaeda terrorists—Newt’s favorite designation for both is “They.” The Senate majority leader is caving to right-wing ideologues by refusing to support the construction of the Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. (Note to Harry Reid: There can be no “but” in the sentence, “I believe in religious liberties, but…”) And a president named Barack Hussein Obama, with Muslims in his family, is qualifying his previously unqualified support for that same center. Frankly, I’m no longer so sure.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.