Source: Detroit Free Press
BERKELEY, CALIF. — Abass Darab closes his eyes, unwraps the prayer beads from around his wrist and clutches them in his lap. A half-minute or so later, he opens his eyes. He is ready, he says, “to help people know what my school stands for.”
Often, that means explaining what Zaytuna College, a liberal arts college founded by American Muslims, does not stand for.
Darab, 20, was 8 when terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, a Pennsylvania field and the Pentagon, not far from Vienna, Va., where he grew up. Over the next decade, more acts of violence would be linked to Muslims, including a 2009 shooting rampage that killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, and a failed bomb attempt in Times Square in 2010.
When news of the Boston Marathon bombings broke in April, Darab prayed that whoever did it was not Muslim or, at least, “a misguided Muslim,” he says. His fear was realized: The suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were Muslim. Dzhokhar since has said their motive was retaliation for U.S. attacks on Muslim countries.
“That’s not representative of Islam,” Darab says on a recent afternoon while seated on a stone bench outside the school’s rented office space not far from the University of California’s flagship campus here. More accurate, he says, is an Islamic saying often attributed to the prophet Mohammad: “The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.”
Until Zaytuna opened its doors three years ago, American Muslims who wanted to study and grow in their faith mostly had to look overseas for a college education. That left students unprepared to engage with the U.S. culture to which they would return, say Zaytuna’s founders, well-known Islam scholars Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian.
The college grew out of the non-profit Zaytuna Institute, founded in 1996 as a local community organization.
Courses include Islamic theology and law, and they also cover the classic liberal arts, such as logic, rhetoric and astronomy. Students learn Arabic and study the Koran. And they read Western authors such as Aristotle, Einstein and Robert Frost.
The school, which raised $7 million last year, is funded by individual Muslim donors and tuition revenue. Tuition last year was $11,000, slightly less than the $12,192 UC campuses charged California-resident undergraduates.
Today, 31 students are enrolled, and 15 more have been accepted for the fall.
“Everybody here, I think, has a curiosity about their religion, and they’re open-minded,” says Chris Cusano, 30 who converted to Islam 10 years ago and expects to be part of the school’s first graduating class next spring.
Cusano already had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science and economics but says “I felt I needed to know more about Islam to really be genuine in what I was doing.”
In that regard, Zaytuna both fills a gap in U.S. higher education and follows tradition. Harvard trained men for the clergy in its early days. Yale was founded by a clergyman. Many highly ranked universities today remain affiliated with a faith, including Baylor (Baptist), Brandeis (Jewish) and Brigham Young (Mormon).
Zaytuna is “trying to participate in this bigger story, this bigger historical narrative of religious minorities having a place here,” says Scott Korb, a New York-based religious studies and writing professor and author of Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, which chronicles the school’s first years.
Zaytuna is not America’s first Muslim college. The Chicago-based American Islamic College was established in 1981 as a private, not-for-profit, four-year school but stopped offering classes more than a decade ago. A few years ago, it began offering non-credit courses and hopes to again offer bachelor’s degrees, says spokeswoman Hind Makki.)
Zaytuna is not without controversy. One of the most vocal critics, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank, told Fox News in 2010 that the school would serve as a cover for religious radicals seeking to promote extremist Islamic views in the USA.
In interview after interview with news media, Zaytuna’s founders have dismissed those and similar claims and condemned violence, which Shakir attributes to a “lunatic fringe.” They, along with their faculty, also have expressed hope that Zaytuna graduates will provide an antidote to anti-Islamic sentiment.
“We have the best of intentions for our students, (who) want to know their religion the right way,” says Abdullah Ali, who teaches Islamic law and theology. “If we establish our own authority, we can produce voices that are looked upon as legitimate and authentic.”
The April bombings in Boston dealt a psychic blow, but Zaytuna also is celebrating good news. In May, it received degree-granting authority from the State of California. That’s a key step toward regional accreditation, a long-term process that qualifies schools to receive federal student aid.
Fundraising remains a priority as Zaytuna renovates its new, permanent, location — the former University Christian Church on Berkeley’s Holy Hill, home to most members of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine independent seminaries and graduate schools that is affiliated with UC-Berkeley.
At least five members of the inaugural class have since left the school, and the focus on fundraising has left what Korb calls a “mild wilting effect” on its founders. But those who have chosen to stay say they appreciate the opportunity to embrace their faith without having to explain themselves.
“I felt liberated coming here,” says Darab’s sister, Ayesha, 19, who just completed her first year at Zaytuna. “When you come here, the acceptance is very immediate. It lets you be who you are.”