Muslim liberal arts college aims for a restoration
Washington - Many of the West’s most prestigious educational institutions were founded by or have their roots in the Catholic or Protestant traditions, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and counterparts abroad such as the American University of Beirut. These colleges began with the mission to “build the character” of a generation by immersing men (and, much later, women) in liberal arts and the humanities.
Now, for the first time in the United States, a Muslim liberal arts institution has joined the ranks of religiously affiliated colleges around the country: Zaytuna College, founded in 2008, in California received official accreditation in March. Accreditation is granted by professional educational associations that assess colleges and confirm that they offer an acceptable quality level of education.
Zaytuna aims to build a generation of Muslim intellectuals who are well-versed in Aristotle as well as Avicenna, in Galen as well as Ghazali, according to its stated mission. But Zaytuna faces a much more ambitious quest: To cultivate an organically grown American narrative within Islam that sets it apart from jihadist ideology and violent extremism.
Such a move is probably welcome by American Muslims who are under scrutiny in post-September 11 America and perhaps by Americans at large who often struggle in the balance between tolerance of Islam and fear of its expansion.
Zaytuna’s co-founder, an American convert to Islam, is among those most sensitive to these issues.
“We’re at a crossroads. If we’re not able to assuage fears of average Americans that Islam is not on trial here, that the guilty [perpetrators] of these [terrorist] acts are not informed by Islam but by ideologies co-opted by Islam, then for me that’s the real challenge,” said Hamza Yusuf by phone from his office at Zaytuna in Berkeley, California.
Aside from co-founding Zaytuna, Yusuf advises the Islamic studies programmes at Stanford University and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, both among the most prestigious such programmes in the country. Yusuf was also ranked as “the Western world’s most influential Islamic scholar” in The 500 Most Influential Muslims, a compilation put together in 2009 by respected Georgetown University scholars John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin.
Yusuf has millions of followers around the world who listen to his speeches and sermons on the internet. His message is at odds with the contention that that Islam needs “a reformation”.
“People who say that Islam needs a reformation, no it doesn’t! The reformation was a bloody war between Catholics and Protestants, with the Protestants in effect saying get back to hadith, which is what’s happening within Islam now,” he said. “But Islam doesn’t need a reformation. Islam needs a restoration.”
Beyond the call for a reformation (or restoration) in Islam, there is a burning question that is often ignored by Islamic scholars. Throughout the history of Islam, the religious discourse and debate usually has unfolded within a predominantly Muslim society. Until modern times, it was rare to find an example of Islamic discourse changing and evolving among a community of Muslims who live as a religious minority in a non-Muslim society. And although Islamic jurisprudence offers answers for religious Muslims who live as a minority in a non-Muslim society, such texts are rarely invoked. It is this aspect that Yusuf aims to revive.
“Islam has it within its traditions for Muslims to live as a minority. To subvert the country [in which Muslims live as a minority] is actually haram,” he said. “So we’re not creating a counter-narrative on Islam but rather we’re teaching the primary narrative.”
He adds that Islam has been a fabric in US society from the beginning, arriving in colonial America as the de facto religion of many slaves.
Muslims today are among the most successful minority groups in the country, comprising a disproportionately large segment of scientists, engineers, and doctors, so much so that they can be the butt of a flattering joke. As American talk show host David Letterman once said to an audience that roared in laughter: “I went to the doctor and he said face Mecca and laugh.”
There is another aspect to a college like Zaytuna, which Yusuf points out is “more liberal arts than seminary”. The college aims to fill a void in liberal arts and humanities from which much of the Muslim world suffers. While fields such as science and engineering thrive in many Muslim countries and are most popular with Muslims in the West, many Arab or Muslim intellectuals lament the lack of a liberal arts education, something that some blame for the failure of governments and revolutions in the Arab world.
Yusuf said that such a void may also be responsible for the rise of extremism or merely confusion among some Muslim youth who live in Western countries.
“Because the crisis in the Muslim world is loss of humanist learning, you have people who have religion removed from context,” he said. “Our goal is to produce critical thinkers who will continue to other careers, like law and scholarship in the humanities and so on.”