Muslim liberal arts college aims for a restoration

Friday 20/11/2015
Abdullah Ali (L), and Faraz Khan (R), faculty members at Zaytuna College, sitting around Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (C).

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.”