Why America Should Celebrate Its first Muslim College Featured

By Nadine Mansour

April 14, 2015

Homer - Sophocles– Demosthenes - Cicero - Ibn Khaldun- St. Thomas Aquinas - Dante

Which of these names is not etched into the façade of Columbia University’s main library? It’s that of Ibn Khaldun, 9th century Muslim writer, who despite being credited with founding historiography and sociology, is omitted from among these canonical writers, philosophers, and theologians because unlike the others, his work emerged from Islamic, not Western, civilization.

Just last month, it was announced that we just got our first accredited Muslim College when the Western Association of Schools and Colleges recognized Zaytuna College, located in Berkeley, California. According to its brochure, Zaytuna hopes to contribute “to the revival of liberal education, as endures today in religious and secular institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College, St. John’s College, Amherst College, Williams College, and Wesleyan University,” adding that “Zaytuna is the first Muslim college to join the movement.”

We haven’t yet heard any fear mongering in the mainstream media that this university will indoctrinate students to impose sharia law, reject enlightenment values, or increase homegrown terror. Such claims would nonetheless be grounded in ignorance and not in reality. In a world where the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ are at some sort of perpetual war with each other, Muslim Americans have felt alienated by both mainstream American media and by mainstream Islamic traditions and thought coming from states such as Saudi Arabia. What Zaytuna offers is a means to examine the Islamic tradition in a way that juxtaposes it with the western canon with which Muslim and non-Americans alike are already too familiar.

In a statement by Hamza Yusuf, the president of the college, Zaytuna College’s curriculum “grounds its students in both the Islamic and Western scholarly traditions.” What is the Islamic scholarly tradition? How is it possible for these two traditions, which appear to be starkly different to be taught in tandem?

As a product of the American public and private school system, I am not fully equipped to answer that. As one, however, who has recently been introduced to various works of the Arabo-Islamic civilization, examined historical origins of the “East-West” divide, I can go so far as to make a few educated guesses that Zaytuna offers a way to gain knowledge as knowledge, rather than place value on western canon as is done in our Euro-North-American-centric school system. And with current instability in the Middle East, Zaytuna offers a practical means for Americans to engage with the Islamic tradition without venturing abroad. Additionally, Zaytuna can provide a different reference for ideas commonly attributed to the age of the [European] Enlightenment. You didn’t actually think there was an ‘Age of Darkness’ in which no knowledge was produced, did you? In fact the period between 700 and 1500 A.D. is one when Arab and Muslim scholarship was at a high.

In a world where theorists such as Samuel Huntington perpetuate the self-fulfilling notion of a clash of Western and Islamic civilizations, the very existence of an institution such as Zaytuna, one in which both traditions are taught in tandem (and I assure you, in which students are not leaving with extreme views), breaks down misconceptions and the narrative by creating a version of Islam that Americans find accessible. For Muslims who usually have to turn to studying abroad to learn more about the underpinnings of their faith, it sends a strong message that Islam at the higher education level is not foreign to their very own country, and indeed, Muslims have been here since the founding of this nation. It is a proactive, rather than reactive, way of explaining what Islam has to offer and will have to offer to the cultural and academic production of the U.S. and what it can continue to offer for generations to come.

Let’s not forget that America’s best- selling poets is Rumi, a Sufi mystic whose words speak for the universal humanity that is common to us all. Want to know what values, thoughts, and ideas we share with the Arabo-Islamic civilization? Want to get started on understanding the Islamic tradition without enrolling in Zaytuna? Or just explore history from a different perspective? You can start by picking up any of the following books:

The Introduction, by Ibn Khaldun

The Alchemy of Happiness, by Al-Ghazzali

Journey, by Ibn Battuta

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary, 2009

Sadly within the course of World History textbooks, Islamic civilization, we are told day in and day out, is at war with Western civilization, receives too little coverage in the curriculum of our school systems for the average American—and even Muslim Americans—to understand where the two civilizations converge and why in the present day they’ve diverged. By asking what is missing from the narrative, only then can we understand that neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda nor the many despotic leaders of majority-Muslim nations represent Islam, a 1400 year-old religion, encompassing many regions, cultures, and thinkers.


Nadine Mansour is a recent graduate of Barnard College and a native New Yorker, where she is active with minority youth. Previously, she's written for the Columbia Political Review, among other publications. Follow her on twitter: @NadineMMansour


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