Why America Should Celebrate Its first Muslim College

14 April 2015
Published in Blog

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.

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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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Why NYC Public Schools Observing The Eid Is More Important Than You Think

22 March 2015
Published in Blog

By Nadine Mansour

March 23, 2015

Recently New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced what some American Muslim children had been waiting years to hear: NYC public schools will be closed in observance of the two holiest Muslim holidays. So come next school year, NYC public schools will close the first day of Eid al Fitr, a 3-day celebration immediately following Ramadan, and on Eid al Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. On these holidays, Muslim families typically gather for prayer, dinner parties, and gift exchange.

The significance of this decision is far greater than ending a child’s annual dilemma of deciding whether to attend or miss school on a holiday. (Although with 12.5 percent of NYC's current students being Muslim, it does impact the lives of thousands of Muslim students.)  More importantly, this decision mainstreams Islam in the nation’s most diverse city. It also reassures minorities that while rights do not come easily, the political space does allow for their recognition and this achievement serves as a model for successful coalition work among Muslims and allies.

 And with Eid marked on school calendars as a holiday, students are more likely to have discussions around Eid, its history, and how Muslims celebrate, and it will become normal in public schools, as has been the case for Christmas, Hannukkah, and Kwanzaa, among other holidays. And with the current rise of Islamophobia following 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the Chapel Hill Shootings, this decision can, even on a small scale, raise greater awareness of common Muslim practices in a sociopolitical climate where Islam has been for decades vilified in the news and entertainment media.

The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays

The achievement of recognizing Eid as an official holiday in the NYC public school calendar is the result of a nine-year coalition effort beginning on January 11, 2006, when the state scheduled a state-wide English Language Arts exam on the Muslim holiday. To my surprise, the state had been aware of the potential conflict in advance. Jonathan Burman, NYS Education spokesman passively noted, “We do consult the calendar when scheduling exams in order to minimize conflicts with people’s religious holidays. It’s important to remember that students who are legally absent because of a religious observance are able to make the test up,” according to a New York Post article from 2006. This insensitivity of those in power to minority needs perpetuates—directly or indirectly—the stigmatization of minority religions and cultures.

The recognition of Eid as a holiday resulted from coalition work of 84 organizations in cooperation with politicians to further the cause of diversity in the city. Serving as a model of tolerance, of respect for equal rights, the coalition work indicates the importance of having Muslim voices heard, the power of grassroots organizing, and of having faith in a political process. While NYC’s former mayor Bloomberg had been unwilling to recognize the holiday across all city schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised he would have the holiday recognized were he to be elected—and he delivered.

Just the Beginning

At a recent celebration hosted by local Muslim organizers in Queens, a guest speaker—Imam Talib Abdul Rashid of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood encouraged all those in attendance age 18 or older to register to vote. Certainly the years'-long effort and achievement has reinvigorated Muslim leaders with an appreciation for the political system as they have had their voices heard on behalf of their communities.

Yet with this great stride, there is still work to be done both internally among the Muslim American community with all its diversity and externally. We have yet to see how the Eid holiday will actually play out in practice—will most Muslims choose to celebrate on the day that has been scientifically pre-calculated based on the moon-sighting, or will some continue to celebrate based on their home countries? I’d suggest that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Two days off from the school year does not mean Muslims are safe on the other days: Muslims are still subject to profiling and monitoring by law enforcement agencies, and efforts to end these practices have a long way to go.

For now, at least, gone are the days of writing an absence note each Eid holiday needing to explain what Eid is or how the lunar calendar works, to a teacher who in her training or lifetime may have never heard about the Eid holiday. And after all, what teacher or student would not appreciate knowing why they are getting the day off from school?

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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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