PLAINSBORO, N.J. – A group of American Muslims, led by two prominent scholars, is moving closer to fulfilling a vision of founding the first four-year accredited Islamic college in the United States, what some are calling a "Muslim Georgetown."
Advisers to the project have scheduled a June vote to decide whether the proposed Zaytuna College can open in the fall of next year, a major step toward developing the faith in America.
Imam Zaid Shakir and Sheik Hamza Yusuf of California have spent years planning the school, which will offer a liberal arts education and training in Islamic scholarship. Shakir, a California native, sees the school in the tradition of other religious groups that formed universities to educate leaders and carve a space in the mainstream of American life.
"As a faith community our needs aren't any different than the needs of any other faith community," Shakir told the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals, as he sought donations at a recent conference near Princeton, N.J. "As Muslims, we need to develop institutions to allow us to perpetuate our values."
Others have tried to start Muslim colleges around New York and Chicago, but those schools remained obscure or quickly folded.
Shakir and Yusuf are believed to have a better chance than most to succeed.
Shakir, an African-American Air Force veteran, and Yusuf, a native of Washington state, are converts who spent years studying with Islamic scholars in North Africa and the Mideast. They speak flawless Arabic and have become widely respected teachers. Yusuf draws thousands of people to his talks and tens of thousands of viewers to his online lectures.
In 1996, Yusuf founded Zaytuna Institute, now based in Berkeley, Calif., which is dedicated to classical Muslim scholarship. Zaytuna means "olive tree" in Arabic.
The institute expanded to provide distance learning, workshops in multiple cities and conferences with prominent scholars. Shakir, a Zaytuna teacher for six years, ran a pilot seminary program from 2004-2008, partly to test the viability of a school. An intensive Arabic language summer course, in its second year, has doubled its enrollment.
"It is far and away the single most influential institution that's shaping American Muslim thought," said Omid Safi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "On the one hand they speak so much about being American. On the other hand, they have also plugged these American Muslim students into the global Muslim curriculum, that has all the rigor of traditional Islamic scholarship."
In earlier years, Shakir and Yusuf had made some anti-American statements, but that rhetoric is not part of their teaching. Zaytuna Institute has clips on its Web site of a lecture by the two scholars called "Curing Extremism." Following a White House meeting with President George W. Bush soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Yusuf made the now widely repeated comment that "Islam was hijacked" by the terrorists and he has condemned the attackers as "mass murderers."
A working motto for the school: "Where Islam Meets America."
Zaytuna College will start with two majors: Arabic language, and Islamic legal and theological studies.
It will not be a seminary, although some graduates could become prayer leaders, or imams. Most U.S. mosques are led by imams from overseas, considered an obstacle to Islam's development in America.
Other students could go on to start American Muslim nonprofits, or become Islamic scholars through advanced study at other schools, said Hatem Bazian, a Zaytuna adviser who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley and Saint Mary's College of California.
But administrators aim to teach analytical skills, along with ethics and theology, that can prepare students for many professional careers.
Zaytuna will start in rented space in Berkeley and will seek accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. All faiths will be welcome, academic freedom will be protected, and there will be no separation of men and women, Bazian said.
"It is a daunting task, there is no question about it," Bazian said. "But I'm completely confident and comforted that almost every major private university began with one classroom and possibly one building and sometimes it was a rented facility to begin with."
The college needs $2 million to $4 million to launch, a fundraising goal Bazian says organizers will comfortably meet by next year. Zaytuna will soon start raising the tens of millions of dollars needed for an endowment and a capital fund to build a campus in the Bay Area years from now, Bazian said.
Mahmoud Ayoub, a retired professor of Islamic studies Temple University, is among those who don't support the idea of a U.S. Muslim college, not only because of the enormous expense and risk involved, but also because he believes Muslims are better off attending established American schools. He said U.S. Muslims badly need a seminary since there are none in the country.
"I don't know that I would send my child to go to a college where they can only learn tradition. Young people have to live," said Ayoub who has worked with the U.S. State Department, representing America in the Muslim world. "I like mixing people. I don't like ghettos."
But Zaytuna considers the state of Muslim scholarship in the West so "anemic" that a crisis is looming. The Muslim community in North America and Europe, now in the millions, is growing, and has few properly trained leaders to guide them.
"Who will talk for the religion?" Shakir asked. "We have to train a generation."