There are hundreds of accredited religious colleges in the U.S., but none of them have ever been Muslim.
That changed on March 4, 2015, when Zaytuna College in Berkeley, CA, became the first Muslim college to be accredited.
The school received accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six organizations that work with the government to certify school quality.
Zaytuna is unique for reasons beyond its religious affiliation.
While it has the picturesque brick buildings and well-trimmed landscaping of many famous liberal arts schools, it only has around 50 undergraduate students, and it offers just one degree: a B.A. in Islamic Law and Theology.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, university professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, compares Zaytuna to Harvard and Yale when they were first founded.
“They were established, as were most schools in the US, as part of a church or religion,” he explains. “They provided an ethical and spiritual vision in which educational exercises would take place. The same logic applies to Zaytuna, except with a Muslim framework.”
According to its catalog, Zaytuna “aims to provide its students a foundation in the intellectual heritage of not one but two major world civilizations: the Western and the Islamic.”
This goal is evident in its curriculum.
Students take courses such as Islamic Law: Purification and Prayer and Qur’anic Sciences, along with Philosophy, Astronomy and Rhetoric. To graduate, they must complete five years of Arabic.
In its letter granting Zaytuna accreditation, WASC “commends the institution’s achievements,” and said it has created “a rigorous and high-quality learning experience… that can be viewed as an exemplar in the liberal arts tradition.”
Nadia Chaouch, who attended Zaytuna’s summer Arabic program (which is separate from its B.A. program), calls the coursework “challenging.”
“It’s really obvious the students and faculty care about the mission,” she says. “It was a group of genuinely good people.”
Chaouch and Nasr believe Zaytuna’s existence — and its graduates — will help combat Islamophobia, the fear and/or prejudice toward Muslims.
“Having students who know Western ideas and well as Muslim ideas and the Islamic tradition will help a very great deal in combatting this blind Islamophobia,” Nasr says. “There’s so much prejudice and hatred.”
Dr. Colleen Keyes, Zaytuna’s vice president of Academic Affairs, says what Zaytuna is doing is “changing stereotypes.”
“We hope our grads will do great things for our society — for American society,” she says. “We want them to be upstanding citizens that contribute to the common good.”
Keyes says there have been some who have “taken issue with a Muslim institution achieving accreditation,” but that the school will “carry on and keep doing what it’s doing.”
She hopes to see Zaytuna in the top 100 liberal arts schools in the nation by 2020. With this status, students won’t have to choose between, for example, the prestige of Stanford, and the benefits of Zaytuna.
“I want us to become known as a college with a very high level of education that prepares students to do anything they want to do,” Keyes says. “Law, medicine, journalism, social work, teaching, you name it.”
Nasr believes Zaytuna is the first of what will be many Muslim colleges in the United States.
“This is the beginning of a process which we’ve seen in the case of other religions in the U.S. since the beginning,” he says. “We just had to wait a little bit longer for the Islamic community in America to be deeply rooted enough in the American culture as well as attached to its own Islamic culture to do this.”