August 22nd, 2010
11:16 PM ET
As controversy swirls around a proposed Islamic center near New York City's ground zero and a handful of other mosque projects around the country, students will arrive this week at a California school that is aiming to become the country's first accredited Muslim college.
Zaytuna College hopes to the train a generation of Islamic clerics and professionals in a Western Islamic tradition that school officials say is ill understood by many of the foreign-born imams currently working in the United States.
"There's a triumphalist view that's not conducive to the type of religion we need to see," said Hamza Yusuf, chairman of Zaytuna's trustees board, describing many foreign-born imams. "American Muslims can help change a lot of the Muslim world to create the potential for conviviality."
The school, located in Berkeley, will offer just two degrees - Arabic, and a combined Islamic law and theology major - when it opens its doors Monday to the 15 students in its first freshmen class. The class includes eight women and seven men.
But its leaders say they plan to expand to around 150 students in the school's first four years and that they want to eventually train young people for careers in U.S. law, journalism, academia, and other fields.
First year tuition is $11,000 plus room and board, according to the school.
The school has yet to generate much controversy, but Yusuf, a co-founder who is the public face of the school, said he expects such criticism will come.
"I think the American people that are criticizing the ground zero mosque... are also criticizing us," he told CNN's Don Lemon on Sunday. "It's par for the course right now. Islam is an acceptable target. To be prejudicial towards Islam is politically correct."
But experts on American Islam say that the strain of modernist, mystical Islam espoused by Yusuf, which draws on Sufi traditions, might be more controversial among conservative Muslims.
"The young look up to Hamza almost as a sort of pop star," said Akbar Ahmed, an American University professor who has just completed a nationwide study of Muslims in the America.
"But he has expressed discomfort with some of the things that immigrant Muslims do and say," Ahmed said, "and many of the literalists see people like him as compromised or as having crossed over."
Ahmed said the failure of many foreign-born imams to relate to a younger generation on issues such as drugs and sex has provoked some Muslim young people to seek guidance from radicals abroad, feeding the phenomenon of homegrown American terrorism.
Zaytuna's website echoes that concern.
"There are very few Muslim scholars who can meet the religious and pastoral needs of a rapidly expanding Muslim community in the West," the site says. "...much of our younger generation has become alienated from the mosque and from religious culture."
Yusuf said he expected some criticism from fellow Muslims. "This is a growing pain for our community but it's a step in the right direction," he said.
The school has operated for more than a decade as a seminary but is now seeking accreditation from respected higher education boards, including the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Though Zaytuna has received little attention outside the Muslim world, many American Muslims have been watching the project closely.
"It is hugely significant," said Eboo Patel, a prominent Muslim activist who focuses on youth organizing. "Part of what America is about is that people from diverse background build on traditions that are inspired by their heritage but that serve the common good, in the same way that Catholic universities or Jewish hospitals do."
"The big story right now is the integration of Muslims into America," he said, "and the establishment of Zaytuna is an important milestone in that arc."
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