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First U.S. Muslim College Opens

BY JOANNA CORMAN                                                                                              ©2010 Religion News Service
Faatimah Knight's college decision came down to eight schools where she would have majored in English, or Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California; where she could study Islamic classical teachings in an environment that embraces all aspects of her Muslim faith.
The Brooklyn native is part of the inaugural class of what Zaytuna's founders hope will be the U.S.’s first accredited, four-year Muslim liberal arts college—a flagship of higher learning with an Islamic identity yet open to all faiths.
Knight, 18, chose Zaytuna, she said, because she wants to grow in her faith, learn more about the religion that inspired her parents to convert from Christianity and be able to defend Islam during a time of stepped-up suspicion.
Four years of college, Knight said, "has to bring me more than book smarts."
"I want to feel like I'm improving as a person. I want to feel like I'm improving in terms of my character," she said. "I'm almost positive that I can only get that here."
Knight, an aspiring writer, is one of 15 Zaytuna students who started classes on August 24. Zaytuna College grew out of a pilot
seminary program at the Zaytuna Institute, which graduated a handful of students in 2008. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an American-born convert from the San Francisco Bay Area who studied Islam abroad, started the institute in 1996, offering continuing education classes in Arabic and Islamic studies.
Yusuf began planning Zaytuna's transition to a full-fledged college two years ago with two colleagues: Imam Zaid Shakir, a Berkeley convert who studied Islam abroad; and Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and a Palestinian native who's lived in the Bay Area for nearly 27 years.
The three are among the best-known and most-respected Muslim scholars in America, said Zahra Billoo, the programs and outreach director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Bay Area chapter.
The college will seek accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and founders hope to graduate students who can work in any profession, including serving the Muslim American community as imams, nonprofit managers and Islamic school teachers.
Co-founder Bazian said the college is needed because of a lack of native-born Muslim professionals with a strong understanding of their faith and the needs of U.S. Muslims.
"We feel the college is very important in that it provides a grounding for the community in its own tradition -- not in a sense to create a difference with the larger society, but to actually normalize its presence within the larger society, that there is no contradiction between being an American and being Muslim," Bazian said.
While Muslims have been in the U.S. for centuries, most immigrated here within the last 40 years, with 80 percent of U.S. Muslims arriving after 1980, said Farid Senzai, a member of Zaytuna's management committee and the research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan-based think tank focused on U.S. Muslims.

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