The Arabic word for olive is zaytun. Qur’anic and Biblical scriptures have deemed the olive an extraordinary fruit due to its many benefits, and call the olive tree a symbol of purity and light. Thus, it is only fitting that the first Muslim college in the United States, carrying the light of knowledge and leadership, is bestowed with the name Zaytuna College.
The college’s very existence in America repudiates notions of Islam as an exclusively Eastern ideology. Its presence instead indicates that Islam and Muslims can be authentically American, and can contribute to the nation’s sociological, political and cultural advancement.
Education has played a major role in easing racial and religious tensions and encouraging tolerance in the United States. Many immigrant groups who came to America seeking freedom were instead discriminated against upon arrival. Religious groups began using education to address these tensions, becoming vital forces in fostering acceptance. Institutions like Brandeis University and the University of Notre Dame led the way in securing a place for Jewish and Catholic identities within the fabric of American mainstream society through their work to link their faith groups with strong, visible research and education institutions.
The University of Notre Dame was established in 1842 as a project of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, led by Reverend Edward Sorin at the peak of Catholic immigration from Europe. Later, Brandeis University in Massachusetts became the first Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university to open in 1948.
Today these universities and others like them combine cutting-edge academic curricula with religiously inspired visions to promote universal values, like social justice, to all students – regardless of their religious background. Zaytuna College seeks to promote the same vision in its students, which it welcomes from all faith traditions. It endeavours to draw on principles from the Qur’an and from the teachings of some of the greatest Muslim scholars in history, like Imam Al Bukhari, a 9th century scholar of the study of hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and Imam al Ghazali, an 11th century jurist and Sufi mystic.
As a Muslim American college, Zaytuna carries with it an added responsibility of dispelling stereotypes about Islam. Given the current climate of rising Islamophobia and the inaccurate portrayal of Islam as a violent ideology, Zaytuna will assume its place at the forefront of public dialogue to tackle these issues at all levels: intra-faith, interfaith and inter-communal.
Zaytuna College will communicate Islam’s tenets and practices to the broader American public and serve as an alternative source of information to five-second media bytes that perpetuate a one-dimensional Islam. This will be made possible by a wealth of articles and multimedia available on the college’s website on subjects such as the haj pilgrimage, coexistence and leadership in Islam. The website also allows people to request faculty for speaking engagements.
Fortunately, Zaytuna has the means to become a growing centre for understanding Islamic thought and practice through its world-renowned faculty, including Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna and advisor to One Nation, a national initiative promoting employment, equality and education for all, and Imam Zaid Shakir, who oversees New Islamic Directions, an organisation dedicated to promoting a fair and balanced perspective on Islam – as well as through the study of the social sciences alongside Arabic language and Islamic law and theology.
Zaytuna College provides a substantive, interdisciplinary approach to be studied and applied urgently to an era in which facts, especially about Islam, are all too frequently taken out of context. With that in mind, graduates of Zaytuna College can serve the Muslim American community by becoming certified imams or chaplains and addressing matters like women’s rights and youth activism in their local Muslim communities.
Through its unique approach and exemplary scholars, Zaytuna College has the potential to become an authentic and invaluable vessel of peace and understanding that will define the 21st century.
* Shazia Kamal is a community activist in the Los Angeles area, and a contributing writer for AltMuslimah.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).