Don't Believe the Hype about Zaytuna College
by Stephen Schwartz
The accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) of tiny Zaytuna College, an Islamist project with seventeen professors and fifty students in Berkeley, California that has been called "America's first Muslim liberal arts college," has been lauded -- and misrepresented -- in the mainstream press. A Religion News Service article reprinted in the Washington Post and elsewhere, including the Christian Century, described Zaytuna as "A college that requires the study of both Wordsworth and the Quran for graduation... now the first fully accredited Islamic university in America."
Yet WASC approved only one program: a B.A. in Islamic law and theology. Moreover, it stated that, "The phrase 'fully accredited' is to be avoided, since no partial accreditation is possible." This distortion may be blamed on sloppy reporting, since such a degree program would not a university make, even in a Muslim country. As disclosed by Zaytuna itself in a March 8 statement, WACS accreditation provided Zaytuna with a vague status as "an American Muslim college [that] has now joined the nation's community of accredited institutions of higher education." No mention appears of "full" accreditation or pretentions to being a university. According to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), accreditation is optional for private schools in California.
It appears that Zaytuna originally intended to accept federal and state funds (for which accreditation is necessary), since a list of frequently asked questions on its website declares, "Until Zaytuna College achieves accreditation, students will not be eligible for any state and federal grants or loans." Yet today Zaytuna (along with such colleges as Hillsdale and Christendom) "does not participate in state or federal grant or loan programs," a standing that exempts it from federal regulations regarding, among other matters, the sex and race of the student body.
The college's founder, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, a convert to Islam who was born Mark Hanson and raised Greek Orthodox, carries the honorific title Shaykh, which denotes respectability within the Muslim community but does not imply the attainment of educational or religious credentials. Two days before the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Yusuf declared in Los Angeles that America stood "condemned" and "unfortunately has a great, great tribulation coming to it."
Hanson's partners in the Zaytuna venture include two more well-known Islamists: Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in the University of Berkeley, California's departments of Near Eastern and ethnic studies notorious for his vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric, and the American imam Zaid Shakir. Bazian is also director of Berkeley's "Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project" -- an ideological rather than scholarly effort -- and Shakir has discounted the atrocities of the so-called "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) by comparing them with the depredations of Mexican drug cartels.
While Bazian's teaching responsibilities at Zaytuna are not specified in the college catalogue, Shakir is "chair of Zaytuna's Student Affairs Committee, which looks after student residential life and co-curricular activities." Both are members of the college's board of trustees.
The college operates from two buildings on Berkeley's "Holy Hill" within a cluster of religious seminaries around the UC Berkeley Graduate Theological Union (GTU). This setting was predictable, since, according to its website, Zaytuna was launched in 1996 as an Islamic seminary in the nearby suburb of Hayward, California. Hanson, Shakir, and Bazian changed their project to that of a "Muslim liberal arts college" in 2009.
The Zaytuna website avers that all students who have not passed one year of classical Arabic with a C or better must pass its Arabic intensive language placement test. There are seventeen faculty members, although its website does not identify the courses they teach.
As for Wordsworth, the online catalogue states that students must take a freshman seminar that assigns works from both the Western and Islamic traditions, including poetry, but mentions no authors by name. All of Zaytuna's requirements for graduation are Islamic in nature except for courses in formal logic, rhetoric, mathematics, material logic, the history of science, astronomy, economics, U.S. history, and constitutional law. A required senior thesis may be submitted in either English or Arabic.
Zaytuna's financing is opaque. Since it is not required by California to report on its funding, there is no means at present to determine how it is supported. Its website states that 12,000 people have contributed to its support, but does not disclose the total assets it has reached.
Annual fees are $15,000 for tuition and $9,000 for on-campus housing, both very low among contemporary private colleges. All student financial aid resources at Zaytuna "are funded by Zaytuna's community of supporters, and most financial aid awards come from zakat (alms)."
Despite the hyperbole, Zaytuna has not been accredited as a "Muslim liberal arts college," but as a facility offering only one baccalaureate degree. It could be seen as a hope for American Muslim parents who want their children to receive an Islamic education, but it will not substitute for the broad and diverse intellectual challenge associated traditionally with the liberal arts in colleges and universities, even in Muslim countries. Rather, it is a personal religious school headed by Hamza Yusuf Hanson. No one should be fooled by this absurd masquerade.