Imam Zaid Shakir has high hopes for Islamic scholarship in America - aspirations that include the first accredited four-year Islamic college in the United States.
Having gained momentum - and funds - in the past year, Shakir and a group of American Muslims and scholars are now hoping to open the planned Zaytuna College next fall in Berkeley, California.
"Our goal is to attract top students," Shakir told The Jerusalem Post, describing a mission to provide a liberal arts education and training in Islamic scholarship. "Where Islam Meets America" is a working motto for the school.
Offering courses in Arabic language and Islamic theology, the college is the brainchild of Shakir, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Hatem Bazian, and is based on educational programs they have nurtured in the Bay Area over the past decade. In 1996, Yusuf created the Zaytuna Institute in San Francisco, which offers educational programs and language courses. Five years ago, Shakir created a pilot seminary program that informed the new college's legal and theological curriculum.
According to its mission statement, the college "aims to educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual and spiritual leaders who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society."
The school plans to offer a course in Middle East politics at some point. But Shakir said the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was portrayed would be left to the discretion of individual professors.
"What we would expect anyone teaching at the college to look at is the full ramifications of the issue from all points of view and give a truthful and insightful assessment of the situation, and also try to stimulate in the students [thoughts] as to how this particular dilemma could be resolved in a judicious and equitable fashion," he said.
So far, the school is planning two majors: Arabic language and Islamic Legal and Theological Studies. Professors will be tapped from within the Zaytuna Institute's current faculty, and Shakir said enrollment was open to men and women of any racial or religious background. Asked if Jewish students would be turned away, Shakir said, "Absolutely not," and noted that a Jewish student had been accepted into a language course offered last year by the Zaytuna Institute.
"Every applicant will be considered on their merit," he said.
The school's long-term goal is to become an interdisciplinary university, Shakir said.
As part of an effort to raise funds for the school's endowment, Shakir and Yusuf have been crisscrossing the country to present their goals for a school that hopes to succeed where other similar efforts have failed.
"As a faith community, our needs aren't any different than the needs of any other faith community," Shakir said at a conference in New Jersey organized by the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals. "As Muslims, we need to develop institutions to allow us to perpetuate our values."
Reactions to the school have been largely positive, and the academics behind it toe a moderate line. After meeting with former president George W. Bush post-9/11, Yusuf uttered the comment, now widely repeated, that "Islam was hijacked."
The Zaytuna Institute has garnered support, too.
"It is far and away the single most influential institution that's shaping American Muslim thought," Omid Safi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told The Associated Press. "On the one hand, they speak so much about being American. On the other hand, they have also plugged these American Muslim students into the global Muslim curriculum, [which] has all the rigor of traditional Islamic scholarship."
But the AP reported that some detractors didn't support the premise of the college.
"I don't know that I would send my child to go to a college where they can only learn tradition. Young people have to live," said Mahmoud Ayoub, a retired professor of Islamic studies at Temple University who has worked with the US State Department, representing America in the Muslim world. "I like mixing people. I don't like ghettos."
But Shakir said the world needed credible and effective Muslim voices.
"Who will talk for the religion?" he said. "We have to train a generation."