Is America ready to embrace Islamic education?

Published: December 1, 2010

Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of the college in Berkeley, California. PHOTO: REUTERS

This year saw the founding and opening of the Zaytuna College – a spin-off from Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson’s Zaytuna Institute, which is an excellent initiative.

Islamic scholars like the famed Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and the Chair in Islamic and Arabic Studies at Cambridge University Sheikh Timothy Winter (aka Abdul Hakim Murad) are an incredible source of pride for the current generation of Muslims.They are intellectual, articulate and ooze a certain spirituality in their rational approach to solving contemporary Muslim problems. The latter launched the Cambridge Muslim College last year with a similar vision of enlightening educated but deeply devout Muslims in the West by grounding them firmly in traditional Islamic sciences. They also opened their horizons by teaching courses in government, Western political philosophy and economics et al.

The idea is simple – to create a group of traditional Muslim scholars who are well equipped to handle the challenges of the modern world, have a nuanced understanding of it and are positive contributors to society.

What’s wrong with Muslim leadership?

A major problem that Muslim society faces today is that its traditional religious leadership cadre draws itself from the most underprivileged and intellectually weakest segments of society, which limits understanding of religion and the role in nation-building. At the Ivy Muslim conference in Yale this year, I was fortunate enough to meet Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, a dynamic American engineer of Pakistani origin pursuing his PHD in Islamic Studies at Yale after spending years in Saudi Arabia studying at the Islamic University of Madinah. He brought this point up multiple times instigating young, intelligent and educated Muslims to take up the leadership mantle and bring a balance to the office of the Khateeb, who doesn’t just wait for the mosque’s neighborhood to bring him qorma but is actually at the cutting edge of his worldly field.

This was certainly true of Muslim societies in yesteryears.

What happened to the Madressah?

Madressahs were once houses of great scientific discovery, at the cusp of innovation in fields as diverse as philosophy and alchemy. One such institute was the famed the Uluq Beg Madrassah in Central Asia, which housed a unique observatory, and was named after a ruler who embodied Plato’s vision of the “Philosopher King”. Similarly, Ibrahim Müteferrika – a Hungarian convert to Islam was an Islamic scholar, polymath par excellence and an inventor who brought the first printing press to the Muslim world by convincing the then Ottoman Caliph against the wishes of his Şeyhülislam (Chief Mufti of the empire).

Many Islamic scholars of the time were peeved by the mistake-ridden attempt to print the Holy Quran made by Catherine the Great in Russia. However, it was Müteferrika’s superior education and subsequent sagacious mindset that finally convinced the Sultan Ahmet III to bring Guttenberg’s printing press to the Islamic world a good 300 years after Europe (by which time the Muslims had fallen significantly behind). Interestingly enough the Ottoman times were still better off in many ways than the current state of the Ummah. Many officials were both religious scholars and held other prominent positions in various facets of professional life – for instance Mohamed-Sayd Halet Effendi was both scholar and the Sultan’s Ambassador to Napoleon’s court.

Why is this reality important for us to understand?

The New York “Park-51 community-center/mosque” imbroglio has once again put Muslims on an already hot seat. In fact, Gallup polls show that more than half of America has a negative view of Islam with a large majority (63 percent) saying they have very little or no knowledge of Islam at all.

It is, therefore, imperative for a new educated breed of Muslim scholars to rise up to the challenge and change the dialectic in favor of Muslims. Sheikhs Yusuf, Murad and Qadhi are trying their best, but there is a chronic need for many more. I am certain that Zaytuna College is an august step in this very direction!

Taimur Malik

Taimur Malik

A student at Columbia University and the President of the Columbia Muslim Students Association.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Milestogo

    Radicals are willing to die and kill others to uphold their interpretations. Opening universities in USA is not going to solve the image problem. instead Open normal schools in Pakistan and shut down the radical madrassas aka sucide bomb factories. Islam’s image depends on what Muslims do and not on what the scholars study.Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    Thank you for the enlightening piece. It added to my knowledge. However, I would completely agree to what Milestogo has said. Recommend

  • Spam Robot

    Totally disagree with Milestogo and Sarah. You are looking at the results. We need to refine Islamic thought and bring out a system which can face the growing challenges of the world. The current Western Capitalist system has already started its slow decline. I am not saying it will crash tomorrow. But if I look year after year the living standards of the common man are declining everywhere around the world and I don’t see things getting better.

    The sort of anarchy we see in Pakistan can only occur in an ideological vacuum. We have an incomplete ideology in Pakistan which is creating militancy.These scholars are trying to fill the void. If we think we have can do better we should step forward. Recommend

  • Aun

    Hello and Salam.
    Hamza Yousuf was born to a Catholic family and he embraced Islam after surviving a life threatening accident.I started listening to Hamza Yousuf few years back and i must admit that his lectures and books have made a profound change in my life. This university was not set up with the sole purpose of projecting a positive image of Islam. The main aim of the university is to resort to classical methods of Islamic teachings…I have always felt that most, if not all, of the problems that exist in the world today are because have people have generally digressed from religion ( irrespective of which religion they belong to). The decline of Muslim Ummah started when our classical Islamic universities started disappearing. How many Al-Azhars do we have in the world today?
    I think we need more zaytuna colleges so that people can understand the true message of Islam.There are over billion Muslims in the world today and most of them are suffering. This is because we take this religion for granted…Just by having a Muhammad in your name and mosque near your house doesn’t make you a Muslim. I blame parents, private schools,corrupt leaders and our non-challant attitude for our miserable state. If we can’t open up places like zaytuna college in pakistan we should at least appreciate those who are trying to serve Islam with some purpose.
    I would suggest all of you to read the book ” purification of the heart” by hamza yousuf. You can order it from their website This book is beautifully written and i guarantee you that it will have a wonderful impact on your life. Recommend

  • Milestogo

    We are talking about islam’s image and not the ills od capitalism…Recommend

  • Spam Robot

    Milestogo image is not the issue the rotten core is…….. Recommend

  • Aun

    Islam doesn’t need to be embellished.I have come across so many people who have absolutely no knowledge of religion and they start giving their own fatwas after listening to some buffoon’s demented interpretation of Islam. Image of Islam can only be restored when people start learning religion with the same zeal with which they learn other worldly sciences.
    How many of us are taught Arabic in schools? How many teenagers or even people in their 30’s have read Quran with transaltion or tafseer? The only way you can restore the Image of Islam is by following teachings of Quran in the light of Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah…
    let me give an example here to illustrate my point. few days back, some friends on my facebook shared a video clip from Indian movie that was tackling the Issue of Jihad..I was shocked to see that clip. We have to justify a religious aspect by sharing a movie clip whose authenticity is dubious in the first place…We can’t even explain the true meaning of Jihad to a non-Muslim…
    so, all I am saying is that we need to make changes at the grass root level. We need schools like SCIL (School of contemporary and Islamic learning) not Musharraf’s enlightened moderation to tackle the problem of extremism etc. Recommend

  • MilesToGo

    The article talks about Islam and its problems…Recommend

  • http://[email protected] hosni

    i wanna be one student in your hight islamic school, i’m a tunisian boy 26 year old, i wish if you can accept me ,i can offer you many ideas of money ressources, so please: don’ t be late to contact me,hope that ALLAH the mercifull the compassionate bless you and help you to give for the world the best nice picture of our religion,[email protected]Recommend