BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS) A college that requires the study of both Wordsworth and the Quran for graduation is now the first fully accredited Islamic university in America.
Zaytuna College, a 5-year-old institution in Berkeley, Calif., was recognized earlier this month (March) by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an academic organization that oversees public and private colleges and universities in the U.S.
The accreditation means Zaytuna, which owns only two buildings and has 50 students, is a legitimate institution of higher learning, only a few blocks from its esteemed neighbor, the University of California, Berkeley.
“Being accredited puts us at the same table” as other accredited colleges and universities, said Colleen Keyes, Zaytuna’s vice president of academic affairs. “It makes us equal partners.”
For faculty -- of which Zaytuna has 15--- it lends credibility and status.
“It really signifies that we have new possibilities of relationships with faculty colleagues across the nation,” Keyes said. “It puts us in a relationship with both undergraduate faculties and graduate seminaries and schools of theology, of which there are a lot here in Berkeley."
Zaytuna was originally founded as a seminary, then again as a college in 2010. It started with only about 30 students and 10 faculty members. Its first class graduated in 2014, the same year it purchased two buildings on Berkeley's "Holy Hill," the home of the Graduate Theological Union. One of the buildings, a church, now serves as a gathering hall and academic space.
Today, the school has 50 students, about half from California and the rest from New Jersey, Michigan, Texas, Florida and Missouri. They are both American- and foreign-born and come from Pakistani, Arabic, Turkish, African-American and Latino backgrounds. All Zaytuna’s current students identify as Muslims, but there is no religious requirement for admission, Keyes said.
But even with its accreditation, Zaytuna -- the Arabic word for the olive tree -- remains unique among American colleges and universities. It requires students to learn Arabic so they can study Islamic texts, including the Quran, in their original forms. And it offers only one degree -- a bachelor of arts in Islamic law and theology.
To earn it, students spend their entire first year immersed in a classic liberal arts curriculum that includes rhetoric, logic, English grammar, composition and studying the great works of Western literature.
At the same time, they study Arabic and Islamic law, history, science and math. They must memorize and recite a chunk of the Quran before they can graduate, as well as perform community service.
Students, said Keyes, “understand there is not a dichotomy between Islam and the West. The role of Muslims in America is to think about Islam in a non-Islamic environment and think about how we are American and Muslim at the same time.”
Male and female students take classes together, though they must promise not to date while at the school. Tuition is $15,000 a year and housing is an additional $9,000.
Raja Ali, a 30-year-old Zaytuna sophomore, said she chose Zaytuna despite its lack of accreditation when she entered in 2013. But the school's new status means a great deal to her.
"I just feel so much joy and I am very excited about the future for the college and all the new students that will come," she said.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges did not respond to written questions about the accreditation.
In a letter to Zaytuna dated March 4, the accrediting group's president, Mary Ellen Petrisko, said the college met four key standards and is now fully accredited.
Reaction to the accreditation has been divided along expected lines. Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel, told FoxNews.com that Hatem Bazian, Zaytuna’s co-founder and chairman of academic affairs, is “anti-Israel” and an opportunist who uses his position to further his own political agenda.
Others have been more supportive.
"I cannot stop my tears," one reader wrote on a UC-Berkeley blog announcing the accreditation. "Thanks to Allah! Thank you for all the brothers and sisters who committed their time, wealth, skills, to get this done."
YS/MG END WINSTON