BERKELEY -- The Quran is the primary textbook at this city's newest institution of higher learning.
Zaytuna College will open today to its first class of 15 students, who will strive to become the first graduates of a Muslim four-year, liberal-arts college in the United States. The school, which hopes to enroll 2,000 students a decade from now, is seeking accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the same organization that licenses schools such as UC Berkeley and Saint Mary's College.
The endeavor will be a challenge for Zaytuna's three founders, who started down this path with the 1996 opening of a Hayward institute to teach Islam. New nonprofit liberal-arts colleges are rare, and Zaytuna's leaders will be counting on fellow Muslims to sustain the school.
"The Muslim community in the United States is growing," said co-founder Hatem Bazian, who teaches at UC Berkeley, Saint Mary's College in Moraga and Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. "As such, it is increasingly needing an institution of higher learning.
"We feel that the community we are in will be able to provide the resources" needed to succeed, he said.
Most of the country's top private colleges and universities have religious roots. Columbia University in New York City was linked to Anglicans, for example, while Claremont's Pomona College was founded by Congregationalists.
Scholars say a Muslim college would be a new addition to the
"I think it's high time the Muslim community expanded its education offerings to a four-year college," said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a religious-studies professor at the University of Virginia.
But Zaytuna's founders, Sachedina said, will have to be careful how they approach potential Muslim donors. Muslims will be very cautious about the school's curriculum, he said, particularly about the college's teaching of Islam.
"Muslims worry about the eternal life," he said. "If I give money to a Muslim college and Islam is taught badly, I will suffer because I have done something wrong. That is the fear that is in the minds of Muslims."
Zaytuna leaders do not plan to rush the $11,000-per-year school's expansion. It is renting classroom space at Berkeley's Baptist Seminary of the West, at Dwight Way and Hillegass Avenue, for the first five years, and administrators will decide later whether to build an independent campus.
For now, the college is concentrating on attracting a strong faculty, said Omar Nawaz, Zaytuna's vice president for operations.
"The key thing for us is that we have the right set of scholars," he said. "Part of the reason we have 15 students and not three or five is because of that credibility."
The college, which is offering bachelor's degrees in Islamic law and theology and Arabic language, is open to students of any religion. Although all its inaugural students are Muslim, Nawaz said the school accepted students of other faiths.
One of the incoming freshmen is 28-year-old Christopher Cusano, a Florida native who converted to Islam seven years ago. Although he already has bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Cusano said he could not pass up the chance to study at Zaytuna.
"They really understand Western culture and they really understand Islam, because they're part of both," he said. "I'm not here just for the degree. Ultimately it's an opportunity to sit with scholars. In this country, that's a rare opportunity."
College founders considered other parts of the country where cheaper real estate would have allowed them to build a new campus, but their ties to the East Bay kept them in the area.
The proximity to top universities such as UC Berkeley and Stanford University also helped make the decision, Bazian said.
"There is something to be said for the fact that this area is one of considerable academic weight," he said. "We felt that the cheapness of land elsewhere could not compare to the critical intellectual mass of the Bay Area."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.