Jan - Mar 2003, USA

Islamic scholarship in America

Posted on July 2, 2000

By Nicole Ballivian

With the rise of oriental studies in the West, a birth of Islamic universities and higher learning institutions are now setting its roots in America. Throughout Western history, Islamic scholarship began before the establishment of any of the modern sciences, even before the implementation of a curriculum of sociology, psychology, and political science.

Unknown to the vast majority of the Muslim world, the West has played a major role in contributing extensively to the preservation of Islamic sciences. The first, most comprehensive collection of ahadith or written documentation of Islamic practice was found in the Netherlands. The first official chair of Islamic studies was set up in 1312 in Vienna, Austria. A constituent of prominent Western Islamic scholars, American or otherwise working within American academic institutions, who have researched, published and taught some of the most comprehensive Islamic work include Sherman Jackson, Mahmoud Ayoub, Khaled Blankenship, Wael al Khalaq, Edward Said and John Esposito.

The new wave of Islamic orientalism is but a result of post modernity and a re-enchantment of science. Today, at the close of the twentieth century, almost all American universities are offering courses on Islam.

In the last decade, the world has witnessed the burgeoning of American-Islamic universities throughout the US, offering not only Islamic studies but trying to establish academic understanding and co-operation between the Islamic world and the West. Among the two most prominent of these American-Islamic institutions are The Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California, and the American Open University (AOU) in Falls Church, Virginia. The two institutions offer different programs and curricula activities and have different modes of instruction. AOU has an accredited, distance learning, undergraduate and graduate program, and Zaytuna has a traditionally Islamic, non-western curriculum mode of “ijaza-style” program, of which courses may also be used for college credit.

The AOU is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Islamic higher education, making graduate studies accessible to every home through distance learning. The university offers 5 programs: Bachelors Degree in Islamic Studies (English medium); Bachelors Degree in Islamic Studies (Arabic medium); Ph.D. in Islamic Studies (Arabic medium); Masters Degree in Islamic Studies (Arabic medium), accredited by Al-Azhar University of Cairo; and Diploma in Islamic Education, a program designed for the training of academics.

AOU’s main objective is for students to retain Shariah-related knowledge and carry out missionary work through Islamic means. The university also advocates moderation and resists “westernization” and “religious extremism”. The AOU’s distance learning program is based on the goal to provide educational services for all those who want to further their education and to reconcile living realities with knowledge.

Media via the Internet, videos and audiotapes are provided for the students to partake in classroom sessions with professors. The Bachelors Degree program requires a completion of 132 credit hours (53 courses) and a comprehensive exam. The AOU curriculum comprises five fields of study: Aqeedah, Qur’an, Sunnah, Fiqh, and Arabic. AOU was established in 1995 with a total of 150 students in its primary programs. Currently, AOU’s accreditation to Al-Azhar University celebrates its success with the enrolment of 2, 000 students from 24 countries, including the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Asia.

AOU’s professors are highly accomplished scholars from all over the United States and they include Yassir Fazaqa of California, Dr. Anwar Hajjaj of Virginia, Ali Suleiman Ali of Michigan, Dr. Robert Cooper of California and Dr. Ahmad Schleibak of Georgia. The founder of AOU is Sheikh Jafar Idris, well known for his publications, teachings and participation in various Islamic educational institutions such as the Institute for Islamic and Arab Sciences of America.

The Zaytuna Institute is a non-profit, non-political institute committed to the “dissemination of traditional Islam as understood by the rightly guided scholars of the people of Sunnah and Jama’a”. Zaytuna was established to provide Islamic scholarship and to prepare students to identify areas where they can contribute to the Muslim Ummah. Zaytuna neither offers a western accredited degree nor follows the western educational system. It focuses on specific areas of study and promotes a lasting Muslim revival. Zaytuna believes that Islam is misunderstood largely due to the breakdown in traditional education and the collapse of a cohesive Islamic world view that had been conventionally shared by the vast majority of Muslims.

Zaytuna’s growing campus is located in northern California and its core curriculum includes Arabic, Aqida, Fiqh, Tassawuf, Usuul al-Fiqh, Sciences of the Quran, Hadith, Sirah of the Prophet, Islamic History and a study entitled “The Present Situation of Muslims”. The founder of Zaytuna is Hamza Yusuf, one of the most distinguished Islamic scholars in the West.

Yusuf, known for his publications, lectures and teaching events held at an international level, studied Arabic and Islam in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and West Africa and received teaching certificates in various Islamic subjects from some of the most well-known institutes. Yusuf has also translated several classical texts from Arabic and is currently teaching at Zaytuna. Sheikh Muhammad Yaqoubi, who is also a professor at Zaytuna, holds an ijaza in 6 books of ahadith and has a long history of Islamic teaching.

Although Zaytuna functions as an Islamic higher learning institution, it does not offer degree programs. Zaytuna is currently pursuing accreditation for using its courses in alliance with other US universities’ Islamic Studies Departments. Zaytuna is a traditional Islamic school, with the aims of not only producing distinguished scholars but of reviving traditional Islamic learning, which has been overshadowed by other models of teaching. Zaytuna’s teaching style goes back to the time of the Prophet’s companions (sahaba), where teaching is based on certain manners and character. The “ijaza” style of teaching, as used in Damascus, is the direct mentoring of a scholar to a student.

As each student progresses, the scholar examines the student’s readiness to disseminate Islamic teaching. This style of teaching is highly interactive and thorough. Established in 1995, Zaytuna, at present, has 250 students. It not only offers Islamic studies but holds “deen (religious) intensive” seminars throughout the year.