Why the Name “Zaytuna”?
The process of curing olives has long been used as a metaphor for the maturing of the human heart. Olives (zaytūnah) are second only to figs in Ragnar Berg’s table of purifying foods. Unlike other fruits, olives must be treated by human hands in order to become palatable food. Olive oil is one of the most ancient of all oils and has been used for millennia by Mediterranean people to light lamps, treat skin, and nourish bodies.
The olive tree has an extraordinary root system that can extend over twenty feet, enabling it to draw water from deep within the earth and produce olives for hundreds of years. The olive tree is considered a blessed tree by all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Adherents of these religions have traditionally used its wood to make prayer beads, and there are numerous references to the olive in their sacred texts. In the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Prophet Moses e describes Palestine as a “good land, a land of olives.” The Book of Genesis says that, after the Flood, a dove brought an olive branch to the Prophet Noah e as a sign that land was near. According to the Psalms, a man’s children are like “the slips of olive trees.” The Prophet Jesus e also made references to the olive tree. The Qur’an says:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of divine light is as of a niche with a lamp inside; the lamp is in a glass; the glass is as if a shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West, its oil nearly luminous even without fire touching it. Light upon light: God guides whomever God will to divine light; and God gives people examples. And God is cognizant of everything. (24:35)
God swears an oath by the olive, saying, “By the fig and the olive, and Mount Sinai, and this secure city, We have made man in the finest order” (Qur’an 95:1-4). The Prophet Muhammad s said, “Anoint yourselves with olive oil because it comes from a blessed tree.” In his book on the qualities of the Prophet s , Imam al-Tirmidhī mentions that it was reported that the Prophet s used so much olive oil that his shawl was often saturated with it.
One of the greatest universities in the history of Islam, Jāmi¢ah al-Zaytūnah in Tunis, provided intellectual and spiritual oil that illuminated Africa for over a thousand years. Ibn ‘Arafah, Imam al-Māzarī, and countless other great scholars taught there, preserving the knowledge and sciences of Islam. Taking its name from this venerable tradition, Zaytuna College seeks to revive the tradition of sound Islamic teaching institutions.
“Zaytuna College is a unique institution in Islamic higher education in America and is the fruit of a pioneering effort to create an authentic Islamic education institution in this country. Moreover, it is devoted to the liberal arts, which lie at the heart of education on the university level. Its success in the goal it has set before itself marks a very important step in the preservation of Islamic thought and culture in the context of American society.”
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
University Professor of Islamic Studies
The George Washington University