academics banner

A Muslim Liberal Arts Education

In curriculum design, clarity and intentionality are the most vital elements in the development of program outcomes. At Zaytuna College, these outcomes have been identified with the Arabic term adab, of which the contemporary Muslim philosopher Naquib al-Attas has written, “The fundamental element inherent in the concept of education in Islam is the inculcation of adab (ta’dīb).” The term contains a complex set of meanings that includes decency, comportment, decorum, etiquette, manners, morals, propriety, and humaneness. As an acronym, ADAB reminds us not just of the end of education—a human being with adab—but also of the means to it: acquire tools for lifelong learning (Arabic language, memorization, and the qualitative and quantitative disciplines of the classical liberal arts); demonstrate grounding in both the Islamic and the Western scholarly traditions; analyze subjects in relation to each other and with attention to contemporary relevance; and build on theoretical knowledge through moral commitment and service to the community and society.

With these ends in mind, we have developed a unique curriculum for a bachelor’s degree program, relying on varied pedagogical approaches, from selective memorization to critical analysis. The curriculum emphasizes key foundational texts; an in-depth examination of critical methodological issues; a command of the Arabic language; a familiarity with the most important Islamic sciences; and grounding in law, history, philosophy, science, astronomy, literature, ethics, and politics. Our educational philosophy also reflects our belief that the ability of a student to become part of a living intellectual and spiritual tradition is enhanced by an ongoing involvement with an active community of believers. As our students pursue their studies, they are integrated into the life of the surrounding Muslim community. They deliver lectures and sermons; they lead and participate in religious gatherings; they provide counsel, especially for the youth of the community; and they are exposed to the full range of daily trials and triumphs that characterize modern society.

Students will find the Zaytuna curriculum to be holistic, with its emphasis on universal principles and themes, rather than fragmented into isolated subjects and disciplines. In a seminal essay on liberal education, the poet and scholar Mark van Doren tells us, “The student who can begin early in his life to think of things as connected, even if he revises his view with every succeeding year, has begun the life of learning.” This spirit captures an essential aspect of study at Zaytuna College: the holistic curriculum reflects the interdependence of disciplines. For example, the study of astronomy raises issues of theology; the study of political science is not divorced from personal ethics; the rise and fall of civilizations is contextualized through a study of world religions; and grammar, logic, and rhetoric constantly inform the interpretive possibilities of a text.

In his introduction to the 1952 publication of Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins points out that it was considered self-evident, until recently, that “No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition.” The Zaytuna curriculum takes this claim to heart, but grapples with an added challenge. As a Muslim liberal arts college in the West, Zaytuna aims to provide its students a foundation in the intellectual heritage of not one but two major world civilizations: the Western and the Islamic. These civilizations share not only common roots but also common aims: to think deeply and systematically about the world (creation), to ponder its ultimate cause and purpose (Creator), and to live ethically in the course of our individual and collective lives (spirituality and politics).

As an emerging college, Zaytuna’s aim and ambition are to fully participate in a renewal of the teachings embedded in the Islamic religious tradition so students can grasp their relevance to the present world. In the words of Hutchins, “If we can secure a real university in this country and a real program of general education upon which its work can rest, it may be that the character of our civilization may slowly change.”

The idea of a Zaytuna education can be expressed in several ways, but at its core is an aspiration that students undergo a personal transformation that leads to an abiding concern for the wider community. As God’s creation, we are all interconnected, and through our diverse cultural histories, we discover our shared humanity and dream of a common future. Because our problems are, at their root, both spiritual and philosophical, the Islamic intellectual legacy can benefit the broader societal discourse.

Zaytuna College students will begin to understand, through practice, learning, and the free exchange of ideas, the valuable and contributive role that Islam can play in the modern world, as well as the faith’s shared history with the West. A look at the historic timeline of the greatest books of Western civilization shows a significant gap between the years 400 (Augustine) and 1200 (Aquinas). Although much of this period is known as the Dark Ages, Muslim intellectual life began to flourish after the seventh century and contributed to, in the terminology of Marshall Hodgson, “the Great Western Transmutation,” ushering in the era of modernity. As historian Dimitri Gutas points out, “One can justly claim that the study of post-classical Greek secular writings can hardly proceed without the evidence of Arabic, which in this context becomes the second classical language, even before Latin.” A true liberal arts education, by definition, equips students with the tools of learning, critical thinking, and eloquent expression. These are the disciplines that comprise the qualitative aspect of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—in a classical liberal arts education. At Zaytuna College, students receive five years of Arabic, three semesters of logic, and three semesters of rhetoric; in addition, they apply these tools in classes across the curriculum. With a one-year Arabic language prerequisite for matriculation, Zaytuna places more emphasis on the Arabic language than does any other undergraduate program in the nation.

As a Muslim educational community, Zaytuna acknowledges the overarching objectives of Muslim law: the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family, private property, and human dignity. These objectives provide the foundation for learning, character, and service that is integral to the mission of the College. Zaytuna’s academic and extracurricular programs are designed to foster and develop the moral, intellectual, and spiritual qualities necessary for cultivating balanced individuals who cherish and desire to realize these objectives. Zaytuna offers eight courses in law and three in theology, both Islamic and comparative, toward its Bachelor of Arts degree in Islamic Law and Theology.

Zaytuna College also aims to prepare its graduates for lives of service and leadership. Students are challenged to grow in intellectual curiosity and to become caring, responsible human beings, committed to the stewardship of creation, especially of the weak and vulnerable. Accordingly, the College emphasizes the universal nature of Islamic values. It is our hope that Muslims of all backgrounds, as well as students and faculty of other faiths and perspectives, will find a welcoming community at the College.

Our goal is to make Zaytuna a place where Muslim tradition comes alive. “Tradition,” as van Doren reminds us, “is most dangerous, and most troublesome, when it is forgotten. It gives strength as well as takes it. It brings life as well as threatens it. It is life fighting to maintain itself in time. For there is the curious fact that tradition is never so healthy as when it is being fought. We deny its authority, but in doing so we use its clearest terms; and end, if we are original, in enriching it so that it may have strength for future wars. It is orthodoxy at its best, thriving on heresies which it digests into nobler problems.”

At Zaytuna, students engage the shared traditions of Islam and the West, studying Aristotle and Avicenna, Galen and Ghazali, side by side. Zaytuna is a place for the renewal and reconciliation of our common heritage, and for keeping God and revelation at the center of the conversation. A future of health and healing, we affirm, will be built on the intellectual and spiritual achievements of the past. Our vision, educational philosophy, and curriculum are designed with this in mind.

Many great American scholars and thinkers have lamented the decline of the liberal arts in the West and committed themselves to a revival of liberal education. Their vision endures today in religious and secular institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College, St. John’s College, Columbia University, Shimer College, Williams College, and Bard College. Zaytuna is the first Muslim college to join the movement.

The decline of traditional Islamic education has resulted in a similar erosion of understanding of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, as well as the fundamental skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, among Muslims. A Muslim liberal arts college with a well-designed curriculum can help integrate the study of Arabic and Islam into the Western canon. Such an effort by Zaytuna and others may go a long way toward infusing faith into civil society, thereby enhancing the commonweal.

At the end of the day, it is our graduates who can effect change. For the ultimate end of a liberal arts education, at Zaytuna College or elsewhere, is the formation of a healthy human being—body and mind, heart and soul. The fragmentation of human knowledge into disparate disciplines that no longer recognize their relationship to each other or to the whole leads to an alienation from oneself. It is our humble aspiration that a journey through the Zaytuna curriculum may become a journey of self-discovery for our students, a reconciliation with the living and nonliving beings around us, towards knowledge of the divine.