Students await orientation at Zaytuna College after collecting their books. Photo: Zaytuna College.

Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim institution of higher learning, opens its doors today in Berkeley and — given the current brouhaha over a certain Muslim community center hoping to open near New York’s Ground Zero — its founders probably wish they had chosen any other time to make their entrance.

Nevertheless, Zaytuna’s inaugural fifiteen students will attend convocation today and their first classes tomorrow at their rented premises at Berkeley’s American Baptist Seminary of the West at Dwight Way and Hillegass.

The liberal arts college offers a four-year bachelor’s degree with two majors: Islamic law and theology and Arabic language, and  is open to students of any religion. It was founded by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, one of America’s most highly respected Muslim clerics; Dr Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley; and Islamic scholar Iman Zaid Shakir, who was born in Berkeley.

The college, which is charging annual fees of $11,000, has its genesis in the Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic seminary founded by Shaykh Hamza  in Hayward in 1996.

Speaking about the motivation for launching the college, Dr Bazian told the Contra Costa Times: “The Muslim community in the United States is growing. As such, it is increasingly needing an institution of higher learning.”

Zaytuna College is housed in Berkeley's Baptist Seminary of the West on Dwight Way.

The Bay Area has a significant Muslim community. Zaytuna College estimates 300,000 to 500,000 Muslims live in the region, and that there are more than 50 mosques and dozens of organizations that “reflect the greater Bay Area’s characteristics of tolerance and activism”.

On its website, Zaytuna describes Berkeley as “a center for American intellectual and spiritual life” and speaks of being able to take advantage of the area’s “long tradition of political and social justice activism”,  as well as the city’s “abundant cultural attractions”.

Predictably perhaps, the new college has already received wide media coverage. The California Report produced a radio broadcast with accompanying slideshow last month; writing in The Daily Beast, Reza Aslan suggested its launch could be “the next Muslim controversy”. California Magazine looks at how the arrival of the college signals an increased interest in Islamic studies generally. And the Contra Costa Times published an informative piece on the college and its mission today.

Full information on the college can be found on its website.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...