At a fundraiser in February for Zaytuna College, organizers seemed intent on preempting critical questions.
"Why a Muslim College in America?" the Anaheim event was headlined, as if anticipating the query from audience members. And throughout the four-hour gathering, the speakers repeatedly stated why they believed such an institution was needed, calling it an idea whose time has come.
Hatem Bazian, a UC Berkeley lecturer in Near East studies and a co-founder of Zaytuna, said that touch of defensiveness came after more than a year of crisscrossing the country and gauging sentiment from the American Muslim community.
"There's still some lack of clarity from the members of the community whether this is something that is needed at this point or not," Bazian said after the fundraiser. "People need to feel this is something that is needed for them to invest in it."
Zaytuna, which hopes to become the first accredited, four-year Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, this week welcomed its first students to its rented space in a Baptist seminary in Berkeley. The college, which has about a dozen faculty members, will offer two majors at first, in Arabic language and Islamic law and theology.
Muslims in the U.S. have founded schools, mosques and religious organizations. An accredited college is the next step, Zaytuna's founders say. They cite a long tradition of other faiths founding their own educational institutions and seminaries.
"If you have distinctive views of the world, it's important to have institutions to pass on that view," Zaytuna founder Sheikh Hamza Yusuf said. A convert to Islam and Northern California native, Yusuf is considered one of the leading Islamic scholars in the U.S.
But the college, which has been in the works for several years, is more than just an item on a religious community's to-do list.
Zaytuna (which means "olive" in Arabic) stems from a growing desire in much of the U.S. Muslim community for leaders and imams who understand Islam within a Western context.
"In order to have an American Muslim identity, we needed leaders who were raised in institutions here to lead those communities," said Imam Zaid Shakir, another of the founders. Shakir, who converted to Islam while serving in the Air Force, is an Islamic scholar who has studied in Egypt, Syria and Morocco.
To date, Muslim religious leaders have mostly come from abroad. And although they have extensive knowledge of the Islamic texts, the Koran and Arabic, they are often unfamiliar with the American culture in which Islam is practiced, Shakir said.
Nowadays, employment ads for imams in Muslim American magazines seek candidates who are fluent in Arabic and English, able to work with youths and engage in interfaith activities.
The goal of the new college, Shakir said, is "to graduate culturally fluent, Islamically trained human beings." Of those, he said, some may hope to become imams, some to go into a graduate or professional program and some "may want to be housewives or open a halal meat shop."
The college is not a seminary but does include an imam certification program over three summer semesters.
Fatimah Knight, one of 15 members of Zaytuna's first freshman class, said she considered Yusuf and Shakir, the college's two main leaders, ideal to lead the effort because they understand the thinking of Muslims in America. When Yusuf gives a speech, he quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as the Koran, she said.
"And I think it's very appealing to Western Muslims because it's very much how we are," said Knight, who plans to major in Islamic law.
The college grew out of the Zaytuna Institute, an educational institute founded by Yusuf in Hayward in 1996 to present a classical picture of Islam and bring back traditional study methods about Islam. That was followed by a pilot program with five seminary students a few years ago to test the idea for a college.
There are other Muslim higher education institutions in the United States, but Zaytuna officials say the college will be the first to merge Islamic and liberal arts education and, they hope, to be accredited. Zaytuna is seeking accreditation with the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges and its leaders hope to complete that process by the time its first class graduates.
Zaytuna has sought to emulate American universities in another way by setting the goal of creating a $5-million endowment by the end of this year and a $30-million endowment in five years. When classes began this week, the endowment was about $2 million short.
"The endowment has been going slow," Shakir said. "It's a new idea, people are used to investing in more tangible things, like schools or mosques."
The university has even offered a fundraising promotion to encourage more donations, with a prize of making a pilgrimage to Mecca alongside Yusuf and Shakir.
Hossam AlJabri, executive director of the Muslim American Society, which runs its own Islamic university in Michigan, said raising money was one of the biggest challenges for such institutions. Many Muslims, along with Americans of other faiths, are already supporting religious groups and institutions and other charities. Giving to a Muslim university may not be as high a priority, he said.
"The common Muslim is going to pay for what is going to bring immediate results tomorrow or see relief tomorrow," AlJabri said. "And education is a long-term investment."