[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story contained some incorrect information. Jamye Ford had told NPR that he was 24 years old, entered Columbia University at 16 and graduated with a double major in neuroscience and history. NPR has since learned that Ford is actually 32 years old, entered Columbia at 18 and graduated with a degree in history.]
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
At a time when Americans are struggling with the question of where Muslims fit into this country, Zaytuna College has opened its doors in Berkeley, California, happened two weeks ago. It is an American Muslim college, the first. For the 15 freshmen in the inaugural class it's a chance to study their faith with top scholars. For the college's founders it's a chance to hone a new image for American Islam. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I don't know what I expected to find when I arrived at Zaytuna College. Women in headscarves? Mostly true. Men with heavy beards? Not true.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
HAGERTY: A lot of prayer and fasting, since it's Ramadan. Right.
What I didn't expect was 24-year-old Jamye Ford. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ford is 32 years old.]
Mr. JAMYE FORD: I grew up as an AME, African Methodist Episcopal, in a very religious Southern family.
HAGERTY: Ford already has a college degree. He entered Columbia University at age 16 and graduated with a double major in neuroscience and history. But he was drawn to the poetry of the Quran, and this summer he began studying Arabic at Zaytuna. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ford entered Columbia University at age 18 and graduated with a degree in history.]
Mr. FORD: And that was my first opportunity to be in a Muslim environment, and within a week, two weeks, I felt changed by that experience.
HAGERTY: Ford converted to Islam seven weeks ago and enrolled in Zaytuna College to cultivate his newfound faith.
Mr. FORD: I think I'm looking forward to this more than I looked forward to going to Columbia on the first day, honestly.
Ms. SAAD AFCON(ph) (Zaytuna College): So I thought a great way to begin would be for us to do a bit of an ice breaker.
HAGERTY: On the first day, the class of six men and nine women gather for orientation. And Saad Afcon encourages them to get to know their neighbors.
Unidentified Woman (Student): Like how many brothers and sisters do you have?
HAGERTY: This is America's Islamic population writ small. The largest group here is African-American. There are a few students from Middle Eastern and South Asian families, and a couple of Caucasians. They come from Cleveland, Denver, Brooklyn, and there's not a foreign accent among them.
Imam ZAID SHAKIR: (Foreign language spoken) - I'd like to welcome everyone here.
HAGERTY: The room falls silent as Imam Zaid Shakir strides into the room. He's a tall, lanky African-American and a founder of the college. The students sit rapt as he tells them they are pioneers, charting the future of American Islam - which is not for the faint of heart.
Mr. SHAKIR: Literally, the whole world is looking at you. You'll be put under a microscope by a lot of people, and you have to perform.
(Soundbite of chatter)
HAGERTY: Sitting in the quad after Shakir's pep talk, I asked Faatimah Knight why she would come here to this unaccredited Muslim college. Knight, whose parents converted to Islam, turned down seven other colleges, including the University of Chicago, Smith and Bard.
Ms. FAATIMAH KNIGHT (Student): Zaytuna was really the only place I thought would benefit me, not just in terms of book-smarts and knowledge that I would gain there, but also in terms of my own character and developing myself as a person, which I'm pretty confident that I couldn't get anywhere else.
HAGERTY: Catholics have Notre Dame, Jews have Yeshiva University, and Evangelicals have Wheaton. But until now, Muslim Americans didn't have their own liberal arts college. That's the vision of Zaytuna's founders, Imam Shakir and Sheik Hamza Yusuf. Young American Muslims relate to these two men who were born in the U.S. and preach an Islam that resonates with them, much more than they relate to, say, a cleric from Saudi Arabia.
Ms. KNIGHT: We want our American Muslim scholars because we're American and we're Muslim and that's how we identify ourselves. We want to learn from people who maybe look like us and talk like us, think like us, eat like us. It's only natural - it's just human.
HAGERTY: And increasingly, American Islam looks and sounds, well, American. A third of all Muslims in the U.S. were born here, and a half a million of them are converts, like Jamye Ford. Ford says as he thought about changing religions, he realized he needed to overcome a philosophical hurdle, especially challenging in this anti-Muslim climate.
Mr. FORD: So often the way that the idea is portrayed is that there's a dichotomy, that there's being American and there's being Muslim, and that these two must necessarily be at odds with one another. And it was clear to me that these two things don't have to exist separately.
(Foreign language spoken) Jamye. (Foreign language spoken) Georgia.
HAGERTY: In Jamye's Arabic class, the men and women sit next to each other. They chat after class and share meals, things that would never happen in an Islamic school overseas. That is intentional, says Sheik Hamza Yusuf. Zaytuna should feel like any other American school.
And there's a deeper motive. Yusuf wants to tease apart the religion of Islam from the customs and ideas of the Middle East. He's learned this from personal experience. He says during his 10 years studying abroad, he imbibed ideas that had nothing to do with Islam, such as anger at U.S. foreign policy.
Sheik HAMZA YUSUF (Founder, Zaytuna University): This idea of not liking my country, or liking the people that I come from, was - became very problematic for me, so I had that internal struggle in my own evolution. And I think that that's happened to many young converts that have gone overseas.
HAGERTY: Consider Jose Padilla and John Walker Lindh, Americans who learned their religion from al-Qaida and the Taliban and are now in federal prison. Yusuf says that people with shallow theology of all types can become extremists, and an American Islamic school is a hedge against violent Islam.
Yusuf knows some might disagree, with people threatening to burn the Quran and equating Muslims with terrorists and Nazis. He's bracing for some pushback, but...
Mr. YUSUF: Anybody that does even a superficial survey of who we are will, I think, recognize pretty quickly that we're not radical terrorists, fundamentalists, whatever.
HAGERTY: Still, some students are a little jittery.
Ms. KNIGHT: You know, you can feel people's hatred. You know, it's palpable.
HAGERTY: Faatimah Knight is saddened by what she sees on TV. And Adnan Alam says he worries about his every word and action.
Mr. ADNAN ALAM (Student): It kind of makes you nervous, because you don't want to do something that's going to cause people to think, wow, these guys are crazy. The magnifying glass is so large right now. I mean anything can be misconstrued.
(Soundbite of singing)
HAGERTY: For the 15 students in the class of 2014, the opening convocation was a grand ceremony. Imam Shakir spoke of new beginnings and read a poem reflecting the challenges the students will face.
Mr. SHAKIR: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don't deal in lies, or being hated, don't give way to hating...
HAGERTY: The students here say when they graduate they hope to be teachers, business owners, public servants. Jamye Ford says when he looks at his classmates, he sees the next generation of Muslim leaders.
Mr. FORD: To imagine that down the road these people will be the next imams, the next sheiks, the next leaders, the next senators, the next president - it's awe-inspiring.
HAGERTY: That's Zaytuna's hope, at least - a big hope for a tiny college, especially in a country now conflicted over how to treat its Muslim minority.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.