Rise of the Islamic university

Islamic universities are beginning to spring up in countries around the world with new institutions opening in the US, Italy and in some European countries.

The aim is to provide higher education for immigrant Muslim communities and to tackle concerns about the spread of extremism among Muslim youth. Academics say the establishment of Islamic universities, along with creating an academic framework for Islam within universities, will see more opening in the West.

A liberal-arts school in Berkeley in California has become the first Islamic institution of higher learning in the US while plans are underway to create Italy's first Islamic university.

Meantime, France plans to double the number of university courses teaching Islam.

US: First accredited Muslim higher education institution

America has many religiously affiliated colleges, but the vast majority are Christian, including Liberty University, the University of Notre Dame, Kenyon College, and Boston College. In addition, some Jewish higher education institutions such as Brandeis University and Yeshiva University have been operating for many years.

Last month, Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal-arts school based in Berkeley, was formally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the six official academic bodies responsible for authorising public and private colleges and universities in the US.

“Five years ago, we introduced an undergraduate liberal arts program inspired by the idea of restoring the holistic education that had been offered in the great teaching centres of Islamic civilisation,” said Zaytuna College President Hamza Yusuf.

“Zaytuna’s accreditation roots this vision in a reality recognised within American higher education. It gives our community its first accredited academic address in the United States. And we hope, God willing, that there will be more such Muslim colleges and universities to come.”

Yusuf said accreditation would help ensure that Zaytuna successfully fulfilled the objectives outlined in its curriculum, “which grounds its students in both the Islamic and Western scholarly traditions”.

Italy's first Islamic university

The city of Lecce, known as the Florence of the South, is set to become the location of Italy’s first Islamic university. The goal is to open the university complex within three years but there are plans to begin teaching a small number of theology students next October at the recently established Islamic University Foundation.

A report last month by the International Islamic News Agency said Giampiero Khaled Palladini, a Muslim convert and president of Confime, a confederation for Mediterranean businesses, was behind the project.

“Palladini believes that this project could become 'an instrument for peace’ in the town of Lecce which is proud of its openness,” the agency reported. “He said: `We need something that could help change people’s attitudes towards being Muslim'.”

Palladini announced that the project had been registered and land obtained on the outskirts of Lecce to build the campus, which will include accommodation, sports facilities and a mosque.

The agency said Palladini had not revealed any exact sources of funding but they were mostly private donors from Arab nations, including Qatar and Kuwait. He said he already had secured a number of pledges for the needed €45 million (U$47.8 million ) to launch the university.

Under the plans, the university would have a capacity for 5,000 students and would teach philosophy, literature and theology, with further disciplines, including a faculty of agriculture and a medical school, to start later. It would be set up on similar model to the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and be open to students from Italy and abroad.

Other European Muslim universities

Among other Islamic universities operating in Europe, two have been established in the Netherlands to meet the social and religious needs of the 900,000 Muslims living there. These include the Islamic University of Rotterdam which aims to encourage its students to "live as a Muslim and as a responsible citizen of Dutch society".

The Islamic University of Europe plans to train the spiritual and intellectual leaders for the growing Muslim community in the Netherlands, combining a knowledge of Islamic tradition and the contemporary European environment.

Academic framework for Islam

After the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, when Muslim gunmen killed 17 people, France announced plans to double the number of university courses teaching Islam in an effort to counter the rise of Islamic and far-right extremism.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population with five million people and about half from the Maghreb countries. The French decision to boost the teaching of Islam in universities follows similar moves by other leading universities in Europe, as was set out in a 2013 report Islam Conquering Higher European Education.