While Vassar is often considered one of the least religious colleges in the country, the Religion Department is working to provide a space for dialogue between its more secular student body and spiritual leaders.
To take steps toward spurring these conversations, Vassar is inviting Hamza Yusuf to give a speech titled “The Arts of Freedom: Protecting the Mind in an Age of Mass Media” in Taylor Hall at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 13.
Yusuf is the President of Zaytuna College in Berkley, California. Zaytuna is the first college in the United States to both be Muslim and have a strong emphasis on liberal arts education.
Originally founded as a theological school and seminary in the 1990s, Zaytuna has tended toward a liberal arts curriculum over the years. Zaytuna officially become a college in 2008, adding several different majors including Arabic and Islamic Studies. Although it has shifted to become a more academic college, the school maintains a theological school to help train religious leaders for the American Muslim community. Zaytuna’s mission is to provide a liberal arts education to students while emphasizing their Islamic faith, much like the dozens of Jesuit and Christian schools spread across America.
Rose Muravchick is a post-doctoral Fellow of Religion at Vassar. She is a professor who will be teaching several classes on Islam in the coming semesters. Muravchick states that she has followed the development of Zaytuna for several years.
In her opinion as an aspiring professor of Islam, Zaytuna is a welcome addition to the Muslim community.
“I think it [Zaytuna] seems like a natural and somewhat overdue idea,” said Muravchik. “Islam is a massively growing religion, especially in America. It’s not confined to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East anymore.”
In the speech, Yusuf will be speaking specifically on the significance of a liberal arts education and how it relates to what he and the other faculty members of Zaytuna are trying to accomplish. He will also discuss the decline of the liberal arts and how that can affect the freedoms upon which our society is founded.
“The time is ripe for greater conversation about liberal education,” said Jonathan Kahn, Chair of the Religion department, who personally asked Yusuf to come speak.
The speech is part of the Religion department’s Frederick C. Woods Lecture Series, which are held annually. Professor Kahn hopes that Yusuf’s speech this year could spark a greater discourse between Vassar and Zaytuna.
“With the lecture we hope to signal to Zaytuna that we want to start an open dialogue and discourse between us and them,” said Kahn.
Kahn was prompted to invite President Yusuf to Vassar while he was dwelling on the question of what a liberal arts education means today. He feels this question is pertinent to both schools and the answer could speak to members of both institutions. He admits that Vassar and Zaytuna are very different institutions, considering they are based on such widely divergent ideologies.
“Though it would seem that we have very different views,” Kahn continued. “I think we’ll have a lot more to talk about than people might think.”
To illustrate the differences, he pointed out that Zaytuna is, above all else, a religious institution, while, on the other hand, Vassar frequently appears on lists of the United States’ least religious campuses. Kahn thinks that this discrepancy shouldn’t matter.
“Being irreligious doesn’t mean that you can’t engage with those who are,” said Kahn. “Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t engage with them.”
Engaging with Yusuf, and through him Zaytuna, will begin to bridge a gap that Kahn believes divides all of America’s religious population from all of America’s non-religious population. The role of teachers, Kahn states, is to provide their students with the tools necessary to bridge this gap between the two Americas.
“I believe that Vassar students should learn to talk across these divides,” Kahn stated. “I think this is vital for democracy in the 21st century. If Vassar is really serious about diversity, we need to speak to American Muslims. They are one of the fastest growing and most diverse groups in America.”
Muravchik agreed, stating that she also believes that Vassar and Zaytuna can learn a lot from each other.
“Vassar is a perfect example of a great liberal arts school. It’s great to have someone from a religiously-motivated school come to speak.” Muravchik stated, also citing Vassar’s history as a non-religious school.
In her classes here at Vassar, Muravchik hopes to help dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding Islam that are continually perpetuated by the media.
“We often believe we understand a religion when what we’re talking about are cultural views or political currents surrounding it,” Muravchik said.
She is teaching a class on art and beauty and their relationship and place within Islam and the misconceptions that surround them. For instance, Muravchik states that most people believe there is no figural art in Muslim culture, and most definitely not figural art that depicts the Prophet Muhammad.
“That’s not true.” Muravchik stated. “There are pictures of the prophet. The context is what matters. They go in appropriate places, [in the case of depictions of Muhammad] such as a history book that would be placed on a shelf. There are nude statues of women. But they go in baths, and that’s appropriate decoration for a bathhouse.”
Muravchik and Kahn agree that people have to be willing to reach across the aisle and cooperate. The Yusuf lecture, they hope, will be a step toward growing the Vassar community’s involvement with the Muslim community.
“By having him here we hope to signal to the local Muslim community that we want a place for these discourses to take place. Hopefully they will see this, attend the speech, and continue this discourse after he [Yusuf] leaves,” said Kahn. He continued to say that he hopes that, together, Vassar and the community can keep the discourse flowing.
He also encouraged everyone, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, to remain open-minded and willing to talk.
“If you are at all interested in this discourse you have to be willing to talk to your religious counterparts,” Kahn concluded.