The Zaytunian Schools of Thought

 Photo Courtesy of Zaytuna College.

“Oh, so you attend Zaytuna College? What are you going to do afterwards?”

An overwhelming majority of students at Zaytuna do not seem to know what they want to do with their lives. This does not of course discount the fact that they are ambitious and intelligent; it only shows that they are lacking direction. This directionlessness is somewhat understood given that Zaytuna is a liberal arts college, and the purpose of liberal education is not for specific vocational training, but for the cultivation of the self. Liberal education aims to endow the individual with the tools to lead a fulfilling life and to learn to flourish. That said, at the end of the day, students do need to go on to do significant things if they are to carry the Zaytuna brand, while, at the bare minimum, ensure that they can put food on the table.

Sometime back, Imran and I were discussing this phenomenon amongst ourselves, and came to the conclusion that just as there are madhāhib in our jurisprudential tradition, there are schools of thought of what we as students should be aspiring towards. The two towering schools that we came to a consensus on are the Mahanian and the Bilalian school, named after Dr. Mahan Mirza and Imam Bilal Ansari, respectively. Dr. Mahan is the Dean of Faculty and a respected faculty member who received his PhD from Yale in Islamic Studies. Dean Bilal is the director of student life and a longtime chaplain with years of experience and training from Hartford Seminary.

The eponymous Mahanian school fashions students who are professional and intellectual warriors who are grounded in both the Western and Islamic traditions, but ready to engage with the challenges of their time. The Mahanian school seeks to produce thought-leaders.

The Bilalian school, on the other hand, aims to cultivate experts of emotional intelligence. These students will work as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and college campuses. The Bilalian school strives to assemble grassroots activists.

The necessity of both is not doubted by any means and, in many cases, the work of thought-leaders and activists go hand in hand. However, there is a tension due to the presence of these two camps as they contend with one another. This tension is organic and healthy. Yet the question is: are they creating a bias? Zaytuna College’s mission statement reads, “to educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders…” These schools may presently have the most influence, perhaps because of the charisma of their founders, but is it fair to say that they may have been overshadowed by the Yasinian, Delpian, Farazian, or even the Ranian school?

Before the four madhāhib were canonized, there were thousands of jurisprudential schools of thought. Only the Ḥanafī, Mālikī, Shāfīʿī, and Hanbalī schools we know today withstood the test of time. This was by virtue of the influence of their founders and their erudite students who promulgated and codified their teachings. We at Zaytuna find ourselves on the scene of a momentous, dare I say, watershed, occasion. What we choose to do now will influence many students to come and the paths they decide to take in life.

We are not saying that one school has to take precedence over the other. We are merely proposing to take this discussion to the forefront, and maybe the result will either be a consolidation of the schools or a further codification of them.

Perhaps one day in the future, as the college grows, there will be a point where one can major in Islamic Law and Theology, with a minor in chaplaincy, or biblical hermeneutics, or the great outdoors. But until then, we want to hear from you…

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2 comments on “The Zaytunian Schools of Thought
  1. Far too simplistic and essentializing a non-analysis that ignores the complexity of each “character.” This does nothing to move forward understanding of the rich tapestry of directions and approaches to knowledge and career each takes.You have reduced each to a caricature.

    • Thank you for reading our article and for your comment.

      Imran and I did not intend to disrespect our beloved teachers and mentors in the slightest. We intentionally kept the article short for the sake of brevity and to spur a larger, more nuanced, discussion. With that end in mind, it would be counterintuitive to write a longer article that would produce “too long; didn’t read” responses.

      Many students have come to us and thanked us for either putting into words what they were witnessing themselves or opening up their eyes to something that they did not recognize prior. Regardless of whether the Mahanian or Bilalian schools are misnomers, we do contend that there is a general thrust of what these schools represent, steering students in certain directions.

      You mentioned a rich tapestry of directions and approaches to knowledge that each individual takes. Would you mind elaborating further? It would contribute to the very discussion we are trying to push forward.

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