"We Demand More from Our Students"

A Conversation about the Zaytuna MA in Islamic Texts

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With admissions for the Zaytuna College MA program now open, Jawad Qureshi, administrative director of the college’s graduate program, sat down with Director of Admissions Faisal Hamid for a short conversation about some of the program’s distinctive features. The MA in Islamic texts, with concentrations in Islamic law and Islamic philosophy and theology, offers students the opportunity to study the Islamic trivium (al-¢ulūm al- āliyyah) in its primary texts and to develop the requisite skills of advanced academic writing and analysis to prepare them for careers as scholars or as professionals in a variety of fields, including law and education. 

Their conversation, edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below. Learn more about the MA in Islamic Texts.

Faisal Hamid: Salam 'alaykum, Dr. Jawad. The masters in Islamic texts, now in its second year, is the newest addition to Zaytuna’s degree offerings. Can you describe what the educational experience is like? 

Jawad Qureshi: Wa ‘alaykum salam. Our masters students study texts that are foundational to the Islamic tradition. Our courses are structured primarily as reading and discussion. Students are expected to come to class having prepared the passages that will be covered in the session, so the discussion will be lively and in depth. Students are also expected to memorize the definitions, and oftentimes to memorize the entire text. We start each text from the beginning, and we try to cover the entirety of the text by the end of the course. 

At Zaytuna, we emphasize direct reading of the primary texts of the Islamic tradition—you won’t find this level of engagement with primary sources at other programs.

FH: How does our master’s program differ from a traditional madrasah education?

JQ: Okay, this is a good question. Our MA program is an extension of what is covered in the madrasah. So, we cover the same texts, but we want to see our students not merely master these texts but also master the skills that are constitutive of our intellectual tradition. There is a level of rigor demanded, so we assess our students through examinations and research papers—that is something you won’t typically find at a madrasah. We also require students to deliver public lectures, and, of course, write a thesis. So, even though we’re rooted in the Islamic tradition, we have a vision that extends to the greater world around us.

FH: Thank you. And how does our master’s program differ from a master’s program that would be offered at another college in the West? What makes it unique among academic Islamic studies programs?

JQ: At Zaytuna, we emphasize direct reading of the primary texts of the Islamic tradition—you won’t find this level of engagement with primary sources at other programs. In this sense, we demand more from our students. We try to round out their skills, so they are not just good at naĥw (grammar) and śarf (morphology), but also balāghah (rhetoric) and and adab al-baĥth(dialectic). You won’t find Arabic programs anywhere in the West that really do that. In addition, all the texts we cover are well recognized as authoritative texts throughout the Sunni world. 

FH: What skills do our master’s students acquire?

JQ: The key skills our students acquire derive from the Islamic trivium tradition, the al-¢ulūm al- āliyyah, namely Arabic grammar, logic, rhetoric, and dialectic. We dedicate an entire course to research methodologies, and over the course of two semesters, we also guide students through their thesis, which is a key requirement for graduation. The thesis is meant to train students in how to carry out original research related to a specific problem, using both secondary literature and primary sources, formulating a thesis, and arguing that thesis in a hundred pages or so. They have to write a full thesis that is defensible and that meets a certain standard. The way we go about our thesis is unique among Western institutions because of the amount of time and attention we devote to training our students in acquiring research skills and guiding them through the writing process. 

FH: What career paths are our master’s graduates competitive for?

JQ: We haven’t graduated our first class yet, but I monitor their work and they are all doing quite well. We would like to see our students continuing Islamic studies in the top Western universities or in the Muslim world and going into professional schools as well. Students will be able to use their MA from Zaytuna in law school or in chaplaincy, to give two examples. Many of our students feel equipped to enter the field of law because of their extensive study of fiqh and uśūl in both the undergraduate and graduate programs, and many others feel equipped to go into pastoral fields, such as chaplaincy, because of their extensive study of theology. They should also be qualified to make valuable contributions in areas such as education, policy work, and community leadership.

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