Islam is a major world religion that was proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad in what is now Saudi Arabia in the 7th century A.D. Starting in the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime and during the centuries after his death, Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China. Today, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world with approximately 1.8 billion followers (including about 3.45 million in North America).
Muslim scholars have studied the Quran, Hadith, and other sacred and secular texts, and they have educated people about Islam ever since the religion was founded. The oldest, continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, which was founded in 859 A.D. in Fez, Morocco. “Originally founded as a mosque, with an associated mosque school (madrasa) for the purpose of providing a place for the community to practice their religious rituals in comfort, the place of worship soon developed other functions,” according to Morocco World News. “It became a place of religious instruction and Quran memorization, Arabic grammar, mathematics, music, chemistry, Islamic legislation, Sufism, medicines, astronomy, as well to study political debate and lessons focusing mainly on the natural sciences.” Many consider Al-Azhar University—which was founded in Cairo, Egypt, in 970 A.D.—to be at the center of modern Islamic and Arabic learning in the world. Today, its major focuses are on Islamic law, theology, and the Arabic language.
In the United States, the study of Islam (generally by non-Muslim scholars) began at Yale University in 1841 with the establishment of its doctoral program in Arabic and Islamic studies. As the number of Muslims immigrating to the United States increased in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, more colleges and universities began launching Islamic studies programs.
The number of Muslims immigrating to the United States continued to grow, and Muslim-led organizations for the study of Islam began to be founded. In 1972, the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies was established by North American Muslim scholars as an academic forum to discuss social issues relating to the study of Islam and Muslim experiences from an Islamic perspective. Noteworthy colleges for Muslims that offer Islamic studies include the American Islamic College (which was founded in 1981), Zaytuna College (1996), and Mishkah University (2004).