First established as an Islamic educational college known as Kolej Ugama Sultan Zainal Abidin – KUSZA on 27th January 1980. KUSZA was made a statutory body with the passing of the Enactment by the Terengganu State Legislative Assembly. A permanent campus was built in Gong Badak, Kuala Terengganu and KUSZA began operating in the campus from January 1983.
The first program to be offered was a Diploma in Islamic Studies (Syariah). Then they expanded to 23 Diploma programs and three Advanced Diploma programs. The university, KUSZA then was upgraded into a full-fledged university known as Universiti Darul Iman Malaysia – UDM and the number of programs and disciplines were extended. It began when the 5th Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi announced the formation of a new university to be established in the state of Terengganu, Malaysia. This was followed by the appointment of the first Vice Chancellor, Dato’ Professor Dr Alias bin Daud, on January 1, 2006.
With the approval from Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin on 13 April 2010, the Universiti Darul Iman Malaysia is now known as Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin effective on 14 May 2010. The Higher Education Minister, Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said in the press statement that the change of name was made after taking into account the historical background of the institution. Then in 15 February 2013, the Malaysian Prime Minister announced that UniSZA become the third Islamic university in Malaysia,after the International Islamic University – IIUM and Kolej Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Selangor – KUIS.