'Light Without Fire'

Author discusses new book about the first Muslim college in the United States.

May 1, 2013

In fall 2010, as cable news networks were briefly riveted by a controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," the first, small class of students began their studies at a new college in Berkeley. Zaytuna College was at the time in its infancy -- until the end of the first semester, there were no books on the library shelves; major debates remained about the college's curriculum and direction; and it had yet to pursue, let alone gain, accreditation -- but its founders and students had big plans for Zaytuna, the first Muslim college in North America.

Scott Korb, who teaches writing at New York University and the New School, spent time with the college's inaugural class and wrote about the first year of Zaytuna College in Light Without Fire: The Making of America's First Muslim College (Beacon Press). He responded to questions by e-mail about his work and Zaytuna's present and future.

Q: What drew you to Zaytuna initially, and how would you describe the fledgling Muslim college in the Bay Area?

A: I was introduced to Zaytuna by a student of mine at New York University; he was taking a first-year writing course called "The Faith Between Us." A New Yorker by birth, Ebad Rahman had been a student in a pilot seminary program in the years between high school and college, and during the fall of 2009, he wound up writing a lot about his experiences with the scholars at Zaytuna — especially Imam Zaid Shakir, whom Ebad found especially inspiring and "relevant," a word he often used. Ebad explained the seminary program was then being formed into the nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college. It seemed like a historic move — and the perfect subject for a deep, exploratory book.

Fledgling is a good word. Zaytuna currently has 31 students and will graduate its first class next year. Those are the students I spent my time with in 2010-11, and the ones I know best. But the founders — Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Dr. Hatem Bazian — are committed to expanding their program, pursing accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and moving into a new, permanent campus — at the heart of Berkeley’s Holy Hill, home to the Graduate Theological Union. They’ve also moved in recent months to a single, unified curriculum based on the Great Books model of Columbia University and St. John’s College.

In my experience, the students are — to a one — passionate about their studies and moved by their professors. 

Q: In Light Without Fire, you draw comparisons between Zaytuna -- which aspires to combine intensive study of Arabic and the Koran with a liberal arts curriculum loosely based on the Great Books -- and other, mostly Christian, religious colleges. Does Zaytuna aim to eventually model itself after evangelical colleges, most of which aim to educate those who share the faith of the colleges' leaders? Or does it plan to follow the path of some Roman Catholic colleges, which consider their faith a key part of their identity but enroll many non-Catholic students? In other words, would Zaytuna rather be the Georgetown University or the Wheaton College of Islam?

A: In the early days of the school, Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid often tried to describe the school — and their ideas about its founding — in an American historical context, reminding their audiences at the school’s convocation, during fund-raising events, and in radio interviews, that Yale and Harvard were both founded as religious colleges. It’s difficult at this point to see Zaytuna in the model of these Ivies, and it’s not their vision at the moment to expand the school much beyond a total population of 200 students. That size alone to me suggests appealing almost exclusively to Muslim students. And while Islam will likely remain a part of each class the students take, I think the hope of the school will be to appeal to Muslims of all stripes — and even the rare case of a non-Muslim student who finds incredibly appealing the school’s vision of creating morally committed individuals.

What’s interesting in this context about a school like Georgetown, or Fordham perhaps, is that those places are always having to consider just what it means to be a Jesuit college, what that identity means in the face of non-Catholic students. That’s always an ongoing negotiation, and over the years, I think it’s a challenge that Zaytuna would like to take on. Because they are so young, and because there’s still some real experimentation going on, they’re by necessity engaged in the ongoing negotiation of what Islamic education is going to look like in the United States — both internally and in conversation with other Muslim and non-Muslim institutions around the country and the world. That’s not the impression I get from a college like Wheaton [of Illinois] (though I can’t say I know that school very well). Unlike with other religious institutions in America’s past, especially evangelical Christian colleges, which were often founded in the spirit of retreat, Zaytuna seems to take an advance position relative to the culture.

Q: In your account of the first year at Zaytuna, some classes and curriculums seem more developed than others. But it’s clear that Zaytuna still has a long way to go. What are the college’s biggest challenges, and do you think it can overcome them?

A: Their greatest challenge at the moment is the endless pursuit of funding. Fund-raising takes its toll on the founders. That first year, the Arabic curriculum offered the school its biggest challenge, often frustrating students who quickly fell behind.

Q: You were at Zaytuna during an interesting time -- the first few months of its existence. How did the college evolve while you were there?

A: In practical terms, the school evolved by making adjustments to the Arabic program and hiring additional staff as tutors and also to support students in nonacademic ways. They filled up a library with books. But, beyond those sorts of institutional adjustments, the school evolved because the students, coming from all over the country, developed strong bonds and a new sense of home. Zaytuna took on a new life as the year moved on because the students brought personality, love, and a vision for what they could accomplish as both students in the nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college, and beyond.

Q: You write in depth about the college’s founders and driving forces, Imam Zaid Shakir and particularly Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, both American converts to Sunni Islam. But in the end, you seem perhaps more optimistic about the students as the future of the institution. Why is that?

A: In order to succeed, American institutions must mean more to the country than what might be represented by a charismatic founder or the earliest thinking about what the institution can do. The success of institutions must be measured not by the mere fact of their creation (or the reputation of the creators), but by the people and the breadth of new ideas that the institutions create. Zaytuna seems to know this.



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