On the origins of Zaytuna College, the United States’ first Muslim liberal arts institution, and the scholars and students who call it home.
Photo courtesy D. H. Parks
Olives (zaytunah) are second only to figs in Berg’s table of purifying foods.
—Zaytuna College, “What’s in Our Name?”
Without enlightened educational institutions that attract talented students and in the absence of curricula that impart a mature understanding of modern thought and realities, it is unlikely that a sophisticated understanding of the Islamic religious tradition can ever be fostered.
—Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah
This Sunday afternoon, August 8, 2010, Imam Zaid Shakir was plugged in, white Apple earbuds matching his white kufi, which, as I saw it, announced a certain relevance with nothing more than how he waited around campus drinking coffee. Zaid is remarkably lean and tall, even seated there at the picnic-style table outside Caffe Strada, where the summer school students took their breaks from class. He wore a light-blue striped shirt, buttoned high under his Adam’s apple. He was with Muslim friends.
Soon I’d be joining the imam and the summer Zaytunies on a hike into the Strawberry Canyon of the Berkeley Hills up behind Memorial Stadium, where the views across the bay and into San Francisco were meant to remind us all of the majesty and unmistakable reality of Allah. Ebad, who’d invited me to join on the hike, had been in Berkeley most of the summer teaching in an intensive Arabic program, the first courses offered by Zaytuna in its incarnation as an accreditation-seeking American college. It had been months since I’d seen Ebad in New York, and now he was heading back there that very evening, back to his parents, back to his own college, where we’d met. In the meantime, Ebad would make whatever introductions I’d need into the little ummah, the community of the Muslims—including Imam Zaid.
Before long, though, we were joined by a bright and beautiful young woman named Ala’ Khan, a Berkeley student who’d been spending time with the Zaytunies over the summer. She wore a stud in her nose. Dustin was suddenly preoccupied.
While Zaid was finishing his coffee, some sixty students had gathered, many of them among the imam’s most devoted fans, collectors of his recorded sermons, and hangers on his every word. They had been living and taking classes together at the Westminster House dormitories at the base of the Hills and across Bancroft Way from UC Berkeley’s Law School. When I met him at the doors to Westminster, Ebad introduced me around a little—to Mohammad, a college student from Dayton, Ohio; to Thomas, whose Chicago-based investment firm had sent him here to learn Arabic so he could deal with clients in the Middle East; and finally to Imam Zaid and another Arabic teacher, Imam Dawood Yasin. In the past few years, hikes like this were typically led by Imam Dawood, a onetime fashion model formerly known as David Howard, who’d come to Islam in 1996 after a near-death experience while working in South Africa.
Dawood Yasin, a black convert whose Arabic surname comes from a surah, or chapter, known to Muslims as the heart of the Koran, had taken over as the imam of a congregation Zaid left behind in New Haven when he came to Zaytuna Institute in Hayward as a scholar-in-residence in 2003. These days, he spent the summers in the Bay Area with his mentor. Dawood, who would one day tell me that a recording of the surah Yasin had brought him to tears even before he could understand Arabic, is younger and sturdier than Zaid. Parts of the hike would be steep.
The group would stretch before starting the climb. Grab your ankle and pull. Then switch. A woman named Thoba (which sounds like “tuba”) worried about stretching, unsure she was up for it.
Making a wide circle in a clearing, the students and the two imams joined themselves with arms over each other’s shoulders, all the way around. Men made up one half of the circle; women made up the other. Where they would have come together—the men and the women—the circle broke on both sides. At Zaytuna, women and men did not touch.
And yet together, and apart, they swayed. Ebad held tight near his teachers. A new Zaytuna College student, Dustin Craun, a white convert from Denver sporting a goatee who’d been in Berkeley most of the summer rooming with Ebad and studying Arabic in preparation for the start of the school year, tucked himself up against Imam Zaid.
“Brothers and sisters who sway together stay together,” said Zaid. That they also prayed together was so obvious it seemed not worth mentioning.
And then up we all went, with Zaid and Dawood in the lead. Dustin took his place in the middle of the pack and kept me company. He’d come to Islam, and Zaytuna specifically, in large part because of his politics, which he said ran “down and to the left,” in sharp contrast with a graph he asked me to imagine running endlessly “up and to the right.” This was the chart of global capital, the markets, and, to his mind, corruption. Like many academics I know, Dustin sided with those down and out and left behind. Allah was also with the poor.
We talked more about his plans to complete a PhD at UC Berkeley while also working toward a bachelor’s degree with Imam Zaid at Zaytuna. Before long, though, we were joined by a bright and beautiful young woman named Ala’ Khan, a Berkeley student who’d been spending time with the Zaytunies over the summer. She wore a stud in her nose. Dustin was suddenly preoccupied and would be for much of the rest of the day—indeed, much of the rest of the year.
Just ahead of us was a British student, Zajif Iqbal, telling a few friends, including the investment broker Thomas, about a sermon that he said originated in Yemen and concerned the origins of the first and second thoughts we have when facing a beggar.
“The first thought, to give,” he said, “comes from God. The second thought, about how much, comes from Shaytan.” Shaytan is the devil, and the ease and familiarity with which Zajif spoke about him in that moment gave me the impression that I’d be hearing a lot about Shaytan in the coming days and months. The devil, “the slinking prompter who whispers in the hearts of men,” says the Koran, plays an active role in the world of these believers.
Soon after Dustin went off with Ala’, I struck up a conversation with a South African woman named Sumaya Jeeva, who, like Zajif and Thoba, was a summer Arabic student and would not be joining the incoming class of the college. Her Arabic was actually quite advanced, and as we proceeded up the hill, I asked and she obliged with a short course on the words and phrases I’d been hearing tossed around even by those Muslims whose general Arabic left something to be desired. I’d heard and read some of this Arabic before, typically in a news report that linked an outburst in Arabic with an outburst of violence. Here’s a little of what I learned on the hike. Sumaya used all the words in sentences and offered me an entirely new perspective. (She also followed up with an email.)
Alhamdulillah means “All praise is due to God,” as in, “It is a stunning day today, Alhamdulillah.” Although, it’s just as often used in response to the question “How are you?”
Maashaa Allah means “God has willed,” and is used especially when praising the appearance of something or someone, as in, “She’s a beautiful girl, maashaa Allah.” It’s used this way, Sumaya told me, because all beauty comes from God; beauty is not ours, and saying the phrase helps prevent vanity.
Subhanallah means “Glory be to God,” and is often used as an exclamation of awe or admiration, as in, “I had no idea, subhanallah, that blah blah blah . . .” or “Subhanallah, life is funny; God works in mysterious ways!” Sumaya also told me that a point is made throughout the Koran that everything in heaven and nature is always repeating “subhanallah,” which means that everything in creation exists in a constant state of glorifying God. Literally, the word means simply that God is above and beyond all creation.
Allahu akbar means “God is the greatest,” and, as Sumaya said, appears regularly in ritual prayers. This was the same takbir used at Fort Hood, I recalled. But Sumaya would make me see it in an entirely positive and hopeful light, as a phrase used in moments of amazement or astonishment. At fundraisers over the course of the year, it would be used when someone promised to give Zaytuna what struck me as a lot of money.
Astaghfirullah means “I seek forgiveness from God.” Sumaya suggested that this phrase might be used by a man walking down the street who happened to glance, even inadvertently, at a woman on a magazine cover or billboard. It’s also used by someone who has said something he regrets, as in, “No, I shouldn’t have said that about her, astaghfirullah.”
And finally, there’s insha’Allah, which means “If God wills.” This is said whenever someone is referring to anything that might be happening in the future, since in reality, Sumaya said, “We have no idea if we will go to school tomorrow, meet our friends, see our family, marry, have children, finish a degree, and so on. We could die in any second.” The injunction comes from the Koran: “Do not say of anything: ‘I will do it tomorrow,’ without adding: ‘If God wills.’ When you forget, remember your Lord and say: ‘May God guide me and bring me nearer to the Truth.’” In online social networks, insha’Allah is abbreviated “i’A.”
Following her lesson, Sumaya complained about being basically dissatisfied with the summer Arabic course, in particular with the textbook they used; she would have preferred to have studied Classical Arabic, considered sacred by Muslims. The book they were issued covered Modern Standard Arabic, and was the same version of the language Zaytuna College would be teaching.
Exactly what Arabic the students at Zaytuna would be expected to learn had from the beginning been a central concern of the school. After all, the question of which Arabic to teach raised additional questions: Why are they learning Arabic? Was it for sacred reasons? To help students draw closer to Allah? Or was Zaytuna, as an American liberal arts college, interested in Arabic for modern and practical reasons? To draw its students deeper into the world? What I’d hear from the founders and also in conversation with Ebad and, later, Imam Dawood, and what I’d read in the first-year catalog, suggested that the answer was somewhere in between: “Arabic has become one of the most popular languages taught at American universities, due to the contemporary political importance of the Arab world and because of a growing desire in the West to understand Islam from its original sources. Zaytuna College intends to meet this demand by becoming a preeminent institution for the teaching and study of Arabic.”
Despite Islam’s long history as a practical, political religion—the Prophet was a political and military leader, after all—Sumaya was not alone in hinting that with this goal in mind, to tackle worldly politics and sacred meaning in one course of study, Zaytuna may have been trying to have the best of both worlds. On its face, this would seem particularly difficult in America, where, as these scholars would agree, Islam itself has no political claim on—and certainly not over—the nation’s democracy. And yet, as those same scholars would learn in the months to come, the fundamental problem at Zaytuna would not be a curricular one about Arabic’s sacred meaning versus its worldly usefulness. Rather, helping these students attain competence in any Arabic at all would become priority number one.
All around were young people focused on the physical requirements of water and food and rest. And yet, here was Zaid, asking them not to be so focused.
By the time I reached the end of the trail, which led into a hollow at the top of the Hills, Zaid and Dawood had arranged most of the students into another wide circle, all sitting around in the grasses. Zaid had started into a sermon, the first of his I would hear. They were all anticipating the start of the holy month of Ramadan and the fasting it would require.
“During Ramadan we give up good and lawful things, like good, cool water,” Zaid said, lifting a plastic bottle from the grass. He likewise gestured to packages of good yogurt balls and lawful Mango Munch in front of him and tossed back a few of these snacks. “We delight after fasting,” he continued, “counting down those last thirty seconds in anticipation: then sip the water and it permeates the body—it diffuses.”
Over the past hour I’d overheard conversations anticipating the moon sighting on Wednesday that would start the fast. The weather at midweek might make it difficult for them to see the moon in Berkeley, even from the top of these hills, but beginning with the sighting then or maybe as early as Tuesday, from sunup to sundown during these long days of August and into the first week of September, the Muslims would not eat or drink. And that delight we anticipate during Ramadan, Zaid said, is only the first one. When you eat a date, for example, after a day of fasting, he said, your “mouth almost falls off—like a Kool-Aid smile.” (This was a comparison I’d see he was fond of over these weeks.) But the second and greater delight, he said, follows the longing the Muslims have for Allah.
“Like with fasting, you long for it. You long and God longs to meet you.” The sermon was becoming a kind of pep talk. Ramadan was not going to be easy. You can do it.
Fasting makes us more human in ways we might not expect, he said, by asking us to suppress our physical requirements and the undue attention we often pay to our physical reality. It’s that reality, he preached while sitting cross-legged in the grass, that most obviously reveals our differences—a point of fact that led Zaid into a subject dear to his heart: Shaytan, made not of clay but of fire, he said. In the Koran, the devil is said to have claimed a certain distinction between himself and Adam, the first man, based on these physical attributes, which, by Zaid’s assessment, made Shaytan “the first racist.”
A lesson on the daily longing that comes with a month of fasting had quickly and without warning become a homily about the evils of racism. If fasting as a community makes us more human by reinforcing, in our physical weakness, the robust spiritual and intellectual reality we share, those things that highlight our physical differences do nothing but dehumanize us. Imam Zaid had written about this moment from the Koran, as well: “[Shaytan] says, when ordered to prostrate himself to Adam, I am better than him. You created me from fire, while you created him from clay… In addition to his arrogance, his racism is clearly displayed. For the clay that Adam was created from was black in color… Any racist, regardless of his religion, should know he is following in the footsteps of Shaytan in his vile attitudes and practices.”
The long hike had left us depleted. All around were young people focused on the physical requirements of water and food and rest. And yet, here was Zaid, asking them not to be so focused. “Ramadan strengthens the heart. And our hearts are strengthened to support the rest of our beings—the intellectual, spiritual,” and finally, “the physical.” Actually leaning on each other, swaying as they did arm-in-arm before beginning on this hike, does not strengthen the Muslim as much as when the heart is made strong. Tired as everyone seemed—and I certainly felt it in my feet, my legs, my back—Zaid told them they were all stronger and more able to support one another now than when they began. “Like bricks in a wall,” he said.
I couldn’t help but think that this lesson was somehow relevant to what I’d seen at the bottom of the hill, where the women linked arms and the men linked arms, but the sexes kept themselves from touching while limbering up for the climb. They were together on the hike, but there was this line no one would cross. Zaid seemed to be saying that what separated them physically wasn’t nearly as significant as what they shared spiritually and intellectually.
The same would be true of what happened around Zaytuna College; they would pray and study and eat together (no matter what certain pieces of promotional material seemed to say about the college, with its candid images of women sitting at one table and men at another). But the women entering as part of the inaugural class at Zaytuna would not be touched by the men, and vice-versa. And the women, as far as Zaid was concerned, would ultimately not become leaders in Islam in the same ways the men might. “We must also understand,” he had written in an essay concerning the issue of female prayer leadership, “that Islam has never advocated a strict liberationist philosophy. Our fulfillment in this life will never come as the result of breaking real or perceived chains of oppression… Our fulfillment does not lie in our liberation, rather it lies in the conquest of our own soul and its base desires… When we live for our Lord it becomes easy to live with each other.”
Zaid would offer some final thoughts up there in that grove—“Don’t curse anyone, because in cursing him you might be cursing a Muslim, and so cursing yourself, even that guy with the wine bottle in the gutter.” Muslims aren’t supposed to drink. He then recited a poem he’d written called “History 1 on 1,” which begins with Columbus sailing “the ocean blue” in 1492, then draws connections to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, continuing with the ongoing history of genocide in the world and the state of Islam in America:
while Bosnia was being ethnically cleansed.
Plastic American culture no one can resist…
So now I’ll bring it to a close…
Following that, an older Arabic student named Rasheeda Plenty, known in the group as a poet herself, was too shy to share a poem of her own. Though Zaid encouraged her directly, she still declined. Later that afternoon over dinner with a group of students at a House of Curries on Durant Avenue, she would tell me it was still up in the air whether she’d be joining the incoming class of the college. Rasheeda had been with the summer Arabic program for several years now, but having already earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she wasn’t entirely sure whether to start college again at Zaytuna.
Asked to give a few of his own departing thoughts, Ebad, who would be leaving that evening, said only this: “Appreciate the blessings Allah gives us—the Koran, the Arabic language, brothers and sisters.”
I looked on from behind as Ebad lost his footing on some loose rocks and took a terrible fall; he had to catch himself, since he was surrounded by women who seemed either unable or unwilling… to extend the hand that would have stopped him.
Then before we all began our descent back to the Westminster House, Zaid took the students through a deep-breathing exercise that he synchronized to the rhythm of the breeze of the Berkeley Hills, to the sounds of nature. As you breathe out, he said, “You say, ‘Allah.’” Here it was, subhanallah, creation’s endless glorification of God.
And then, on the way down, I looked on from behind as Ebad lost his footing on some loose rocks and took a terrible fall; he had to catch himself, since he was surrounded by women who seemed either unable or unwilling—I couldn’t be sure—to extend the hand that would have stopped him. He wrapped his arm in a shirt and bled through. He would go home in worse shape than he’d arrived.
In his battered state, Ebad introduced me to a woman named Maryam Kashani, who carried a camera on the hike and explained that only some of the time did she find it necessary to wear a head covering. Most of the other women did most of the time, she said. Originally from San Francisco, Maryam, a Muslim with an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, had been in Berkeley over the summer completing work toward a PhD in anthropology at the University of Texas; her subject was Zaytuna.
Maryam’s previous work had been the independent documentary film Best in the West, which was released in 2006 and tells the story of her father and a group of his Iranian friends who all moved to San Francisco during the ’60s and ’70s. Interviewed about the film in 2007 for a website concerned with arts in the Iranian diaspora, she made the point that her film was “a rare opportunity for a young woman to document the lives of an older group of men.” When I asked her what one thing I had to be sure to pay close attention to at Zaytuna, she said, “The women.”
In that first meeting—and we would have countless others—Maryam also suggested that before long I meet Usama Canon, who’d been around Zaytuna for many years. His Ta’leef Collective, an Islamic community center that began in 2002 as the Outreach program of Zaytuna Institute, before becoming an independent organization in 2005, was especially welcoming to converts.
Ebad led the way back to the Westminster House, where he ducked away for a time to nurse the scrapes he’d suffered on his fall. About ten of us gathered in the hall of the dormitory. Imam Zaid was on his way, too, in need, after the hike, of a place to shower and dress before heading to Santa Clara to raise funds for the Tayba Foundation, an organization developing a distance-learning program for Muslim inmates around the country. This program was named for El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.
The Ohio-native Mohammad, whom I’d met earlier, had offered Imam Zaid the use of his shower and was away scrubbing, it turned out, when Zaid arrived. Then, just as soon as Mohammad emerged from his room, claiming that he would have used rubber gloves had he had just a little more time, the imam disappeared behind the door, comparing himself to Superman in need of a phone booth. He wasn’t long.
They all wished they had Imam Zaid around more during the week. It would make him keep his bathroom clean, for one thing, Mohammad said. (And without offering any details, I can confirm that his toilet was disgusting.) That sort of longing for the scholars, a strange covetousness that you don’t find at other liberal arts schools, began at the top with Sheikh Hamza, whom I hadn’t yet seen but whose name I’d heard mentioned a lot.
The scholars, especially Zaid Shakir and Dawood Yasin during the summer, were part fathers, part teachers, part friends, part superheroes. And despite the seriousness of their purpose as students and the historic pressure some of them would face as part of the first class of the nation’s first Muslim college—so they would attest; so says the Zaytuna literature—the Zaytunies’ living situation and some of their shared ideas about the men who led them reflected a certain childishness, reminding me at a certain point that some of them really are still kids. Even Dustin, the oldest and most educated student among them, was spending a good deal of his time flirting with Ala’, the girl with the nose ring. No crime there, of course.
But then again, things could also get perfectly serious in a moment. Imam Zaid soon returned to join us in the hallway outside Mohammad’s room, refreshed, now wearing a dark suit. Wanting to wish Ebad farewell but finding he was still cleaning up in his room, Imam Zaid said: “He’s a good man, Ebad.” And after a moment, he continued with thoughts for the rest of us assembled: Dustin and Ala’, Thomas and Mohammad, me and a few others still milling about, talking about dinner. “Islam will enhance our goodness,” said Zaid, “if you understand it. If you don’t understand it, it can decrease your goodness.”
It was as though he couldn’t help himself. That word “goodness” required some clarification, a way to make even a passing thought into something more meaningful, in this case an oblique commentary on the destructive, even terrifying, ways Islam is used by extremists and radicals, whose great misunderstanding decreases their goodness immeasurably—concerns, it seems, that like racism and poverty are never far from Imam Zaid’s mind. It crossed my mind that Imam Zaid had spent his time in the shower preparing a mini-sermon on the double-edged sword of knowledge.
“A good man,” Mohammad agreed. “He had good teachers.”
When Ebad finally came from his corner room, clean and properly bandaged, several of us from the hike followed Imam Zaid out to the sidewalk, where he was meeting his wife, who would drive them to the fundraiser in Santa Clara; he was just now getting off the phone with her. By the time she arrived and they sped off, more than a dozen of us had gathered outside Westminster House, the students making decisions about dinner. For most of them, it was that or the endless Arabic homework.
“You are welcome,” I was told, just like that. And hungry, I went along.
The burden is not simply to represent the evidence of God’s particular injunctions, but to also internalize God’s goodness and morality within oneself.
There was a silent dance that began when we entered the House of Curries, which seemed well rehearsed, and involved Dustin and Mohammad placing the large communal order at the counter, a few of the women—including Rasheeda and Faatimah Knight, another incoming Zaytuna College student—pulling water jugs from a small refrigerated case and moving them to tables on a veranda outside. All the while, the British student Zajif Iqbal, Ebad, and a few other men dragged over another table and a few additional chairs to accommodate everyone.
At dinner, I found myself seated across from Rasheeda and next to Faatimah, the impossibly composed eighteen-year-old from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who’d only just graduated from Brooklyn Latin high school, which had opened in 2006. Her parents were Caribbean, from the West Indies, she said. “I’m first-generation American and second-generation Muslim.” We ate when the food arrived and she seemed to appreciate it when I told her I was somewhat ignorant about Islam. That’s why I was there. She smiled. That’s why she was here, too. “Isn’t that why we go to school? To get over our ignorance?” Her father had taught her that.
Ebad left early to catch his flight home, and when I tried to pay my share for dinner the group refused to let me. I tried again. They refused again.
In his 2001 book And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses, Islamic scholar and UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl writes, “Representing God’s law to other human beings is truly an onerous burden. The burden is not simply to represent the evidence of God’s particular injunctions, but to also internalize God’s goodness and morality within oneself. The burden is one of diligence and honesty, not just with the textual sources, but with oneself—to bring the intellect and conscience to bear upon how we evaluate and understand the evidence.”
This had always been Zaytuna’s burden. In one form or another, the Arabic classes and some form of instruction in Islamic law and theology had been going on since the mid-1990s, when Sheikh Hamza returned from his studies in the Muslim world and began his public life with Zaytuna Institute. The classes and outings going on over this summer were somewhat old hat; the teachers knew what they were doing. Many of the students had returned for a second or third summer in a row. Several of Sheikh Hamza’s and Imam Zaid’s early students, for that matter, including Imam Dawood, the Ta’leef Collective’s Usama Canon, and even Ebad, had also begun to take on the burden of “representing God’s law to other human beings.” When these summer classes ended, Dawood would be leaving the Bay and not returning to his New Haven congregation at Masjid al-Islam; he was taking a chaplain position at Dartmouth College, where he would also serve as the Muslim Life and Service Trips Coordinator for the William Jewett Tucker Foundation.
Yet for all its popularity and all it had accomplished to meet the needs of a growing local community with a deepening interest in traditional Islam, Zaytuna Institute had always been a little ad hoc, its course often shaped by the rising and falling interests of the man at the middle. And while Sheikh Hamza’s ideas had remained central to the development of the curriculum and philosophy of Zaytuna throughout its pilot seminary program and now as they prepared to welcome a first class into the nation’s first Muslim college, other voices had in time become just as important. Imam Zaid had been the engine of the seminary program. Dr. Hatem Bazian would be the college’s third co-founder, a professor of Islamic Studies at UC Berkeley who’d been involved with Zaytuna from its earliest days—teaching Arabic, organizing the institute’s yearly conference. His involvement became instrumental when the possibility of expanding Imam Zaid’s seminary program in Hayward into a full college was brought to the table in 2007. Dr. Hatem insisted that their campus in Hayward was just too far-flung; a small liberal arts college would need a tighter, geographical connection to other institutions of higher learning, in Stanford, say, or Santa Clara, San Jose, or Berkeley, which to Hatem had always seemed “the natural place, a hospitable city… with a critical, intellectual mass.”
These kinds of core decisions, about whether the school would eventually become a liberal arts college or whether they’d be better off continuing as a seminary, whether they would relocate within the Bay or perhaps move to the city of a major funder, about what sort of Arabic they would teach and how much fluency they’d require for admission—all these decisions involved long, sometimes laborious debates. Some of them were still going on and would continue to throughout the year.
Most recently, Zaytuna had brought on Omar Nawaz, an operations expert with a technology background, whose most recent position had been with Microsoft. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he still carried an accent from a hometown he remembered fondly—that “old walled city”—and which he compared to Jerusalem, a place he’d loved when given the chance to visit. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, Omar had studied at Brigham Young University, where he read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and of course the Book of Mormon, and later the University of Utah, before becoming a product manager at Cisco Systems. He’d also founded a small tech company that sold software that offered parents control over their children’s smart-phone activity. That product seems never to have made it out of the beta phase.
Omar has a round face and, when we first met at a coffee shop near the UC Berkeley campus, wore a clean and tight goatee. He dressed in a dark gray suit and left the collar of his shirt open. We talked about his plans for the approach of Ramadan, how while he’d hoped to be able to observe the rising of the new moon this year, in his experience it had often been difficult to make out when it corresponded with the setting sun. “Some people,” he said, “are specially trained.” Like Imam Zaid and the students on the hill, he looked forward to rising before dawn throughout the holy month to take advantage of the fast. There was a spiritual point to rising early enough to eat. Getting up before the sunrise required discipline. And though you would eat in the darkness and were expected to start the day full, whatever humility or longing or basic hunger a fast could provoke would start hours before most other people were awake, in the blue dark of the morning, and not end until the sun sneaked away for the night.
And the first light of dawn, he said, what he referred to as “one edge of the black whale”—the thinnest sliver of the sun—was always something he loved to show his kids.
Though hired to run the school’s administration, and with just weeks before Zaytuna started classes, Nawaz still couldn’t tell me certain things. First, he wasn’t exactly sure how many students there would be—“definitely fourteen, though possibly sixteen.” Omar also didn’t know where the college’s campus was; it hadn’t been settled. He didn’t know for certain; Sheikh Hamza didn’t know; the students certainly didn’t know. They were still in negotiations with a landlord.
This is what Omar did know: The school would offer two majors at first, Arabic, as well as Islamic law and theology. At least this year and for the foreseeable future, students would move through their classes as a cohort. This first term, Imam Zaid would teach Islamic history from the seventh century to 1492 and also teach a section of law. Wednesdays, Sheikh Hamza would teach Introduction to Islamic Theology. Dr. Hatem would cover economics starting in January. Another member of the faculty who also taught Arabic in the summers, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, would offer another section of law and also teach Arabic. Abdullah was called ustadh, or teacher. A Muslim professor from Ohlone College, Dr. Shirin Maskatia, had been brought on to teach English composition. And except for in the classroom for Intermediate Arabic I, English was the language of the college—another of those matters subject to ongoing internal negotiations.
Zaytunah is the Arabic word for “olives,” a food that “must be treated by human hands in order to become palatable fruit,” to employ a phrase the school’s founders have used often over the years. “The process of curing olives,” they continue, “has long been used as a metaphor for the maturing of the human heart.” This is as true for Jews and Christians as it is for the Muslims. “Its oil,” says the Koran, “[is] nearly luminous even without fire touching it.”
Founded on the principle that in order to take root Islam must produce religious scholars in the lands where it moves, Zaytuna College means to make America a Muslim country—as much as it may be a Christian one. And what Omar could tell me the morning we met was that American students would make up the inaugural class.
Excerpt from Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, forthcoming from Beacon Press. Copyright © 2013 by Scott Korb.
Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine and co-author of The Faith Between Us. He teaches at the New School and at New York University and lives with his family in New York City.