Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College


American Muslims are creating a new model of higher education in the United States. Its cornerstone is Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California state.

A professor teaches students at a classroom in Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California state

MUSCAT DAILY EXCLUSIVE: The making of America’s first Muslim college

American Muslims are creating a new model of higher education in the United States. Its cornerstone is Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California state. Scott Korb takes a close look at this pioneering venture in his splendid new book, Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College.

Scott Korb is a New Yorkbased writer and editor.

He was educated at the University of Wisconsin; Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He is the author of The Faith Between Us (2007) and Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (2010). Korb teaches writing at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts and New York University’s (NYU) Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Teacher at Zaytuna

A professor during a lecture at Zaytuna College

In his latest book, Korb writes about how Zaytuna College came to be – and what it wants to become.

It is a sympathetic portrait of a small community of faith on its journey to build an academic home in America. Korb’s immersion in this community helps us to understand the hopes, the struggles, and the joy of its members.

The motto of Zaytuna College is ‘Where Islam meets America’. It is based on the firm conviction that Muslims and America can be friends and learn from each other. For Zaytuna’s charismatic president – Sheikh Hamza Yusuf – this relationship should be a natural fit.

“America is the best model that we have to have a multifaith, multicultural society. It really is. In many ways, the Islamic civilisation was a precursor to that, because there was a lot of conviviality in the Muslim world.

The idea of peoples living together is really an Islamic thing,” he said. The story of Zaytuna College is a remarkable one. Korb illuminates this story for a broad audience of readers of any faith. Zaytuna College is a sign of vitality and progress in the American Muslim community. Light Without Fire is an invitation to see how it all happened. Scott Korb discusses his new book in this exclusive interview:

What was the inspiration for your new book?
Most basically, the inspiration for the book came from a student in a writing course I teach at New York University. In the years after high school, he’d studied with the scholars at the centre of the book – Imam Zaid Shakir, in particular – looking for ways to make Islam relevant to the big questions facing America. When he brought lessons from his seminary into my classroom at NYU, forcing me to see just how little I actually knew about American Islam in all its diversity, I took it upon myself to see where he’d come from. More people, I thought, need to know about Zaytuna and the people whose lives have been dedicated to creating an academic home for Islam in America.

Who are the founders of Zaytuna College?
Zaytuna College is an experiment in liberal arts education that grew out of Zaytuna Institute, which was founded by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf in the mid-1990s. Yusuf was joined in forming the college by Imam Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian.

What is their vision for the new college?
Zaytuna’s founders share the belief that the only way for Islam to create deep roots in America is through the establishment of Muslim institutions. This college is their effort – through a curriculum that blends the liberal arts with Arabic and Islamic law and theology – to prepare well educated and morally committed men and women to be the nation’s future Muslim leaders, along whatever paths these students travel once they leave the school. It’s not a seminary programme; nor does it situate vocational training in a central place. The current educational philosophy is based on a Great Books model and a unified curriculum.

What difficulties did the founders face in establishing the college?
One difficulty they faced was in moving from the community-based educational model of Zaytuna Institute, which was located in Hayward, California, and formalising a college in Berkeley. It meant leaving behind some longtime members of the community and consolidating the energy of the place into a four-year college with grand ambitions. Another difficulty was getting the first group of Zaytuna College students up to a certain level of Arabic proficiency; this was a real struggle during the school’s first semester. An ongoing difficulty is with funding. The founders are always fundraising from Muslim communities around the country. It’s an endless grind.

How is Zaytuna College preparing its students for ‘Muslim American citizenship’?
The founders believe that a deep training in the liberal arts and a dedication to seeking sacred knowledge in every subject is the best way to prepare students to participate in our democracy and the national project more broadly. First and foremost, the school and the scholars are a daily reminder that America is home.

Does Zaytuna College enjoy broad support from American Muslims?
It’s difficult to say just how broad the support is in terms of numbers. But I know that the founders can go to communities around the country and fill ballrooms with supporters who are held rapt by the lectures and sermons presented, most especially, by Hamza Yusuf.

Do you think Zaytuna College will become a model for future Muslim colleges in America?
My sense is that Zaytuna is more interested now in serving as a model for schools below the college level; they want to inspire Muslim elementary schools and high schools. It’s way too early to know whether other Muslim colleges will follow the path Zaytuna has forged. Alternative educational arrangements – distance learning, weekend retreats, seminary programmes, and so on – are also popping up around the country. What I find so promising is the diversity of approaches and the commitment to building institutions designed to help young Muslims find meaningful ways to engage the world they live in. In that specific way, Zaytuna might be a good model for any college or university.

By Joseph Richard Preville

[Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia]