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In 2009,  Zaytuna Institute, a popular Islamic educational organization that offered classes on Islam and Arabic to the Bay Area community, made its transition to a full-fledged college as led by its founders Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir. They left their Hayward campus for Berkeley, closer to other institutions of higher learning like University of California Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. With space rented out from American Baptist Seminary of the West, Zaytuna College's inaugural year started with 15 students. 

Writer Scott Korb was there for that first year, hanging out with the students, spending time in the classes, and interviewing faculty and others that have been part of Zaytuna's history. Scott Korb recently published this look at Zaytuna College with his book Light Without Fire: The Making of America's First Muslim College, published by Beacon Press.

We at Illume had an opportunity to talk to Scott Korb about Light Without Fire. Born in 1976, Scott Korb's writings include his books The Faith Between Us, a collaboration between him and writer Peter Bebergal about their respective faiths, and Life in Year One, about Palestine in its first century. He currently resides in New York City, teaching at New York University and at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts.

You previously wrote about religion in your book The Faith Between Us, coauthored with Peter Bebergal, and now with Light Without Fire, you have written about Islam. What attracts you to writing about religion?

In a recent New Yorker essay, John McPhee, a favorite writer of mine, said this about his work: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety percent.” Though John McPhee has many years on me—to say nothing of a talent I can only aspire to—I find heartening this suggestion that the things we care about and find meaningful as young people are the things we’ll care about and find meaningful throughout our entire lives. That’s certainly true of my relationship to religion. I had a religious upbringing, taught and studied religion throughout graduate school, and until recently, was a regular churchgoer. The Faith Between Us, which details my groping for God as a child and young man, was my first extended exploration of ideas that have haunted me my entire life. What is God? What does it mean to believe? What happens when beliefs change? How do we live in a world where people all believe such different things? And ultimately, what if there is no God?

My second book, Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, also took religion very seriously, mainly ancient Judaism, and yet also played with the possibility (or impossibility, perhaps) that a book about the people who lived in the time when Christianity was born might not also really be about Christ himself. I made a mantra out of the phrase “This is not a book about Jesus.”

With this current book, I was mainly interested in learning what I could about a religion and a community I had almost no experience of as a young man. Islam fascinates me generally, but the way Muslims of all stripes are trying to make their way in an American context—in the arts, in traditional academia, in politics, in the mosque, and in the nation’s first Islamic liberal arts college—this was what I hoped to examine in Light without Fire. My introduction to Zaytuna came by way of a student who really impressed me with his relentless pursuit of knowledge; he’d studied with Imam Zaid Shakir at Zaytuna Institute, and as the college took shape over 2009-2010, I jumped at what seemed like a perfect opportunity to find out where this student had had come from, what shaped his desire to learn and his constant striving to make his religion relevant in America.

Though, what attracts me to writing about religion? Religion offers us one way to manage and celebrate our lives and to face the reality of death. It tries to answer big questions. And the effort any of us makes to produce some meaning in the world is worth noticing in one other. Religion’s not the only way we do this, and it’s certainly not the only thing worth noticing in each other—but I’m taken with it.

A recent article in the New York Times says that Zaytuna College is "It’s sort of like Harvard College, circa 1850". Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?

What the reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, was getting at with that comparison has everything to do with a “great books” approach Zaytuna has moved ahead with over the past couple years. It’s an approach one founder, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, has often lectured about, and one that in private conversations he’s discussed with references to a scholarly hero of his: Mark Van Doren, whose book Liberal Education he’s read four or five times already. So, in terms of the curriculum, which emphasizes the Koran and Arabic, as well, Zaytuna does have a kind of nostalgic feel—whether that’s for Van Doren’s mid-twentieth-century teaching at Columbia or Harvard’s mid-nineteenth-century focus on “the Bible, Greek and Latin, and Plato,” as Oppenheimer notes in the Times, it’s a little hard to say. But it’s not all nostalgia at Zaytuna. Indeed, they often refer to the current liberal arts curriculum of St. John’s College, which has campuses in New Mexico and Maryland, as the model they have in mind. And what they seem to be hoping for now is to use a “great books” approach—one that identifies the Koran as the “greatest” book—to prepare students in both mind and spirit, both to think deeply and to see divinity in all knowledge. This, the founders believe, will prepare a Zaytuna graduate for whatever they may do next. There’s almost no discussion at all of jobs or careers.

Do you think Zaytuna College has the potential of having an impact on education in America?

Zaytuna is still in its earliest days. Before we can talk about broad influence in higher education, it seems to me they’ll need to achieve accreditation and real financial stability. I think the school already does have an influence within various Muslim communities throughout the United States, though, and largely in matters that relate specifically to how children learn—from elementary education through high school. 

In a recent interview at Religion Dispatches, you mentioned that some content didn't make the book. Is there anything in particular you wish you were able to include but couldn't fit in?

I was careful in the book around matters of privacy—something I think about in terms of my own students—and I didn’t press especially hard when a few of the students didn’t seem particularly interested in sitting for interviews or group discussions. The vast majority of the first class and basically all the faculty and administrators I approached had a lot to say. But a few additional stories from one or two of the students I didn’t spend much time with would have added to the book, no doubt.

What are your thoughts on the setting of Zaytuna College: Berkeley?

Berkeley is important to Zaytuna largely because of their relationship with the University of California and the Graduate Theological Union. The larger community seems to have welcomed the college, and now that the college has purchased a permanent campus alongside other religions schools and seminaries in the city, they feel more rooted. My first afternoon at the school made a different point about Berkeley as the school’s setting. A hike with Imam Zaid Shakir into the Berkeley Hills, which offers a spectacular view of the Bay, was meant, it seemed to me, to reveal the glory of God’s creation.

Was there any one thing that surprised you with all the time you spent at Zaytuna College and its students and teachers?

What surprised me most was the emotional life the college seems to encourage in the students and the faculty. Here’s where I saw religion—and especially the love of the Prophet—shaping what goes on in the classroom. For all the work the school itself still needs to do to really take root, the students have a dedication to their studies that is not just about good scholarship and hopes for good grades, but is also deeply and religiously felt.

Read more about Scott Korb and his work on his website


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