Welcome to Zaytuna, the Nation’s First Muslim Liberal Arts College

By Scott Korb | May 15, 2013

(Getty / Justin Sullivan)

(Getty / Justin Sullivan)

On November 15, 2010, the morning I first visited Hamza Yusuf’s theology class at Zaytuna College, the nation’s first Muslim school of liberal arts, the room was overstuffed, even bursting, a fact made all the more obvious by some unseasonable fall temperatures.

The school had opened its doors late the previous August, after years of planning by its founders, Sheikh Hamza, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Hatem Bazian. A pilot seminary program run by Imam Zaid had paved the way, after a move from Hayward, California, to Berkeley, for the formation of a college—funded largely by donations from a growing number of American Muslims who trust and love these scholars. Knowing, in their words, that “Islam has never become rooted in a particular land until that land began producing its own religious scholars,” Zaytuna’s mission was to be the academic home for Islam in the United States, a place where, in the words of Imam Zaid, the text of the Koran could meet the context of American culture. 

And now, the fifteen students in the inaugural class—nine women, six men—were all there in Hamza’s classroom seeing to that challenge. The school year was well underway. Others standing against the walls included members of Zaytuna’s staff: the administrator, Sadaf Khan; an editor I’d recently met, Najeeb; even the vice-president of operations, Omar Nawaz, whom the students had begun to refer to as “boss man.” They all sometimes would take advantage of their closeness to Sheikh Hamza by auditing the class, as it were. The rest of what filled the room, which is not huge, mind you, one could call enthusiasm, and a good portion of it was the sheikh’s. Many of the students still actually seemed a little stunned, or starstruck.

During a previous visit in October, around the time the col­lege’s phones arrived, I’d caught Hamza rushing from his car through the entryway of the college on his way to the same class, the only one he was teaching the first term. But after a month of media intrusion following the opening of the school, most everyone around Zaytuna seemed a little wary of my sitting in on his class then. I was told it wasn’t fair to the students. No matter that few of them seemed to mind my being there.

Prior to the beginning of class, Omar’s assistant Ali Malik situ­ated me nearly out of sight in the doorway of a small foyer off the back of the classroom, where the AV guy Haroon Sellars would film Hamza’s discussion about atheist writer Sam Harris’s best-selling The End of Faith. Sellars films just about everything, he’s told me, for what are known as the HAMZA YUSUF ARCHIVES. There’s never any telling what Sheikh Hamza will say or when he’ll say it. And every word matters. One moment from this particular class, with Hamza leaning back in his chair, explaining that Harris would have Allah—and Yahweh, too—go the way of Zeus and Apollo, would appear in promotional fund-raising materials for the school.

While Muslims around the world often gather in the thousands and tens of thousands for the sheikh’s keynote lectures, Zaytuna’s students have this front-row seat each week, which has made them the envy of their friends and family back home. Their Facebook pro­files explode with quotations from their classes and videos of Sheikh Hamza—followed with comments: “Just looking at his luminous face made me smile:) May Allah (SWT) preserve him!” (“SWT” is an abbreviation for Subhanahu wa ta’ala, an Arabic expression meaning “may He be glorified and exalted.”)

Over the past few days, and then in some last-minute cramming before that morning’s early Arabic lesson, I’d watched the students paging through Harris’s book, which has a particularly tough assessment of where “we” stand with regard to the Muslims: “We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unam­biguously so.” I’d seen underlining on the opening page: “The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city.”

Having taught The End of Faith myself in religion classes at New York University, I’m well aware that in Harris’s account the bomb soon goes off, and “all has gone according to plan.” We’re at war with Islam because Muslims are terrorists.

“Why is it so easy,” Harris concludes, “so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy—to guess the young man’s religion?”

He’s right, of course. Even here, at the buzzing center of Zaytuna, no one doubts that this young man Harris describes is a Muslim.

No one, that is, but Sheikh Hamza. If you take Yusuf at his word, for him it’s not quite so easy. Although with Hamza there’s always the possibility that he’s trying hard—sometimes pushing the limits of credulity—to make a point.

“I wanted to say he was a Tamil Hindu! But we don’t think of this because of oil!”

A white convert from Denver, Dustin Craun, piped up: “Most of Harris’s book wouldn’t be published in a good newspaper. It’s unfounded, ridiculous.” Having already been through one undergraduate degree, Dustin was more inclined than most of the other students to push back and argue with his teachers in the early days of the semester.

Still, unwilling to dismiss Harris’s assumptions about Islam out of hand, Hamza wouldn’t go quite so far so fast. The End of Faith isn’t entirely unfounded.

In and out of the classroom, Sheikh Hamza is far from blind to the troubles facing the Muslim world or to the real threats of Islamic radicalism. In some ways, his authority in the Muslim world is rooted in the way he argues against Islamic violence and in favor of Islamic mercy—and always in defense of the shariah. This is the core of his teaching. “How do you feel about what Sam Harris says about Is­lam?” he asked. “He’s not basing it on nothing.

This is where Hamza starts, with the not-nothing of Islamic radical­ism. And his problem with America is that it’s usually where we end.

Occasionally we locate a “moderate” voice to counter the ex­tremists and call it a day. Yet, this simply can’t be the case with Hamza Yusuf, whose commitment to the law and passion for the Prophet could hardly be described as moderate. So-called moderate Muslims also tend to be politically progressive, despite what traditional Islam might say about homosexuality or what a conservative like Hamza might believe about teaching evolution in schools. If we’re hon­est about the growing numbers of Muslims in this country, and the growing influence of traditional, conservative Muslims like Hamza, “moderate” is not a broadly useful term to describe American Islam, especially as it exists within the walls of Zaytuna College. Because while the sheikh wouldn’t claim to speak for all of America’s Muslims—he’s the first to remind you of the diversity of the believers, including the major­ity of American Muslims who almost never attend the mosque—he’s clearly leading many, many of them somewhere. Into the Koran. Into the madrasah. Into the mosque and the public square. Which means that, ultimately, he’s leading his students in the classroom and his fol­lowers throughout the country into America.

And so the class begins, and like so many of Hamza’s addresses around the world, it is far reaching—touching on Mideast land dis­putes, Mark Twain’s travel literature, Fox News’s “media-created context” for Islamophobia, the politics of water in Kashmir, and even his “great-grandfather’s death in the last battle of the American Civil War.” Hamza Yusuf is known to be fond of this sort of free associa­tion. (Yet, as he was born in 1960, on this last point he probably meant to say his great-great-grandfather, whom we have to assume was one of only four soldiers killed at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, more than a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.) He sprinkles his lec­tures with Arabic, which many of the students still struggle to under­stand. For him, it’s second nature.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson, born Mark Hanson into a Catholic and Greek Orthodox family in Washington State, rose to national prominence in the wake of 9/11, when he was invited to the White House as an adviser to President George W. Bush. He’s said to have convinced the president that naming the impending military operations in Af­ghanistan “Operation Infinite Justice” would offend Muslims, for whom the only source of infinite justice is God. Bush went with “Op­eration Enduring Freedom” instead.

In parts of the Muslim world, this meeting with the president earned Hamza the nickname “Bush’s pet Muslim”; the sheikh’s ad­vice seemed to some to ignore the way the war itself, no matter the name, might otherwise offend—indeed, kill—his fellow Muslims. In his own defense, Hamza Yusuf would later claim, “Look, they call me the adviser to the president, but he didn’t take my advice. I told him not to bomb Afghanistan.”

Much has been said by critics everywhere—right, left, and cen­ter—concerning Hamza’s ideas about America’s position in the world and the nation’s “war on terror.” Some point to a speech in the days before 9/11 in which Sheikh Hamza anticipated a “great tribula­tion” coming to America. Those critics might not acknowledge that Hamza was, in his way, participating in a proud tradition of American jeremiad that dates back to sermons delivered throughout early Puri­tan New England, and was perfected during the Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards; more recently, one recalls the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing in the days before he was killed: “Why America May Go to Hell.” Hamza also likes to remind his critics of a lecture he delivered in Philadelphia the day before this notorious speech, in which he admonished the audience that anyone living in this country or here on a visa acts against Islam when they undermine the security of this nation. Rooted in a vague, uncomfortable feeling that had been dogging him since August, and, as he has said, not something he would ever want for his nation, the prediction of Amer­ica’s “great tribulation” brought the FBI to his house the very morn­ing he met with the president. His wife, Liliana, sent them away.

On the other hand, there are also Muslim critics who still con­sider him a Western patsy and complain that the sheikh’s not always wearing a kufi, or skull cap. These days, though, during interviews and debates about terrorism and radical Islam, he’s still most often presented as a “moderate” or “progressive” Muslim. When the New York Times’s Laurie Goodstein reported on Hamza and his Zaytuna Institute in 2006, she described him as sounding like “someone who is coming from the political left,” which position, she continues, “coming from the mouth of someone who is unashamedly Muslim[,] can come across as sounding very militant and very scary.”

And yet, though Sheikh Hamza has come out as an unwavering and continually vocal opponent of Islamic terrorism—you hear it even in the theology classroom—he’s simply not what one would call a “moderate” in the way that Muslim writer Reza Aslan, popular author of No God but God and How to Win a Cosmic War, is often described. (Aslan is a regular on The Daily Show, something you wouldn’t expect of Hamza Yusuf.) Although, as one student of Hamza’s has told me, it’s true that “bal­ance, or being in the middle or moderation . . . is of course desirable in Islam,” and that “preachers will often quote the verse which is right in the middle of the longest chapter in the Koran (verse 134 of 286 verses), ‘and thus we have made you a community in the middle,’” the kind of “moderates” that have gained a strong foothold in America aren’t typically starting Islamic colleges from the ground up; they tend to enroll in centers for Islamic studies at solidly secular institu­tions like the University of California at Berkeley (or, in Aslan’s case, UC Santa Barbara). And despite what Goodstein has reported, “pro­gressive” doesn’t always seem quite right either. For instance, here’s Sheikh Hamza advising Muslims on public education: “We must raise our children outside of the modern state schools that are designed to make them no more than functional literates. We absolutely must remove our children from state schools.” (He and two of his siblings, one also a convert, work together on a Muslim homeschooling initia­tive in San Ramon, California, called Kinza Academy, founded by his sister Nabila and named for her daughter.) You can often hear a little of the libertarian in Hamza Yusuf: “Government,” he’s written, “is now encroaching on every aspect of our lives.”

Another thing that separates Hamza Yusuf from moderates like Reza Aslan, whose first book was a best-selling call for a Muslim Ref­ormation, is that he doesn’t advocate for organized Islamic reform. All that Muslims need is already here—in the Koran, the shariah, and the centuries of scholarship Zaytuna has begun tapping into. In­deed, asked by Al-Jazeera’s Riz Khan whether “popular and socially oriented movements like Hezbollah or Hamas are the beginning of a new, democratic and more progressive Islam,” Yusuf responded: “Personally, I think we need a Muslim stillness rather than a Muslim movement. I think there’s too much movement out there. We’re liv­ing in times of incredible turmoil and I think people need more qui­etude in their lives. They need more remembrance of God.”

This attitude may also account for why Sheikh Hamza has grown so popular among American Muslims and remains hardly known at all outside of the community. It’s not reform he’s calling for, but re­membrance. And most Americans, knowing little about Islam, have nothing to remember—except 9/11, an event whose significance is wrapped in an entirely different sort of remembrance: Never forget.

Excerpted from Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College by Scott Korb (Beacon Press, 2013). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. 

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.

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