Wednesday, April 24, 2013


We had a book party today for our colleague Scott Korb, who’s just published Light without Fire, a book about the first Muslim liberal arts college in America, Zaytuna. The college (located in Berkeley) is still in its earliest stages—31 students in its third year—but it has hopes to become the Islamic Notre Dame or Brandeis. As one person in the audience remarked, many of the great schools of today must have started this small; what a privilege to be able to see this germinative stage. She also imagined a time when Zaytuna, a Sunni-inspired project, is joined by a comparable Shia-inspired university, and their football teams meet in a championship—clearly not a Lang person!

In fact, Scott carefully avoids telling his readers about the Sunni connection at first, or about the Sufi affinities of one of its charismatic founders. Instead he stresses the racial and ethnic diversity among faculty and students. Many of the students grew up in ethnically Muslim households, but two of the three founders are converts, one white and one black, and their hope is to embrace the pluralism of America, a pluralism they see also in the traditions of Islam. Scott quotes Munir Jiwa of the Graduate Theological Union (incidentally, someone who taught in our program a few years ago) describing the Sunni/Shia question as one of the “five media pillars" of Islam. What we’re told are the most important things to know about Islam are worse than superficial, as they conceal the true life of “Islam as it is.” The Islam we learn about from Scott’s near-participant observation of Zaytuna’s first year is scholarly and convivial; explicitly anti-sectarian, its central idea is mercy.

The book’s title refers to something the Q’uran says of olive oil.

It also sets up Scott’s argument that Zaytuna is about providing an alternative to understandings of Islam (from outside and inside) as incipiently militant and fundamentally in tension with American society and its values. Islam is about light, and peace. The reference to olive oil gestures also to the name of the college: Zaytuna means olive. As someone explains in the book, this is a great name for a college, as olives need to be treated by human hands before they can be eaten.

What’s most intriguing to me about Zaytuna is the affinity its founders claim of Islamic learning with the classical liberal arts (trivium and quadrivium) and with American traditions going back to the revolution. (One of the speakers at their founding ceremony was Virginia Gray Henry, a direct descendent of Patrick Henry, and a convert to Islam!) Zaytuna’s main study remains Islamic theology and jurisprudence, but in order to achieve accreditation they will need a general education curriculum (among other things); students are already being grounded in a pretty western-sounding “great books” curriculum, and lots of poetry.

The ideal seems to be pretty “classic liberal arts,” and it might be more interesting to compare it with the ethos of Chrsitian liberal arts colleges than with a secular place like Lang. (The founders are highly critical of the skepticism and nihilism they see purveyed by most of American higher education.) It will in any case be exciting to see what emerges as American traditions and populations live and articulate a distinctively and intentionally American Islam—interesting not just as a chapter in Islamic history, but in the history of American liberal arts. Perhaps all of our gen ed curricula will one day include some of the scholarliness and the mercy of our land’s Islamic heritages.

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