The inaugural class of the first Islamic college in America share their hopes and dreams with a visiting journalist.
NYU instructor Korb (Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, 2010, etc.) respectfully dogged the dozen or so students, founding teachers and imams of the fledgling Zaytuna College during the course of its first year in 2010-2011 as it drew closer to accreditation, balanced a curriculum between classical and modern teachings, and navigated a complex mission of educating Muslims in America. Attracting a startling diversity of Muslims, reflecting essentially the American makeup, Zaytuna (“olive,” named for the fruit that requires curing by human hands before being palatable and whose oil “offers light without fire”) was originally a Muslim seminary located in Hayward, Cal., since the mid-1990s, started by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir and others and originally modeled on a traditional Islamic madrassa. Evolving over time to encompass a permanent four-year college, Zaytuna embarked on a particularly precarious mission in the wake of a recent spate of Muslim violence (e.g., Fort Hood) to embrace a pious Muslim identity while finding “the good in the principles of American liberal arts.” Korb discovered that this was a difficult task, especially since most students hadn’t a clue how to pray or speak Arabic. Moreover, the bias against Muslims still simmered since 9/11, and suspicions about Muslims’ true loyalties in America were rampant. The charismatic directors maintained a high, idealistic approach to education, and they reminded skeptics that Harvard, Yale and Princeton all began as religious schools. In a blandly detailed narrative, Korb confronts the criticism lobbed continuously at the college around attitudes of Muslim allegiance, jihad and indoctrination.
A brief look at what may surely be a historic class in American educational history—a subject worthy of deeper exploration.