Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir aren't well known in mainstream Bay Area circles. But these two Muslim converts — one white and one black — are fast becoming household names in many Islamic homes around the world. They are the founding fathers of Zaytuna College in downtown Berkeley, which hopes to turn itself into this country's first fully accredited Muslim college.
Yusuf and Shakir aspire for Zaytuna to promote an American alternative to traditional Muslim education. Their school's approach is designed to be more inclusive than the path offered by some Shiite extremists or certain followers of Wahhabism, a reactionary Sunni sect whose teachings have been spread around the world by many scholars and religious leaders bankrolled by ultraconservative Saudi-Arabian Muslims.
"They are rooted in tradition, but have a narrow view of tradition," Shakir said of those movements. "We are rooted in tradition, but have a wider view of it. We are trying to present Islam as an organized whole. That makes it more difficult to distort, harder to use in less-than-productive ways."
It is not by accident that Yusuf and Shakir named their school "Zaytuna," the Arabic word for "olive," a tree considered blessed in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The olive branch is of course a well-known symbol of peace — something all three of those religions can use today in their encounters with each other.
Yusuf is particularly well suited to promote peace between Christians and Muslims. He was raised in an Orthodox Christian family before converting to Islam, and was known as Mark Hanson when he was growing up in Marin County. After a near-fatal car accident in 1977, he turned to the Muslim faith and later went abroad for four years to study Arabic and Islamic theology. He returned to the Bay Area, got a degree in religious studies from San Jose State University, and in 1996 set up a small Muslim think tank in Hayward called the Zaytuna Institute.
Over the last decade, his knowledge of Islamic tradition and life in the West, combined with a charismatic personality and riveting lecture style, has turned him into an international Muslim superstar. In the aftermath of 9-11, his criticism of Muslim extremists won him an invitation to the White House, but he drew attacks from other Muslims who derided him as George W. Bush's "pet Muslim." However, others had a more positive assessment.
A story in the English-language monthly Egypt Today called the goateed scholar "the Elvis Presley of Western Muslims." In an interview that ran with that story, Yusuf complained that the world has too many "half-baked, weekend muftis calling for jihad after looking up its meaning on Google." There is a dire need, he says, for "renewal and reinterpretation" in Islamic scholarship. "There are many things that need to be revisited," he said. "The problem is that we no longer have qualified people to do the revisiting. Most of the so-called scholars are rejects from the school system."
Yusuf says he will counter this trend by offering students a solid education in Arabic, the Koran, theology, jurisprudence, and Islamic spirituality. A prospectus on the new curriculum promises that "Zaytuna College will train students to relate to the world in all its multiplicities, while not losing sight of divine purpose."
"By comprehending the philosophical foundations of western civilization, by becoming familiar with the intellectual currents that shape our world, and by understanding the forces at work in the social, cultural, and political life of modern societies, we believe our students will be able to contextualize Islamic knowledge in a dynamic and productive way."
One of the college's lead instructors will be Shakir, who was born in 1956 in Berkeley with the given name of Ricky Mitchell. Ricky and his family bounced around the country — Michigan, Georgia, Connecticut — each time his parents split up, reunited, and then split up again. Mitchell's mother raised him in the black Baptist church, trying as hard as she could to shield him from the drugs, alcoholism, random violence, and other realities of life in the housing projects in New Britain, Connecticut.
Mitchell enlisted in the Air Force in the 1970s, where he met his wife, Saliha, and the religion that would change their lives. "I was a seeker," he recalled in an interview at the college library, on an upper floor overlooking busy Shattuck Avenue.
He had read books on Buddhism. He'd spent two years practicing Transcendental Mediation. He went though phases as an atheist and a Communist. Then someone suggested he read a book called Islam in Focus.
"Islam was the complete package," he recalled. "Meditation had made me very calm and relaxed, but I started to see it as a selfish way of life. It wasn't doing anything for the people around me. Islam stresses charity, and offers very structured rules for family life. It addressed in very clear terms a lot of the social anarchy that I saw all around me while I was growing up."
Shakir converted to Islam in 1977 and wound up leading an African-American mosque in New Haven, Connecticut. Then he traveled to Syria to immerse himself in the Arabic language, the Koran, and other traditional Muslim texts.
It's not all that surprising, he said, that two Muslim converts have taken on themselves to revive Islamic traditions — and do it in the United States. "Converts tend to be zealous," Shakir observed.
Zaytuna College plans to welcome its first regular class of twenty students in the fall of 2010. Five trailblazing students graduated in the summer of 2008 after completing a four-year pilot program. In the meantime, Zaytuna Institute continues to offer several freestanding courses along with an intensive study program in the summer for students seeking a "complete immersion experience" in Arabic.
Over the next year, the college hopes to raise money to launch its ambitious new program. According to a glossy fifty-page brochure given to prospective students and donors, Zaytuna is committed to furthering "Islam's critical role in the modern world."
"At the heart of our mission is the Islamic legal, intellectual and spiritual tradition, which we believe to be derived from the Qur'an and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad," the prospectus states. "Unfortunately, the modern world has not been kind to the Islamic educational institutions that were once the envy of the world. As a result, Muslim scholarship has been reduced to an anemic state."
The supporters of Zaytuna College see it as offering a new kind of higher education for Muslims growing up in the Bay Area — whether they are the children of immigrant families from Pakistan, Iran, or other Muslim countries, or kids raised by African-American converts.
Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian-American lecturer at UC Berkeley, is helping Zaytuna get through the lengthy and complicated process of establishing itself as the first fully accredited Muslim college in the United States. They hope to have those accreditation papers by next year.