Berkeley's Islamic Awakening 

The founders of Zaytuna College hope to create a world-class Islamic university right here.

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Bazian sees the Bay Area as the perfect place for a new generation of homegrown Muslim students to deepen their knowledge of their culture and religion. Silicon Valley jobs have drawn thousands to the Bay Area from Muslim lands around the world. Many of these workers' children have now reached college age. Some are showing up at UC Berkeley, but others would favor a more traditional Islamic education.

"We are seeing students now who grew up in Muslim schools in the Bay Area and are very comfortable with their identity as American Muslims," Bazian said. "They are now able to maintain [religious] continuity from kindergarten all the way through the university."

At the same time, many non-Muslim students are curious about Islam. Bazian began the fall 2008 quarter expecting about sixty students to sign up for his undergraduate course at UC Berkeley on Islam in America. More than twice that many wound up in the class.

Meanwhile, while Zaytuna plans to start its undergraduate program, the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of Catholic and Protestant seminaries in the Berkeley's Northside neighborhood, has started its own Center for Islamic Studies.

Together, these three Muslim study centers — Zaytuna, UC Berkeley, and GTU — could soon make Berkeley a mecca for serious Muslim scholarship.


The GTU program is already attracting young Muslims from immigrant families, and American converts who first became interested in Islam through the black Muslim movement of the 1960s and 1970s, or through a fascination with Sufism, a mystical Muslim tradition popular among some New Age seekers.

Abdul Hamid Robinson-Royal grew up in the black Pentecostal church in Milwaukee and embraced Islam four years ago. He came to the GTU to work on a Ph.D in Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion. He does not refer to himself as a convert, but as "a Muslim who is culturally and experientially Pentecostal." One of the things he hopes to do at the GTU is study other people with "transdenominational or transreligious identities."

Robinson-Royal was attracted to GTU's interdisciplinary approach, and plans to draw on the rich academic resources on the UC Berkeley campus, which accepts GTU students into its classes. Most Islamic studies programs in the United States focus on the history of Islam, but these student-scholars are more interested in Muslim life today.

"We are trying to speak to the American Muslim identity," Robinson-Royal said. "This is not the kind of stuff you read about Islam on the front page of the newspaper. It's not so exciting to find out that your Muslim neighbor cuts his grass just like you do. You can't 'other' and exoticize people as easily once they become part of the fabric of the culture. When most people think of Islam they think of a religion that was founded in Arabia by and for Arabs. Yet only about 15 percent of the world's Muslims are Arabs."

Program leaders at all three of these schools say they are committed to helping a new generation of Muslim leaders get a classical Islamic education and the skills and knowledge they need to operate in puzzling, spiritually diverse places like the San Francisco Bay Area.

There are now some four dozen mosques operating in the Bay Area, yet only a fraction of those employ a full-time imam for spiritual guidance. Many of those imams are brought in from overseas, and have no idea how to operate in a contemporary American context.

"We are setting them up for failure," Bazian said. "All of a sudden they have to deal with a person on drugs. They don't even speak English. Many of these imams are brought in by the older generations who want a taste of back home. They have this nostalgic attachment to someone who can speak to them in Arabic, but then the mosque becomes a border against the outside world."

Bazian sees Berkeley as the perfect place for the new college. "The university is a gravity center that brings in a lot of intellectual resources, ideas, and ways for people to connect," he said. Bazian looks forward to the day that Zaytuna can be fully incorporated into the GTU, operating just like its other member schools. Those seminaries include the (liberal Protestant) Pacific School of Religion, the (Roman Catholic) Jesuit School of Theology, and the (Episcopalian) Church Divinity School of the Pacific. "Conceptually speaking, I think it would also be good for Zaytuna to become one of the GTU schools as a way to recognize the Islamic faith within the GTU."


Such an arrangement would take many years to develop, but Hamza Yusuf — who is now studying for his Ph.D at the GTU — is working to forge new ties between Zaytuna and Northside seminaries. He was the keynote speaker at a recent invitation-only conference the GTU titled "Who Speaks for Islam? Media and Muslim Networks."

In his public remarks, Yusuf presents himself as a harsh critic of violent Muslim extremists and an impassioned advocate for increased tolerance and respect for Americans who make Islamic practice an integral part of their lives.

"Evil is never done with more enthusiasm as when it is done in the name of God," Yusuf said. "That is why it is so important for us to have enlightened religious leadership and enlightened seminaries. Religious leadership has to try to limit the toxic externalization of religion. ... When you are looking at the madness in the Muslim world, look at the states and the failure of the states to address the real needs of millions and millions of people. ... There is so much frustration in many Muslim countries about the inability for them to do anything in society, and there is a segment that resorts to violence.'"

Yusuf, who now lives in Danville with his wife and four children, spoke following a reception in Easton Hall, which once served as a Dominican school but is now owned by the Episcopal seminary. Prior to his talk, Yusuf led about two dozen Muslim men in their evening prayers, pointing toward Mecca.

It was a sign that the times are changing at the Graduate Theological Union.

"One of the things that so intrigued me about Islam is that, in Islam, Jesus comes back at the end of time," Yusef told his newfound Christian brethren. "The prophet Mohammed said that Christians who become Muslims get double the reward of anyone else. In the Koran, it says one of the things that Christians bring into Islam is the teaching about turning the other cheek — deflecting wrongs with rights. And that is what is so needed today. Christians need to learn that. Muslims need to learn that, too."

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