Review of “Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College”

Growing up in the Bay Area, Zaytuna has been an institution that I’ve heard of for many years. Founded in 1996 by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Zaytuna Institute started off as place that offered classes in Islam to the community, from Arabic to Islamic law and many in between in Hayward, California. In 2009, Zaytuna became Zaytuna College, a four year college based in Berkeley that began offering degree programs with classes taught by the most esteemed scholars, including founders Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir and Dr. Hatem Bazian.

I remember when that happened, when the institute planned the transition to the college, and understanding that no longer would there be classes at the Hayward campus for the community. Unless one was a student at the college, they wouldn’t have access to the kinds of classes Zaytuna used to provide to everyone. I lamented over not taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge that was previously accessible but now cut off. I blamed myself for not attending more classes at Zaytuna while thinking at the same time how cool it was that the founders took this huge step from taking Zaytuna into a Bay Area institution to becoming this beacon of structured higher learning for those seeking it.

Writer and professor Scott Korb spent a lot of the inaugural year at Zaytuna College, spending time with the students and faculty, sitting in classes, and interviewing many people as research for his new book Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College. A professor at NYU’s Gallatin School, Korb first heard of Zaytuna from a student of his that had been in one of Zaytuna’s early seminary programs.

As I started reading, I wondered what kind of book Light Without Fire would turn out to be. Due to some of the early praise, I knew it wouldn’t be some sort of negative critique on the school (not that the author comes across as someone who would write something like that) but on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to read something that just came off us PR for the college because that wouldn’t be fair or interesting either.

What I soon found while reading was that Light Without Fire is a thoughtful, fascinating account of Zaytuna College and its history. This was my first book about an actual educational institution so wasn’t sure how intriguing something like this would be but the author changed my mind with how well he blended first hand accounts, the history of Zaytuna and its founders, and his own perspective into this book.

He touches on some of the struggles the school faced as it got off the ground, even with something as basic as securing classroom space. As the first year progressed, the the school officials found themselves making changes as the teachers realized that they would have to adjust their expectations with reality.

The book isn’t just an account of the first year as the author delves into the history of the school and its start as a community haven in Hayward. Korb even touches on the community reaction to the announcement that Zaytuna Institute would shut its doors in Hayward and turn into a college, thereby taking away its classes from the community at large and catering its resources towards the college. The author also goes into the history of the school’s founders. In addition, he hangs with some of the students all year, socializing with them, and getting their take on the school. With all of this, Korb successfully makes Light Without Fire not just about an institution but about the people behind it – those who worked continuously to get it off the ground and the ones who, by actually joining the college, are the real reason that Zaytuna College is able to justify its existence.

With his book, Korb raises some interesting questions as well. One that I hadn’t really thought about as whether the school existed because of the needs of the community – would Zaytuna College exist without the people behind it? Would someone else eventually have taken the responsibility to create this institution because of the inherent needs of the community? Or, does Zaytuna College exist only because of the drive of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir?

In the end, I have to hand it to the author for writing such an intriguing book about a college. Light Without Fire is as much about American history as it is about Islamic history in this country. Zaytuna College has a long road ahead and by capturing the college’s first year, Scott Korb has written a book that takes its place among the American Muslim narrative in the United States.

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