Some books call out to you to share them with others. Recently I read Scott Korb’s book Light Without Fire about the first year at Zaytuna College, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college, and ever since I finished it, I can’t stop talking about it with others.
There are so many things to appreciate and admire about this book. To begin, it is rare to encounter an author who is able to talk about Islam/Muslims with honesty and sensitivity. In Light without Fire, the author’s admiration, warmth and connection with the people he meets shines from every page, and you get the sense that he is not a journalist simply watching Zaytuna from the sidelines, but someone who participates in the life of the community. When he visits the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland for Friday prayers for instance, he lines up shoulder to shoulder with others in prayer. When he attends the mawlids (a celebration of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him), at Zaytuna or in the broader community, over time he becomes familiar with the poetry and sacred music that is recited.
His curiosity and engagement makes the book a very readable, thoughtful, interesting, important read, and one that rewards its reader generously for their time and attention. It makes the book a light, a book of beautiful writing, subtle humour, and humanity, that helps the reader see and understand Zaytuna College more clearly.
“Always carry a little notebook around with you. Whatever inspires you, or rings true for you, was meant for you. So make sure you write it down.” Faced with what Faatimah called “the obvious way” that the Zaytuna classroom – or really any classroom – was not like the rest of the world, and vice versa, every moment deserved the attention of a notetaker. Though the Zaytuna classroom might be structured with the books and schedules and tests that are the trappings of any classroom, what’s “out here” is no less important, structured as it is, she said “so much more by the divine.” The whole world is the classroom. She saw in it signs and proofs of Allah.” ~ (Light without Fire, p.110)
In the spirit of this advice to be a notetaker (given by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus), below are a few thoughts from my read.
On the importance of biographies
One of my favourite sections of the book delves into the life of Imam Zaid Shakir, one of the co-founders of the college. It describes his upbringing, the life and activism of his mother, his time in the Air Force, his life in New Haven and contributions at Masjid al-Islam, his subsequent travels through the Muslim world, and how his Islam has deepened and changed in the decades since he became Muslim. I didn’t know a lot about the life of Imam Zaid before I read this book, but through this reading, my respect and love for his scholarship and service has only increased. Learning about the lives of different teachers in this book was also a reminder of why the practice of continually learning more about the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him is so emphasized – you need to learn about a person in order to fully appreciate and desire to emulate them.
“I’m sick, sick, and sick of this dreary dead-end existence I’m sick, sick sick of being stuck here in this junk-filled house with no outlet, no money, no nothing. Sewing machine out of order; TV out of order; refrigerator out of order; stove just making it; winter coming up with its necessities and no money in sight to repair, replace or buy anything! I’m sick to my soul of scraping, squeezing and scrounging.” (Light without Fire, Richelene Mitchell, 1973.)
As part of its description of Imam Zaid’s upbringing, the book includes powerful passages from Imam Zaid’s mother’s 1973 journal that inspire and strengthen one’s heart. There are times in one’s life where breaking down are stopping are not an option, and you have responsibilities and challenges that you simply need to get through. Imam Zaid’s mother, with young children to support on her own, is in that kind of situation in her journal. Reading the story of Imam Zaid’s mother’s story is a reminder that whether you are in difficulty or in ease, it is critical to decide the kind of person you want to be in the world and commit to that vision.
Reading about Imam Zaid’s path was also a lesson that when you are serious about developing excellence and deep understanding, that journey take you to different places, and different communities. Life is unexpected, and one must be open to the journey as it unfolds. We learn through the book for instance, that Imam Zaid became Muslim in 1977, and twenty-five years elapsed between his conversion and his arrival in Hayward, California. The intervening decades were years where he made substantial contributions in different communities and travelled far distances to learn. At the same time, though Imam Zaid’s commitment to learning took him abroad to Syria for seven years, while he was in New Haven, Connecticut, he organised many different social programs and was a source of great good to the Muslim community and to the community at large. Hearing about the new Haven part of his journey was a reminder that we each must be involved in and rooted in the place that we live. Wherever we are, we must be present and we must be doers, and if we get to a point where it’s time to continue our development elsewhere, we must have the courage to make that journey.
“Being in the company of righteous men and women who had worked consciously and scrupulously for years to refine their own humanity enabled me to see my own.” Here was the rare miracle of the religious life, where deepening own’s knowledge also serves to broaden one’s vision.” (Light without Fire, p.91)
Finally, learning about the teachers and following the students as they progressed through their first year at Zaytuna College, was an education that when we see people who are full of sweetness, beauty and gentleness, that beauty is a result of a process of purification and development that has brought them to that point. It’s not a journey of a day, and it’s not an absence of challenges that develops one’s personality. Its a reminder that whatever our experiences and backgrounds, we must all strive to be beneficial, purified lights in the world.
It’s an important introduction. As a reader, after learning about luminaries of our age and the students of Zaytuna College, you can’t help but to turn inward, reflect on your own path of development and service and ask how seriously you are taking your own learning, and engaging with Islam’s intellectual tradition.
“Faatimah followed up on the blog a few days later, describing a certain “disconnect..just short of devastating” she felt as a younger woman when confronted with the idea that a language could remain unintelligible yet be so overwhelmingly meaningful – “foreign to my tongue and yet familiar to my heart” – while also “gently command[ing] my limbs into submission.” This is the Arabic she’d come to Zaytuna to learn. The Arabic she pores over with delicate hands on the bus, worrying her pocket Koran. Head down, she’s studying.” (Light without Fire, p.127)
“Love was her impetus, means and ends. The Prophet was blessed to have such a wife.” (Light without Fire, quoting Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, p.124)
In addition to telling the story of Zaytuna College, throughout the book, the author introduces us to conversations and lessons by teachers in North America today. Why do people celebrate the birthday of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him? What is the Shariah? What is the connection between Muslims and their environment? Is it ok for Muslims to live in the West? All of these questions (and more) are explored in the book, and it is a very relevant read for anyone interested in learning more about conversations that come up often in conferences and classes across North America today.
But more than that, this book is relevant because it helps the reader to fall in love, and to remember that love is at the heart of the Islamic tradition. In each chapter and page, the author manages to convey the love and joy of those involved in making Zaytuna college a reality, the love of the students for their subject material, and the love of the Zaytuna community for the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him and for the first community of believers. Building the college is hard work, but everyone involved is deeply committed to making it a success. By introducing the reader to people who are deeply in love, this book urges and helps the reader to be in the world differently. It helps us to fall in love ourselves.
For me, it was particularly beautiful to hear more about how the Prophet’s wife Khadijah comforted him, and to read about the love the students and teachers have for her example, may God be well pleased with her. In a world that so often judges people in superficial ways, reflecting on, and learning about the strength and beauty of Khadijah, may God be well pleased with her, and her confidence, serenity, determination and purposefulness is transformational. The more one hears about her, the more there is to learn. She is a deep well from whom one can draw inspiration of the kind of person you wish to become.
“We praise, he told the crowd, not a particular gift, but rather the very fact that God is the giver of gifts. “Allah,” he said, has gathered us to praise his Prophet, and he we praise him because he is Muhammad.” He’s worthy though, of much more than praise,” said Zaid. Muhammad should also be seen as the “beloved”, if only because Allah loved him. One who loves someone loves those whom the beloved loves.
The imam was near tears: “What does the Prophet mean to us?” he asked. “Are we telling people about the Prophet? If we loved the Prophet we would never stop talking about him.” He then called out: “Tell the world about our Beloved! Exemplify his character in our lives. Embody that character and strive for success, so that you can say, ‘It’s not from me; it’s because I follow Muhammad'” (Light without Fire, p.115)
Finally, though there is so much more to say about this book and about the wonderful College it describes, I am left with a moment in the book where Imam Tahir Anwar says at a Grand Mawlid, “who would have thought ten to fifteen years ago that we could bring together 1200 people in praise of the Prophet?” Those words made me think of projects in Toronto that are planting seeds now – the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto, the SeekersHub Toronto, the Risalah Foundation and others, and to pray that God-willing, they too will develop into strong oaks in the next decades. Above all, this book was a reminder of the transformational power of faith, and that there is so much to do and contribute and learn.