Sharing my Zaytuna experience with people is always a joy.
This is especially because I am honoured to be growing with America’s first Muslim liberal arts college. In fact, I am evermore privileged to be a part of the fourth class of the college— the class that made it possible for the first class to graduate.
Excuse my biases – I love class of 2017 – but on a more serious note, I am ever thankful to God for placing me in an elite college around great scholars and among a unique selection of students (I’d like to think that we’re divergents).
I’ve just completed my first year at Zaytuna College. Some of my Australian friends think that I have matured, which I believe is a good sign, although, I still have a lot of room for improvement. Zaytuna has not only helped me grow academically, but also spiritually and emotionally. It challenges my mind to think, my body to eat well and my heart to stay content with God. For me, Zaytuna is a holistic lifestyle; it is the micro world that is preparing me to challenge the macro world that I will be facing one day. However, talking about graduation already is a little saddening, so allow me to step back a bit and narrate my Zaytuna story to you starting from my studies in Damascus, to Rihla 2011 in Bursa and finishing off my first year as an Arabic teaching assistant- it has been quite a journey.
I always like to start off with acknowledging my patient, dedicated, independent, strong, and beloved mother. She has always wanted good for her children and she was the reason why I took interest in studying religion. She did not only take us out of a public school and place us in an Islamic one, but she took us out of Islamic school and moved to a Muslim country: Syria. Memorising the Quran was not enough for her. My mother wanted us to learn Arabic so that we could also understand it. In 2005, my mother travelled to Syria along with her mother and a Syrian friend of hers to explore school options. On February 12, 2006, my mother took us to Damascus, Syria’s capital—a city that changed my life.
I began my Arabic studies at Abu Nour, a university founded by the previous Mufti, Shaykh Ahmed Kuftaro, where I nearly completed five out of six levels of the Arabic language. After living among students of sacred knowledge, I was inspired to pursue it myself. I decided to enrol at Ma’had al-Fatih; a well-known institute with a six-year course that focused highly on Islamic studies. It was there where I was able to complete four years before leaving the school due to the Syrian uprising.
I left Damascus in 2011, but I did not return to the United States immediately. I had signed up for the Rihla; a three-week deen-intensive course in English, focusing on the fundamentals of Islam. My intention was to meet its teachers including as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir, and others in order to establish a connection with some of the scholars of the West to work under them someday. The program was one of the most eye opening experiences of my life, but I would need to write a separate paper on that!. In any case, I began to establish connections with some of the teachers. I was particularly amazed by Imam Zaid Shakir, who was one of the three co-founders of Zaytuna College and Imam Tahir Anwar, an adjunct Professor at the college.
To return to Syria was difficult, so I began to ask them about studying there. I would often sit with Imam Zaid for advice. He would offer his insight, but would always end it by telling me to do istikharah—the prayer of guidance. I left the program with an uncertain decision but I was left with an option that I continued to explore after my return to the United States. After two years of consulting with teachers and exhausting schooling options, I decided to apply at Zaytuna. It was the only college I applied for because I did not want to study Islam at any other American college.
By God’s grace, I was accepted at Zaytuna in 2012. That winter, I attended the ‘Reviving the Islamic Spirit’ conference in Toronto, CA. Excited to inform Imam Zaid of the good news, I stood in his book signing line without a book, eagerly waiting to tell him. Upon approaching him he asked me in Arabic: “O Yousaf, what has God done of you?”
I replied: “I applied for Zaytuna College.”
“Our Zaytuna?,” he asked.
I responded:“Yes, your Zaytuna,”.
“Khalas, you are accepted, by God’s will,” he said.
For the first few months, I started to prepare myself mentally for school. I began to read the Trivium and talk to a few friends about the Californian life. Soon after, I was on my way to Berkeley, California.
It was August 31st of 2013 when I arrived at the Zaytuna dormitory and was welcomed by my residential advisor (‘RA’) , Ali Kirat. He assigned me to my room where I met my first roommate, Rohban Zahid from Springfield. (No, not the same Springfield from the Simpsons.) He took me out for my first meal in California to a place called Blondie’s Pizza. Later on, I met my other roommate, Ibrahim Naqeeb; a Permaculturist who nearly turned me green every time he spoke about greens. (Pun intended.) Anyway, we all came from very different backgrounds. As roommates, we probably were not the best together but at least the classroom united us as freshmen. Our first days of school were spent in exploration, orientation, and shinning through the halls of Le Conte, Zaytuna’s new location at convocation. After a few days of orientation with Imam Dawood Yaseen, Director of Student Life, we attended the Freshman Seminar with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the President of Zaytuna College. I never saw Shaykh Hamza in a classroom setting, so I did not know what to expect from him as a teacher. I thought that he would come in, lecture us and walk out, but I was wrong.
Shaykh Hamza began his class with walking through every student asking him/her his background. He talked to each one of us. After I introduced myself, he encouraged me to opt out of my Arabic class and to join one of the higher levels. Interestingly enough he approached me in the following week and put the ‘Frequency Dictionary of Arabic’ in front of me and told me that he had selected this book for the Zaytuna curriculum for me. Point being, Shaykh Hamza was a very sincere, interactive and engaging teacher. He actually makes an effort to get to know his students.
There is so much that can be said about my first semester. From learning Hadith, with Imam Zaid Shakir, Theology with Shaykh Faraz Khan, Logic with Dr. Mark Delp, Hanafi fiqh with Imam Tahir, Arabic with Dr. Fadi Elhin, English Grammar with Dr. Shirin Maskatia, and Vocabulary with Sr. Mariam Jukaku, I have grown morally and intellectually. My greatest fear was to come to Zaytuna feeling behind, since I was not in school for years. I had not been reading in English for years nor was I acquainted with the Western world after having been overseas for five years—I was academically challenged. But these teachers made my first semester a success.
Another void in myself was also beginning to refill: friendship. I became friends with some amazing individuals. We were of mutual benefit to each other in not only in our studies but also in our personal lives and struggles. As for my second semester, I was comfortable with the academic atmosphere. I was, however, confronted with a new struggle: relationships. Something I like to remind people about is my humanness. Yes, I am a Zaytuna student. I did not walk in the college in perfection, nor will I walk out perfect, but I aspire to strive for excellence everyday. I was struggling emotionally as my friends and I were being tested in some difficult ways. From my younger brother struggling to get married, to the death of my friend’s brother and the hospitalisation of another friend’s mother, I really took their problems to heart as if they were my own. I tried to be there for them whenever I could, even when I was sick in bed with the flu but I prioritised them over my own problems. At some point, I distracted myself from my studies and started to think about work and marriage. Although still very beneficial, I noticed that these things began to affect the purpose of my attendance at Zaytuna. I was not thinking about my studies nor did my conversations revolve around them, which began to annoy my friends. As tension began to rise among us, the more we started to argue—our respect towards the others was tainted. Days went by without talking, however, we could not escape each other’s company because it was a friendship that was built upon the love of God. Therefore, my friends and I were able to resolve our issues through discussion as they were there to put me back inline, which resulted in my second semester being as fruitful as my first.
I can continue to talk about my Zaytuna experience, but I won’t stop. I didn’t even touch upon how my friends came together to fund my first year, the honours program or my summer position at the Arabic Intensive.
In the words of my respected sister, Madeeha Gohar, a junior at Zaytuna, she says: “God has indeed made us creatures with an intellect, and that intellect must be elucidated. While ultimately elucidation comes from Allah, we must still work to seek its light.”
My journey to Zaytuna College has been a long one, but my first year there has truly been an enlightening and eye opening experience. To me, Zaytuna reflects the Prophet’s teaching of a believer striving to be a better believer everyday as his next day should be better than his first. Not a day goes by where I am either challenged academically, emotionally, or spiritually. I am truly blessed to be walking through the Zaytuna hallways, to engage with scholars and to benefit from fellow seekers— seekers who aspire to be lifelong learners. I pray that my Zaytuna experience will inspire me to be a leader who is grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society, to serve an American Islam someday. God willing.