Light Without Fire: The Making of America's First Muslim College

The following is an excerpt from Scott Korb’s new book, Light Without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, out this month from Beacon Press.  You can hear Scott read from the book tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 16th, at 6 pm at the NYU Bookstore, 726 Broadway.  You can buy the book here and like the facebook page here. @scottkorb


On Easter Sunday morning a couple years ago I led some sisters, as I’d come to know them, up the side aisle of Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic church in Berkeley, California. About midway through the sanctuary I ushered them into an open pew. Here, I decided, we’d be far enough from the back to make it known we weren’t hiding out and far enough from the front to allow room for the church regulars.

For the better part of that year I’d been spending what time I could with Bay Area Muslims, traveling from New York City for long weekends and during breaks from my teaching. Two nights earlier—what Christians call Good Friday—the sisters had invited me to a mawlid, an intimate gathering for Koran recitation, prayers, and poems to commemorate the birth of the Prophet. This was the first such get together at Zaytuna—a Muslim liberal arts college, the first of its kind in America.

That evening we’d circled up on the rug after offering the salaams—as-salaam alaikum—a common and beloved greeting of peace. A brother named Dustin arrived with incense, which he struggled to light. Along with the sisters, Rasheeda, Mahassin, Sumaya, Faatimah, Leenah, and a few others, Dustin and two friends, Haroon and a poet and emcee known as Baraka Blue, joined in for some call and response. Their melodies, even in Arabic, had become familiar; I’d absorbed them the way I’d absorbed Catholic hymns as a child.

Baraka Blue took a turn leading the prayer: “To establish the mawlid in Berkeley forever,” he said, “we begin it now; may it never end.” This was a good Friday night with the students at Zaytuna, and it was meant to be this good forever.

Rasheeda then prepared to read a poem.

“You ready?” said Baraka Blue.

“Yes,” she replied. “Bismillah.” In the name of God, she recited.

When Rasheeda finished her poem, Mahassin said, “Read it again.” And when she finished a second time, under his breath Dustin said, “Oh, man . . .” Then she read a few more.

After this, Dustin led what I’d thought was a closing prayer, on be­half of a Native American community trying to reclaim land the city had developed into a parking lot. With that, I left. But on my way to meet a friend for a drink in Oakland, I received a text message from Mahassin: “Leenah is upset that you left, so am I for that matter. The night is young!!!”

“Let’s get together again tomorrow,” I typed. “Will you all forgive me?”

“No! Lol, just joking. Of course! See you tomorrow insha-Allah.” God willing.

We didn’t see each other the next day, Holy Saturday, but late in the afternoon Leenah texted: “Hey Scott, are you doing anything for Easter Sunday tomorrow? We kinda wanna tag along, if that’s cool?”

I didn’t notice the message at first, and when Leenah didn’t hear back she followed up with two more:

“But we’d totally understand if you wish to spend the day alone.”

“No pressure, ever :)”

Jesus, a great prophet in Islam, had been a regular conversation topic for us. A chapter of the Koran, for instance, is named for his mother Mary, or Maryam, the only women mentioned by name in the entire book. For Muslims, I’d learned, Jesus’ own story involves neither his death on Good Friday nor his resurrection on Easter. Instead, it’s widely believed that before the Crucifixion, one of the disciples was made to look like Jesus and was killed in his place. Jesus was raised up by Allah body and soul through a hole in the roof of a house.

It didn’t matter that it had been years since I’d elected to attend Mass of my own accord; of course I’d take them to Easter, I said. Google led me to Saint Joseph the Worker, which fit the bill—progressive, at least in name, and within walking distance of the BART. “In terms of cloth­ing,” Leenah asked, “anything in particular that we should wear (i.e., skirts instead of pants)?” I thumbed a reply: “However you’re comfortable. How you all normally dress is perfect.”

That morning, once they were settled, I slid into the pew in front of them and quietly explained the standing and kneeling and sitting that Catholics do, mentioning, too, the offering of peace that would come near the end. They could shake hands or not. Islam, I knew, generally advises against women and men touching if they’re not related.

Faatimah, a Brooklyn native, nodded. As the music began and I took my place alongside her, she pointed to the altar. “Look,” she said to the sisters. And then, as if nothing could be more natural: “Mary’s in hijab.”


Scott Korb is the author of Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College (Beacon Press), published this month.


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