An Auspicious Event For An Auspicious Month: A Message from Our President

Hamza Yusuf: "We have acquired a beautiful new building."

Salam alaykum,

This month of Rabi’ al-Awwal has been an auspicious one for Muslims since the advent of Islam. It is the month in which our Prophet, peace be upon him, was born. It is the month in which he migrated from Mecca to Medina, thus starting Muslim historical time. It is also the blessed month in which he returned to his Lord, and although it was calamitous, he said, “My life is good for you and my death is good for you.”

We are delighted to announce that in this month of Rabi’ al-Awwal an auspicious event has unfolded for Zaytuna College: We have acquired a beautiful new building down the block from our current red-brick campus on Holy Hill in Berkeley. The new building, on the corner of Euclid and Le Conte avenues, will meet many of our essential needs—a dormitory for Zaytuna’s female students, space for public events and classes, and offices for academic administrators and faculty members—and also generate rental revenue.

By God’s grace, this purchase is a major step toward our goal of establishing a fully accredited, academically rigorous, and devotionally committed Muslim college in the West. The history of the building, laden with fine architectural details, is itself a sign: It began as a fraternity house for U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish students, and was later purchased by the Catholics and converted into a Franciscan college. And now, we have inherited it. The Franciscans wanted to sell it, and we were fortunate to learn of this before it went on the market and made a bid for the building. The Franciscans graciously accepted, and we started the escrow process.

As we began to raise funds, some dramatic—and wondrous—events took place. Not wanting to once again burden our donors who had so generously helped us purchase our main campus in 2012, we sought other avenues of raising money for this new building. But a few weeks before the deadline to close escrow, we found we were falling short of the full amount needed. During this time, some of us were reading and discussing a book about Harvard’s crisis of character, Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? Imam Zaid Shakir reminded us that Zaytuna’s endeavor must maintain its “excellence of soul” and avoid the fiscal foibles of others; departing from our own strict guidelines would risk the providential success Zaytuna has so far been blessed with.

So we found ourselves in a bind: with less than a month to closing, we were two million dollars short and risked losing the stunning building – we felt it was a rare opportunity for us to expand our campus on Holy Hill, and we didn’t want to lose it. So we stepped into overdrive. Spending long hours calling potential donors, we were awestruck at their sincere responses—one man even offered to get a loan on his house! Imam Mohamed Magid was a great help and advocated to others on our behalf. Fortunately, an Iraqi-American and a Pakistani-American in Washington DC came through with offers of large non-interest bearing loans, as did an Indian-American in Georgia. Additionally, members of Zaytuna’s own Board of Trustees contributed almost half-a-million dollars in gifts and interest-free loans. 

I do not feel the need to name our donors; God knows their names and their sincerity. What we witnessed was a profound and heartwarming display of the fulfillment of God’s command: “And help one another in acts of righteousness and piety” (‘ta’awaunu ‘ala al-birri wa al-taqwa, Qur’an, 5:2). It was only because of our supporters, who gave large or small donations and interest-free loans according to their ability, that we were able to make the final payment—in cash—on Friday, the 6th of Rabi’ al-Awwal. We signed the sale contracts at the new building and then took a tour. Our walkthrough was led by a devout Catholic employee whose eyes welled up due to the many fond memories she had of her time there. She said to me, “[This building] began as a Jewish center, and then became a Christian center, so to fulfill the Abrahamic cycle, it makes sense that Muslims should have it now.”

After the tour, we gathered in a beautiful classroom with natural light streaming through its many windows and its large glass doors opening to a courtyard. As Imam Zaid spoke a few words, I noticed something: a Catholic icon on the wall that appeared to be a monk embracing a man in a robe and turban. Knowing the 13th century story of St. Francis of Assisi during the Crusades, when he crossed enemy lines to meet al-Malik al-Kamil, the nephew of Salah al-Din and the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, I wondered if this icon on the wall depicted that meeting. After Imam Zaid finished speaking, I went up for a closer look, and lo and behold, written in Arabic below the picture were the words, “Walhamdulillahi rabbil-‘alamin” (Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds). Indeed, the picture was a rare portrait of St. Francis embracing the Ayyubid ruler, showing both enveloped in a heart with flames of brotherly love emanating from it.

All of us present felt this was a faith-increasing portent of the momentous occasion. It was as if Zaytuna College, now surrounded by Christian and other religious colleges on Holy Hill, was being embraced with respect and dignity as a member of the spiritual family. It was as if the founder of the Franciscan order himself, through the image on the wall, was welcoming us to continue the work he had initiated in his own time, with his own faith. For when the Christian world had lost its way with the bloody Crusades, St. Francis set out, through service, learning, and love, to restore spiritual sanity to a world gone mad with religiously-inspired violence. His legacy includes the well-known prayer of peace, the meanings of which could just as easily have been uttered by one of the great spiritual luminaries of Islam: 

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is error, truth
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Hamza Yusuf
President, Zaytuna College