Seeds of Change: Zaytuna Shakes Its Roots

Old Zaytuna Institute Grounds. Photo: Muhammad McCabe

With plans to sell Zaytuna College’s Hayward property under way, the board is exploring the possibility of a housing community catered to the Muslim community built on the land – if a developer is found.

In June of this year, the Zaytuna board began seeking buyers for the property due to the facility’s low usage. Dutra Enterprises, Fremont, Calif.-based real estate firm, approached the board with a proposal for a 15-unit gated housing community designed with “Muslim-friendly" features in mind.

Cordoba Village, the proposed housing community with a location “in the heart of Hayward,” would occupy 1.83 acres of the land and offer varying floor plans – a plan that would maximize the property’s land value, according to John A. Dutra, chairman of the board of Dutra Enterprises.

Economic conditions, however, have rendered finding a developer difficult, and may result in the land being sold to anyone willing to buy it.

“It’s not difficult to develop the property, but mainly the current conditions of the real estate market, which is going through a lot of challenges,” said officials from the firm.

The board has decreased the price of the property from the initial offer in order to attract a buyer.

In addition to single-family detached homes, the design also includes a community center with a multipurpose hall that can be used for communal prayer space, events and lectures.

This would allow residents to participate in congregational prayers five times a day without having to travel far – particularly helpful to senior residents, Dutra officials said.

The developers also said the design would incorporate “Muslim-friendly” and Mediterranean-style design features, such as not having bathrooms facing the Qiblah, the direction of the Kaba that Muslims pray toward, and arches, among others.

The housing community is centrally located, close to Cal State University East Bay, the BART, and major freeways, according to the developers.

Omar Nawaz, vice president of operations of Zaytuna College, said that board is looking to sell the property due to its low usage – small numbers of people come for classes on the weekends, but because it is an open facility, exact numbers are not known.

“We could use the funds to purchase something to be used directly for the college,” he said.

Nawaz said that although putting the money towards buying more property in Berkeley would be more expensive, it would be better for the college. 

The board had hopes for another Muslim organization to buy the facility, but economic conditions have rendered it difficult, he said.

“It’s an open market and based on what we have learned, the developer is a good option,” he said.  “At least some members could benefit from its sale, if the developers purchase it.”

Some community members have expressed opposition to the sale of the land, however.

“There is a sentimental value to this property, those people are not as happy unfortunately,” he said. “But for us, this is the start of Zaytuna College -- we have sentimental value as well, but it’s important for us to be in Berkeley -- most of the community has supported that and we are thankful for that.”

The benefits to purchasers of buying a new facility would mean the residents would get input on what features go into the houses, he said.

“Would it be all Muslim? We don’t know,” he said. “There are no restrictions.”

If developed, the housing community would be marketed to Muslims but open to anyone who wants to purchase a house.

The developer is working with Summit Funding to set up a financing system compliant with the Islamic principles.

“The difficulty in Islamic community is that it’s hard to get competitive home loans that are Sharia-compliant,” Dutra said, adding that they would try to hold the prices at their current amount but that it would depend on both buyer and builder commitments.

Zaheer Siddiqui, vice president of client relations at Dutra Enterprises, said the financing would be Sharia-compliant using the Murahaba method, which provides interest-free loans, and would require approval by the Zaytuna board.

Dutra Enterprises was previously hired by the Muslim Community Center of the East Bay in Pleasanton, Calif. for a renovation project.

College Goals

Hisham Alalusi, co-founder of the institute in 1998, said that the goal at its inception was to teach Islamic studies and help the community with no definite plans for its future.

"(The college plan) came later,” he said. “When it started, nobody knew what would happen.”

The site of the original Zaytuna Institute, which occupies about two acres with the office building, central prayer space and parking lot, was formerly an abandoned plot of land, at times occupied by homeless people.

The institute was incorporated in 1996 and initially had a variety of programs including community service, outreach and Qur'an classes.

In 2009, with a long-term plan to become the first accredited Muslim college in the country, the institute’s leaders leased a facility in Berkeley, Calif. and welcomed Zaytuna College’s first freshmen class.

The college program originated in 2001, when the institute conducted a seminary project where five students studied for four years under Zaid Shakir, Yahya Rhodus, Ali Amer and other American Muslim scholars.

“In the history of Zaytuna, probably to this day, that is the most historical achievement the Institute had ever accomplished,” said Syed Mubeen Saifullah, secretary of Zaytuna’s board of trustees.“This is why Zaytuna exists … because we need the next generation of scholars and thinkers in our community and we need to do it in a place where there’s access to the best amount of resources in the country.”

In its transition to Berkeley, which included changing its name from Zaytuna Institute to Zaytuna College, some of the community programs were spun off as distinct organizations - the outreach division now called Taleef Collective - while others were put on hold.

“One thing critical in the move was providing these students with the best amount of resources available,” he said. “Where we were in Hayward was not going to be able to provide that so we decided to move.”

Through University of California, Berkeley Senior Lecturer Hatem Bazian – one of the co-founders of the college – a “tremendous” amount of resources became available, with guest lecturers, the library, many halal restaurants and integration with the university’s Muslim Student Association, he said.

Following the move to Berkeley, many community members wanted to continue using the Hayward property and insisted on its maintenance, Saifullah said.

"After Zaytuna relocated to Berkeley, the property's maintenance was transitioned to the community,” he said. “Unfortunately the proper maintenance of the property proved to be a time consuming effort which wasn't scalable by the community."

In light of opposition to selling the property due to the facility having spiritual value, Saifullah mentioned a hadith stating three sacred places – Mekkah, Medina and Jerusalem.

“Everything else may have barakah (blessings), may be a special place, and that’s one of the reasons we want to honor the community,” he said. “We don’t want to just give it back, we want to be able to honor the sentimental value in a way that people can have a piece of it.”

Saifullah also said that while traveling across the country fundraising for a primarily Bay Area-based institution, only about 10 percent of funding was coming from the local area. 

“That was a wake-up call to do something much bigger and more inspiring,” he said. “The number of resources available in the Bay Area are unparalleled in the country.”

The board plans to use any money generated to go either directly to Zaytuna College or toward its endowment.

Saifullah said he did not think there would be negative connotation to a Muslim housing community.

“If the Muslims can purchase that place, and subsequently live there, and generate a small Muslim community, I think that’s the best scenario,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The secretary noted the importance of students attaining accreditation as opposed to ijazah – a certification permitting individuals to transmit what they have learned.

“Students need to have something tangible that they can take somewhere else,” he said. “(With Ijazah) they can become an Imam somewhere and maybe recognized by a few organizations but if they can take their degrees and go anywhere in the country and transfer time and energy into doing something great – that was a big catalyst. 

Alalusi, after who one of the buildings at the Hayward institute is named, acknowledged that the property has been used minimally for the last three years. 

“Things fell apart – Zaytuna moved to Berkeley and turned into a college, so there was no use for the land,” he said. “It became an extra piece of property.”

Alalusi said the facilities have been used as a community center for the community – something he would like to see continue.

“I would like to have it reserved for the community in any way possible,” he said.  

                                                                Sameea Kamal

Sameea is a journalist and editing professional specializing in development/construction, green building & education.