One of seven children, Imam Zaid Shakir was born in Berkeley, California. He accepted Islam in 1977 while serving in the United States Air Force. He obtained a BA with honors in International Relations at American University in Washington D.C. and later earned his MA in Political Science at Rutgers University. While at Rutgers during the mid-1980s, he led a campaign that culminated in the university divesting from South Africa and co-founded Masjid al-Huda which would grow to become the New Brunswick Islamic Center.
After a year of studying Arabic in Cairo, Egypt, he settled in New Haven, Connecticut and continued his community activism, co-founding Masjid Al-Islam, the Tri-State Muslim Education Initiative, and the Connecticut Muslim Coordinating Committee. As Imam of Masjid Al-Islam from 1988 to 1994 he spear-headed a community renewal and grassroots anti-drug effort, and also taught political science and Arabic at Southern Connecticut State University. He served as an interfaith council Chaplain at Yale University and developed the Chaplaincy Sensitivity Training for physicians at Yale New Haven Hospital. He then left for Syria to pursue his studies in the traditional Islamic sciences.
For seven years in Syria, and briefly in Morocco, he immersed himself in an intense study of Arabic, Islamic law, Quranic studies, and spirituality with some of the top Muslim scholars of our age. In 2001, he graduated from Syria’s prestigious Abu Noor University with a BA in Islamic Sciences and returned to Connecticut, serving again as the Imam of Masjid al-Islam, and writing and speaking frequently on a host of issues. That same year, his translation from Arabic into English of The Heirs of the Prophets was published by Starlatch Press.
In 2003, he moved to Hayward, California to serve as a scholar-in-residence and lecturer at Zaytuna Institute, where he taught courses on Arabic, Islamic law, history, and Islamic spirituality. In 2004, he initiated a pilot seminary program at Zaytuna Institute, which was useful in Zaytuna College’s refinement of its Islamic Studies curriculum and its educational philosophy. For four years, students in the pilot program were engaged in the study of contemporary and classical texts, as well as the foundations of the social sciences. In 2005, Zaytuna Institute published, Scattered Pictures: Reflections of An American Muslim„ an anthology of diverse essays penned by Zaid Shakir. He co-founded the Lighthouse Mosque, Oakland, CA. in 2007. The next year, he authored an award-winning text, Treatise for the Seekers of Guidance, a translation and commentary on Imam Harith al-Muhasibi’s work, Risala al-Mustarshideen.
Imam Zaid co-founded Zaytuna College in 2008, the first accredited Islamic liberal arts college located in Berkeley, CA. He is co-founder and chairman of United For Change since 2009. The mission of United for Change is to bring scholars from various orientations together to create awareness of the most pressing issues affecting the Muslim Ummah. His most recent work is Where I’m Coming From: The Year In Review, a new collection of his essays from 2010. Imam Zaid has also authored numerous articles and research papers on a wide range of topics.
He is a frequent speaker at local and national Muslim events and has emerged as one of the nation’s top Islamic scholars and a voice of conscience for American Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Imam Zaid has served as an advisor to many organizations, and influential leaders. The “500 Most Influential Muslims, edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, lists him among the most influential Muslim scholars. The 500 Most Influential Muslims, edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, (2020).
Imam Zaid along with religious leaders from around the world, is a signatory of a declaration in support of the Paris Climate Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This document, which was presented to the UN Secretary General, has garnered more international support than any similar initiative. In 2015, he authored the Muslim response Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change, Laudato Si. That response has been studied by Catholics all over the world.
In 2016, Imam Zaid had the immense honor of leading the funeral prayer for the late boxing champion and human rights icon, Muhammad Ali. While continuing his work with Zaytuna College, Imam Zaid became a Green Faith partner in action for the earth in 2017. CNN listed him among twenty-five influential American Muslims in 2018. Imam Zaid recently assumed leadership of the Muslim Alliance in North America.