In the basement of the tallest building on the USC campus, Javod Sheikhizadeh is finishing up a midterm on Islam.
"It wasn't that hard," the 19-year-old freshman says confidently while the student next to him schemes for just a little more time from professor Crerar Douglas. "But I guess I'll find out when we get our grades."
The back and forth in Room B-28 has been intense at times, Douglas says. That's partly because of Islam's place in a world on the verge of a war with religious overtones, and partly because non-Muslim students haven't been shy about challenging Muslim classmates to explain aspects of the Koran they find disturbing.
In the middle of this clash is Sheikhizadeh, a young man with roots in two worlds. His mother is Christian, his father Muslim. If only we could cancel the war, save all that blood, and let him work out the world's differences for the rest of us.
"I went to conservative Christian schools," he says of his childhood in Olympia, Wash. His father didn't push the Muslim faith on him or even talk about it much, so Javod grew up Christian by default.
There were things about Christianity he liked, particularly the familial aspects, and things he didn't. As early as fourth grade, he says, he recalls conservative Christians saying "my father was going to hell" because he was non-Christian. "My big issue is when one religion claims to have sole ownership of the truth and damns any other," he says.
And so now he's exploring the other side of himself, the one that gives him the name he carries through this world. And what has he found?
Things he likes about Islam, particularly the familial aspects, and things he doesn't.
"Both sides think the other doesn't make sense," he says, "and there are some Muslims I talk to who think Christianity is totally illogical and stupid."
The irony, of course -- the very thing that offers hope and fuels cynicism in a world divided -- is that Christianity, Islam and Judaism share so much. The story of each religion begins with Abraham.
"Jesus makes a lot of appearances in the Koran," says Cleo Roberts, 18, a Methodist student who sits next to Sheikhizadeh. She has just finished her written exam, and says she wrote about some of the problems she has with Islam.
"The treatment of women was a big one for me," she says, opening her Koran and reading a passage that sounds like a line from a 1950s Esquire magazine.
"Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other and because they spend their wealth to maintain them."
Sheikhizadeh has asked Muslim students for explanations of passages like that, both in class and after. He's not always satisfied with the answers, but he understands that the texts of the major religions were written for a moment in history, and can be corrupted for political purposes by those who read them today.
He can see how radicals might interpret Islam as a call to arms, just as Christians did during the Crusades. This looming war, he just doesn't get. He can't understand why an attack on the U.S. by the most radicalized Islamists is being answered with an attack on one of the most secular Arab states.
But still, he refuses to denounce any religion, including the ones he half embraces and half pushes away. It is their flaws, in fact, that fascinate him most.
"At times I just don't get it," Sheikhizadeh says of organized religion, "but I know that many people do. I want to learn more, so I can understand what makes them so devoted."
What makes them so devoted is desire for love, for family, for anything that turns back fear. It doesn't have to be rational, it just has to fill the quiet hours.
Right now Sheikhizadeh is given to neither Christianity nor Islam, but he says he wants something to replace what was there before he started asking questions.
"I miss having faith," he says.
It seems to me he's already got some.
In a universe bent on madness, he has faith in knowledge, in spirituality, in his own free-fall through centuries of religion and history.
He's searching, and what greater faith is there?
It should come as no surprise that professor Douglas has taken a particular liking to Sheikhizadeh. Douglas believes a refusal to explore and understand the unfamiliar has helped polarize nations and lead us once more to the brink of war. In Room B-28, he sees something altogether different.
"Javod and many others aren't happy with simple answers," he says. "He wants to read the texts of religions and speak up in class. As long as we have that level of intelligence and intellectual honesty, we have hope."
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes. com.