Saturday, August 18, 2012

Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (Boston, Suffolk County, MA)

Subtitle: The House that William Webb Built
Sub-Subtitle: A Night at the Roxbury (Neighborhood of Boston)

I can't lie, I was excited last night. Not only was I kicking off an Eid weekend in Boston, but I was going to see an old acquaintance.

Imam William "Waxmaster Will" Suhaib Webb (IWWWSW for short) used to be the resident imam of the Muslim Community Association of the San Francisco Bay Area (MCASFBA). When IWWWSW announced last Ramadan that he was leaving MCASFBA for Boston, there was pandemonium. Panic ran through the halls of MCA. Folks started online petitions in a futile attempt to change something that was a done deal. The community bemoaned the loss of this Azhari scholar, and still more wondered how on earth their suburban children were going to keep off the streets without a strong male presence like Imam Suhaib's.

Spoiler alert: MCA has not burned down to the ground and it's my assessment that the Boston community needs him more. But I should back up.

I arrived at the masjid as the first rakat was starting. The imam's voice sounded exceedingly familiar. Could it be? Yes! Taraweeh was being led by Imam Suhaib! I wanted to shake the kids who were taraweeh-dodging outside. You have no idea what a treat this was for me. In all his years in the Bay Area I never once experienced Imam Suhaib leading taraweeh.

Imam Suhaib broke after 4 rakats to give a short lecture. It was the topic of the lecture which truly drove home for me how different the Muslim community is here in Boston. Previously, the only Muslims with whom I'd interacted were college students at MIT and Harvard, and that's no way to get the pulse of the city ("I'm a doctor's daughter, isn't everyone?"). The lecture was a short piece on Eid geared towards new Muslims. Folks at MCA, generally being well-educated Arabs or Desis, may have been bored with such a basic topic. However, the imam was only addressing the needs of his community.

And he's doing a fine job of it. The Imam was sure to address to converts in the crowd, taking his time to explain the significance the holiday and the obligation Muslims had to take the converts in so they wouldn't have to spend Eid alone. Additionally, he made mention of  special lunch at 2:00 just for the converts of the community. It's fabulous to see communities taking care if their most vulnerable congregants.

Following taraweeh, my brother and I approached Imam Suhaib to say our salams. "I'm in California!" he exclaimed after seeing my brother. "Oh my God, I am in California!" he said when he turned and saw me. And for a few fleeting minutes, while hearing him speak, so was I.

As Ramadan ends, all Muslims in Boston should be counting their blessings. And they should count Imam Suhaib as one of them.

Date Visited: August 17, 2012

100 Malcolm X Boulevard
Boston, MA 02120

Tag-team Taraweeh: Nope

Qirat: Excellent.

Size of congregation: 150-200

Capacity of center: 500

Parking: Small underground lot, but there was lots of street parking

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yea

Shoe shelves: Plenty

Building: Built as a collaboration between the Islamic Society of Boston and the Muslim American Society. Together, they aMASsed a great deal of wealth ($15 million) and developed an enorMAS structure. I'd say the prayer hall sizes are comparable to those at MCA.

Friendliness to women: Women have their own facilities here, and are treated equitably by the masjid leadership.

Friendliness of congregation: Somalis are the single biggest ethnic group at this masjid, but they are nonexistent in the masjid leadership. I found that to be a little disconcerting. The masjid is run by MAS; you really can't escape their logo on any masjid literature. Some would say that's a good thing, others a bad thing. What makes this congregation friendly is Imam Suhaib. With a leader like him, you know this masjid is open to everyone.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ta'leef Collective (Fremont, Alameda County, CA)

My cousin and I arrived at Ta'leef around maghrib because word around the Bay is they host a potluck iftar every Thursday during Ramadan. In that sense this institution is amazing; there were people there from all over the Bay Area last night. Not many community centers here can say that they have hundreds of people from miles around show up just for iftar. There was no special program last night; it was just a group of young-ish Muslims getting together to share a meal in a nonjudgmental arena.

In that sense, it seemed very much like the average college Muslim student organization iftar. You had all kinds of Muslims in attendance: guys with ponytails, tattoos, kufis; girls with ponytails, tattoos (I'm guessing), hijabs. It was surreal seeing this crowd mixed together during iftar after having been to so many masjid iftars, but of course, this isn't a masjid.

That much was apparent when it was time to pray. Rather than shut down all activity in order to pray, someone merely informed the crowd that they were praying maghrib in the next room and invited those who wanted to pray to join them. Nobody was made to feel as if they had to pray, but conversely religious people didn't feel awkward for taking time out to pray. Oftentimes at mixed events religious people turn into THOSE people, the people who miss out on activities because they have to pray.

Ta'leef does walk a fine line, though, between the liberal and conservative viewpoints. The line to get food was segregated, but men and women were free to sit wherever. This appeased those who want to keep their distance from the opposite gender but also, as an example, let husbands and wives sit next to each other.

This is not the only place in the Bay Area which hosts events that are as free from judgement, but it is one of the few which does it on a regular basis. It also definitely serves a niche of Muslims which many masjids in the Bay Area have failed to serve.

What was also interesting was a lot of people were using this as a stop on their way to MCA, which was finishing the Quran last night in taraweeh. It's very telling that this group chose to cone here for iftar and the drive the 15-20 miles to MCA instead of doing iftar at MCA. MCA just has that reputation of not being as welcoming to all Muslims, and there are definitely many congregants who would flip out if they saw men and women eating iftar together.

Date Visited: August 16, 2012

43170 Osgood Avenue
Fremont, CA 94539

Tag-team Taraweeh: N/A

Qirat: Good

Size of congregation: 100+

Capacity of center: Seemed close to capacity last night

Parking: Lot, which they share with other businesses and a masjid

Mihrab: No

Minbar: No

Shoe shelves: Yes, but limited

Building: Structure in an office park

Friendliness to women: Any kind of woman can walk in here and she will be welcome. I hope the day never comes when I have to retract that statement.

Friendliness of congregation: Admittedly, this place can be a little intimidating if you're by yourself and don't know anyone. However, the people here are genuinely nice and it's easy to meet new people.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bayview Islamic Unity Center (San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA)

Ever seen Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood?  It provides a fascinating glimpse into 1970s San Francisco.  I was enraptured by how much San Francisco has changed since then…but also by the ways in which it has not.  For example, North Beach is still the crack spot if you’re looking to be entreated by scumbags to visit theaters to view performances by girls who have made incredibly poor life decisions.  Additionally, in the movie, the serial murderer foolish enough to upset the titular character kills someone in, as the movie describes it, “the black neighborhood.”

Said black neighborhood is Bayview-Hunter’s Point.  It suffers from a staggering amount of poverty and is probably San Francisco’s most dangerous neighborhood.  It’s ironic, really, because it’s in the shadow of Candlestick Park, home of the San Francisco 49ers.  For eight days a year, thousands of people stream in and out of the neighborhood, oblivious to the misery and danger which surrounds them as they chow down on $10 hot dogs.

In any case, I chose to visit a small, off-the-radar mosque in this neighborhood.  According to my preliminary research, this masjid is a Sufi masjid run by Desis, which is funny because the neighborhood to this day is still mostly black or Latino.

It’s a shame this neighborhood has such a bad rap, really.  The streets are wide, the land is relatively flat, and the houses looked to be a decent size.  Sure, from the freeway you have to drive through some sketchy industrial blocks, but what city doesn’t have a sketchy industrial neighborhood?  I didn’t slip into a false sense of security, though, and didn’t stop looking for parking till I found a spot within sight of the masjid.

The masjid looks very festive and welcoming from the outside.  Bright lights illuminate a large banner, and while there were iron bars on the windows, the door was open, thus making the masjid seem welcoming.  There was a flurry of activity going on, and children were even playing near the entrance without fear of what lay beyond the threshold.

When I arrived, minutes before Isha, the community was cleaning up after iftar.  When I’d called earlier, the gentleman I spoke to invited me to iftar, but I declined, because what was I going to do in Bayview, of all places, after iftar?

Gender segregation in this community is interesting.  Men and women use the same entrance, and women walk through the men’s section to get to their own, which is shielded by cubicle walls.  However, during prayers, the community sets up a wall of sheets so women can walk to their section without being seen by any men.  Thank God that we men don’t have to be distracted by the horrid sight of women while praying…

It being a Sufi masjid, there was naturally quite a bit of dhikr and remembrance of Allah and the Prophet.  Again, I saw some practices which made me a little out-of-place, but enough of last night was familiar enough for it to not be a wash.

Taraweeh last night was express-lane taraweeh: 10 ayats or less.  I gathered that the congregation had already finished the Quran the night before because the imam was not going in order when reciting surahs during prayer.  Despite that, taraweeh still took a fair amount of time because of the dhikr involved.

I bounced after witr because I had zero interest in doing dhikr in the dark and I can’t lie, I was a little worried about the health of my car.  However, I found my car unmolested and was soon on my way back to the East Bay.  It could be that all of the crime in Bayview-Hunter’s Point is compressed into a couple city blocks, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone spending the time to find out if that’s true.

Date Visited: August 15, 2012


1411 Thomas Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124

Tag-team taraweeh: Nope

Qirat: Good

Size of congregation: 30-40

Capacity of center: 50-60

Parking: Street, and I saw lots of double-parking in front of the masjid.  Meter maids don't come here, I reckon.

Mihrab: No

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Yes

Building: A converted house on a residential block.  The windows and doors here are armed to the teeth to prevent break-ins, as are most of the buildings on the block.

Friendliness towards women: Women have their own section, and judging by the number of kids running around, this is a family masjid.

Friendliness of congregation: Sufis are nice folks.  Never met one I didn't like.

The building.  It was a stark contrast to dark houses which lined the streets around it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Masjid Al-Iman (Oakland, Alameda County, CA)

I arrived at this masjid around 9:30, or around when the time for Isha begins.  Ain't nobody was there except a handful of friendly sufis, who offered me tea and engaged me in conversation.  People began trickling in around 9:45, people bearing lots of food items.  Last night was the night of the 27th of Ramadan, the night when Muslims (except for Shia Bhai) believe is most likely the night the first verses of the Quran were revealed.  The mood was celebratory and everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

This mosque isn't open regularly; the imam lives in El Sobrante and it's too difficult for him to come down here.  However, they have been praying taraweeh here every night, and striving to complete the Quran in recitation.  The imam was going to complete the Quran last night, which is another reason why everyone was in such a jovial mood.

Thanks to my earliness, I was able to observe the community in their natural habitat.  Mosques don't get much more Sufi than this, I tell you what (weren't no coffin in the corner, though).  The gender interaction was so high a conservative could afford to send his son to college with only his astaghfirullah jar (in which he deposits a quarter every time he says astaghfirullah).  Women are an active part of this community, and they weren't afraid to steer the direction of the dhikr from the back of the room.  An older woman was also not afraid of lighting incense and going from person-to-person blowing the smoke all over them.  Good thing I don't live with my parents or else I'd have a hard time explaining why I smell like hookah coming back from "the masjid."

Folks who know me know I'm not a dhikr-stickler.  I just wasn't raised doing it, so some of it just seems bizarre to me.  For example, last night, I, for the first time ever, engaged in salat-ut-tasbeeh, where the congregation does salat but also tasbeeh during the salat.  There was also singing dhikr, where the congregation sang songs praising Allah and the Prophet.  Of all the nights for me to forget my geetar at home...

This is a special masjid, and it was a special night.  I want to thank the community for letting me sharing it with them, especially the Old Boyz who decided that witr and dhikr would be Better with the Lights Off.

The congregation gearing up to pray rakats 9-20 of taraweeh.  The women were to the right of this picture.  I didn't take their picture because only a scumbag would take a picture of non-mahram hijabis.

Date Visited: August 14, 2012

5625 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94608

Tag-team taraweeh: No, the imam led all 20, and most of the dhikr

Qirat: Good

Size of congregation: 20-30

Capacity of center: 50

Parking: Street. The lot in the back was locked.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes, two!

Shoe shelves: Yes

Building: A small storefront facility on Shattuck not far from the Berkeley border.  If you're not looking for it, you'd never notice it.

Friendliness towards women: Extremely friendly towards women.  We need more mosques like this one.

Friendliness of congregation: Sufis are the friendliest and most genial people I've ever met.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Masjidul Waritheen (Oakland, Alameda County, CA)

The Raiders lost last night, and it made me a little nervous because you never know how Raider fans will react to a loss, even if it's the preseason.

Thankfully, nothing happened, and not near this masjid on 47th Avenue.  I arrived well after dark minutes before isha time and was a little lost because it seemed that the masjid was closed.  The building desolate, but the doors were open, and I could hear activity going on upstairs in the school area.  While I was mulling what to do, I heard Arabic being recited across the street.  The community prays taraweeh in the center across the street, and not the former church building.

This is an African-American community, which meant quite a few people in the congregation were either new to Islam, or learning more about their faith.  Following Isha there was a short lecture on one of the lesser known companions of the Prophet, but the imam made sure to create parallels between his story and the community.  It was fitting that the time period was the early days of Islam, because then the imam made a comparison between the early Muslims and Muslims living in a predominantly non-Muslim community like Oakland.

Taraweeh was short and sweet, with dhikr after every four rakats.  Following taraweeh, the community once again engaged in dhikr, and all the prayers were wrapped up by 10:15.

The thought crossed my mind that when I retire from doing this 30 mosques project, I should just attend an African-American masjid every night, because they do everything so much quicker, which appeals to the 9-5er in me.  However, the more I think about it, the less I think I would be encouraged to do so.  Ramadan is all about pushing yourself to the limit, which of course the congregation was doing last night.  However, for a person like me, raised reciting Arabic, reading the Quran and praying taraweeh from the early age of 7, it wasn't as spiritually challenging because I'm used to praying taraweeh for 60 minutes or more.  While obviously it wouldn't be haram for me to spend Ramadan in an African-American masjid, I have a feeling it would be disliked because I'd gain so much more from a more established masjid geared towards folks with a more comprehensive understanding of Islam.  It's something for me to chew on.

The main building of the masjid.  This is also where the school is housed.

Date Visited: August 13, 2012

1652 47th Avenue
Oakland, CA 94601

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Good

Size of congregation: 15-20

Capacity of center: 50-75

Parking: Street

Mihrab: No

Minbar: No

Shoe shelves: Yes

Building: The main building is a converted church.  The room in which they pray is a community center across the street.  It's also where they hold jummah prayers.

Friendliness towards women: Women have an active role in this community.

Friendliness of congregation: Everyone was very friendly and welcoming.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Masjid Al-Salam (Oakland, Alameda County, CA)

As I was parking my car last night, a cruiser sped down 7th Street in the opposite direction, siren screaming and lights ablaze.  It stopped a block away from the masjid and police officers got out to take care of something (or someone).  If I were an Oakland native, I would have gotten out my phone to record the incident, because sometimes the Oakland Police Department is a little overzealous when protecting and serving the people and needs YouTube to keep it honest.

Welcome to West Oakland.  The masjid is a shot-putter's throw away from the Port of Oakland.  It ain't the nicest area.  However, the congregation has developed a foolproof method of keeping their masjid safe:

Oh, you've double-parked on city streets when going to pray?  That's cute.  Homies here quadruple-park.

Some of the kids I saw are from West Oakland, born and raised.  Last night, they were on the playground where they spend most of their days.  They were chillin' out maxin' relaxin' all cool, shootin' some b-ball outside of the school (which the mosque is on Sundays).

To keep these kids safe from guys up to no good, the congregation uses their vehicles to serve as a protective barrier between the outside and the cul-de-sac on which this mosque is located.  They also do this because many do not have relatives in Bel Air to whom they could send their boys if they get into one little fight.

The masjid is predominantly Arab.  I do believe I was the only Desi in the congregation last night.  This also was clearly not a Hanafi mosque, given the loud chorus of "ameen" which followed the recitation of Surah Fatiha.  Such a practice would be frowned upon in a Desi masjid, who believe congregants should be seen and not heard.

I'm always surprised by the size of the congregation here.  Seriously, you don't think "Arab" when you think "Oakland."  Judging by the quality and luxuriousness of some cars I saw parked on the street, I'm willing to bet a lot of the congregation doesn't live in Oakland, let alone West Oakland.  Drawn by cheap property values, they have come to this neighborhood to leave their mark.

I do believe it's their positive mark on the neighborhood that the police lets them get away with blockading an entire city block with their cars.  If this masjid wasn't respected in this community, you can bet Oakland meter maids would have a field day every night of Ramadan.  No, they take care of Oakland, so Oakland takes care of them.

Date Visited: August 12, 2012

1005 7th Street
Oakland, CA

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Good, one of the better ones I've heard.  A little too high-pitched to be crowned the king of the Bay Area, though.

Size of congregation: 50-60

Capacity of center: 75-100

Parking: All street.  For God's sake, do not park in the cul-de-sac or else you'll be blocked in worse than at a Gujarti mosque in Mill Valley.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yeah.  They've built a nice little lectern.

Shoe shelves: Yes, not enough.  Someone put his shoes on top of my flippy-floppies, which is gross, because nobody knows what the heck you've walked on when you've walked on the sidewalks of Oakland.

Building: Two-story affair located on one of the major avenue in Oakland.  Minutes from the West Oakland BART station.

Friendliness towards women: Women have their own space to pray.

Friendliness of congregation: If you're Arab, you'll feel more welcome than I did last night.  That said, it's open to everyone.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Islamic Center of Mill Valley (Mill Valley, Marin County, CA)

I felt like pioneering today, so I went down to the Richmond Yacht Club with my 215 horses and informed the harbor master that I wanted to ford across the Bay to Marin County.  He looked confused, so I tried to assure him that in elementary school I'd gained a lot of experience fording rivers on the Oregon Trail (although I did lose a lot of oxen on the way).  He told me to get out of his office.

Faced with no other options, I resigned myself to paying the Poor Tax all Richmond residents must pay for the honor and privilege of visiting Marin County (read: paid the San Rafael Bridge toll).

I've been to the masjid twice before, so I decided to mix things up by breaking my fast with them.  Previously, I'd only done taraweeh here, but I figured arriving at sunset would allow me to get better acquainted with this community, which is composed primarily (exclusively?) of Gujaratis.

The Gujarati people are the Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West of Mill Valley.  Yeah, they run this town.  They are also notoriously insular.  I should know; my brother married one of them.  Don't get me wrong, his in-laws like him all right; they'd just like him better if our last name was Patel and our father ran a small business.  Given that, I put on my Gujarati disguise (Desi features, brown skin, brown eyes, black hair) and hoped I wouldn't out myself.

I arrived at the masjid a few minutes before maghrib and discovered there was a lecture in progress.  Had I know there was a lecture, I definitely would have arrived earlier for research's sake.  I caught the tail end of the lecture, which was focused on the stories of the earliest Muslims.  The imam was breaking down the stories in a way which was accessible to the teenage Muslims.  As an example, instead of saying that a Muslim was engaged in a pre-marital affair with a woman in his jahiliyya days (days of ignorance), he was "dating" his "girlfriend" during his "J-days."

I was struck by his association of dating with jahiliyya.  See, growing up, I knew there was a correlation (causation, really) between the number of girlfriends I had and the number of thrashings I would receive at the hands of my mother.  That said, she never associated dating with jahiliyya, a term reserved for pre-Islamic era in Arabia (burying baby daughters, female circumcision, all that comes from jahiliyya).  But hey, whatever keeps our teenage boys away from their kryptonite (teenage girls).

Iftar was very nice.  I arrived with the assumption that they would afford this wary (and a tad weary) traveler a couple dates and a cup of water, but they did that and more.  The homecooked spread was very nice, and I appreciate that they invited me to help myself to seconds.  I declined, of course, since every bite I took would be taking food away from the mouths of babes (the little Gujus here were all over the food tonight).

I returned for isha prayer and taraweeh about an hour after maghrib.  I made sure to park in a spot which would likely not be blocked in by double-parkers (pro tip: park right next to the entrance), even though I intended to stay till the end of the night anyways.

Isha and taraweeh were interesting because there were three huffaz sharing the load.  Isha was led by the eldest imam, and then the youngest assumed the starting duties for taraweeh.  He tagged out about halfway through, and then the third imam finished taraweeh.  The young imam then tagged back in to lead witr prayer.  Fascinatingly, the youngest imam was also the slowest and most methodical.  I don't know why that surprised me, but it did.

The congregation is more disciplined than a lot of Hanafi masjids I've visited.  Some Desis at Hanafi masjids have been infected by the notion that they can get away with praying 8 rakats of taraweeh even though they, as Hanafis, are supposed to pray 20.  There was none of that here.  Major props for maintaining the tenets of the Hanafi school of law.

All things said and done, if you visit this masjid, there won't be any surprises waiting for you.  This isn't a dhikr-heavy sufi masjid, a dhikr-heavy Turkish masjid, or a dhikr-heavy Bosnian masjid.  Point being, it's not a dhikr-heavy masjid so if you grew up praying in a mixed masjid with standard rituals, you'll fit right in here.

Till next year, Mill Valley.  Stay beautiful, Guju Nation.

Date Visited: August 11, 2012

62 Shell Road
Mill Valley, CA 94941

Tag-team taraweeh: Yes

Qirat: Hard to say which one was the best.  I'll have to go with the reliever, though the starter/closer did a fine job.

Size of congregation: 40-50

Capacity of center: 100-150

Parking: They have a decent-sized parking lot, but you can also park on the street.  Fair warning, though, it's located on a very small residential street, so parking can be a problem.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Yes, but nobody uses them, ha.

Building: A decent-sized facility with prayer halls, a small community center and, of course, wudu stations.  However, is all of it a masjid?  That's the question I was asking myself today when I saw those in itikaf eating iftar separately in the masjid instead out in the community center.  See, those in itikaf are technically not supposed to leave the masjid.  My attitude is, you have to cross the community center to use the restroom, so why not declare the entire facility a masjid and make it halal for those in itikaf to leave the prayer hall?  Personal preference, I suppose.

Friendliness towards women: Women have their own place to pray in the back.  Unsure of how community iftars work, if they even have them.

Friendliness of congregation: You have to pass a written test in Gujarati to enter the masjid.  No, just kidding.  They are welcoming to all, and they don't care too much about what you're wearing.  I will say, however, they highly encourage congregants to wear skullcaps, even if they're wearing jeans.  In case anyone forgets their skullcap, they have a bin with extras for people to borrow.