Monday, September 6, 2010

Islamic Community of Bay Area Bosniaks

Date visited: September 5, 2010

Location: San Jose, CA
1445 Koll Circle #103
San Jose, CA 95112

Tag-team Taraweeh: Nope

Qirat: Good!

Size of congregation: 300-400

Capacity of center: 250 (yeah, there were people praying in the parking lot behind the unit)

Parking: Tight. The Koll Center is home a lot of the Bay Area's biggest radio stations (e.g. 98.5 KFOX, Channel 92.3) so I'm sure their employees didn't appreciate how we took up most of their parking.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Yes

Building: A unit in the Koll Center. Far too small for the community, and they've already purchased a bigger building to suit their needs.

Friendliness towards women: Extreme. Women and men were mingling like it was no big deal. After taraweeh, the imam had some girls come up to the front for their Night of Power celebration.

Friendliness of congregation: Gosh. Some people follow the sunnah of the Prophet, and others embody it. These folks fall in the latter category.

Way back, in the early '90s, I was a young child bumbling through the halls of the MCA Islamic Center. While traversing the building one day, I came across another child, a white child. "Me Eldin," he said. I later laughed at length with my friends at this kid. What kind of white kid didn't know how to speak English? As I started looking around, I noticed there wasn't just one of them, but literally dozens.

These children, and their parents, were of course Bosnian refugees, who were escaping ethnic cleansing in their homeland. The US government placed them in the Bay Area, and the MCA, being one of the bigger mosques in the area, welcomed the new community with open arms.

However, as time passed, I noticed fewer and fewer Bosnians at the mosque. Soon there came a day that I didn't see any Bosnians at a prayer. I learned that they had formed their own masjid, whose location I didn't learn till about two weeks ago.

Today was my opportunity to learn more about this community. My ex-roommate was Bosnian, and he prepared his parents for my arrival. He told me the community would be thrilled to host me, and he wasn't lying.

My friend and I stuck out like sore thumbs at this mosque. Literally everyone, save for one other person, was Bosnian. You want try something surreal? Try taking in a mosque where almost everyone except for three people are Caucasian.

However, at this mosque, the lingua franca is Bosnian. This community has refused to succumb to the pressures of assimilation and have made the collective decision to preserve their culture as best they can by speaking only Bosnian at the mosque. In my opinion, they've succeeded. I've never been to Bosnia, but from what I saw today, I got a pretty accurate picture of what Ramadan in that country looks like.

"Are you Zuhair?"

I turned around and saw a friendly woman looking at me. She was my ex-roommate's mother. I was surprised for a half-second that she was able to recognize me, and then I remembered, oh yeah, I'm one of three brown people in a crowd of 400 white people. Anyways, her approach led to me being connected with my ex-roommate's father. I used this to ask a burning question I had about this community.

Why did they break away from MCA? It turns out, the answer makes a lot of sense. My ex-roommate's father explained the biggest reason they formed their own community center was because the older refugees simply did not speak English. MCA does its Friday sermons and generally all of its communication is in English. Truth be told, I can't blame them. If I suddenly had to relocate to a country with an alien language, I'd feel more comfortable in an English-speaking mosque as well.

The secondary reasons were the religious practices at MCA seemed strange to them. The Bosnians hailed from a culture which prescribed to a different school of Islamic law so some of the customs at MCA seemed too bizarre. Most notably was the practice at MCA of people leaving after praying 8 rakats of taraweeh. Bosnians believe that taraweeh should be 20 rakats, no discussion.

The uniformity in this community is amazing. Everyone is on the same page when it comes to prayer. For example, when Isha ended, everyone immediately got up for sunnah. At a big mosque like MCA, you'll see some people making dua, some people not praying sunnah and folks moving around to pray sunnah. Also, after every two rakats of taraweeh, everyone was saying the same dua in unison, another practice alien to MCA. All in all, my taraweeh experience at this mosque was very different from MCA and the more time I spent there the more I understood the need the community had to establish their own home.

I have a lot of respect for the uniformity of this mosque. If they keep it up, their traditions won't disappear and they'll preserve their culture. MCA was essentially started by three guys who decided to start praying jummah together on Fridays. Now, MCA's bending the rules by having jummah before the actual time for zuhr. Would the guys who "started" MCA be shocked at this practice? Probably. Ironically, I'm willing to bet that the guys who started MCA are still somehow involved in the mosque and may have been responsible for that decision.

Anyways, my point is, if this mosque plays its cards right, in 20 years they'll be doing their prayers the same way they were doing them today, and I assume that's the same way they did them back home. However, I recognize a big reason why MCA even started to change and evolve was the introduction of new ethnic groups in the populace. Is this Bosnian mosque destined to acquire community members of a previously unrepresented ethnic group, just as MCA was 15 years ago? Mayhaps...and it'd be interesting to see how that plays out, if it happens.

To end on a lighter note, taraweeh tonight was only 8 rakats. Seemed kind of funny, especially after my ex-roommate's father emphasized that taraweeh should be 20 rakats.

No, let's end on a serious note. Like I mentioned earlier, everything was being said in Bosnian. My friend and I were therefore lost, and that just made us feel even more like we were in a foreign country. However, as soon as the prayer started, a feeling of peace washed over me. I sure couldn't understand what was being said before the prayer, but as soon as the prayer started, we were all on the same page. That's the wonderful thing about Islam. I could go to the most wretched place on Earth but still find someone and say, "Okay, my UC Davis brother, it's time to pray, let's do this."

The Catholic church had the same thing going on, what with Latin being their universal language, but we have the Vatican II to thank for practically getting rid of that.


  1. So, do you think they are passing on their cultural traditions to the next generation of Bosnian-Americans? I guess in other words, was most of the congregation composed of the older refugees or did you also see younger folks (high school aged - college aged) at the mosque as well.

  2. I think they're doing an excellent job of passing on their culture and traditions. The masjid was full of young people and from what I could tell they could all speak Bosnian. I also learned the new center will have space for some classrooms because the community realizes it's hard to hold onto their language without formal education.

  3. Been there about 4 yours ago. Weird thing is that they played a movie (documentary) about the war. From Bosnian perspective of course, could tell from the hero in the movie. Had a conversation with a mother. We broke in tears listening to her story that she still couldn't find her family members.

    Though I disagree with their reasonings of setting up own masjid, I totally respect that.