Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (Oakland)

I intentionally did not do much research about this mosque before I visited. The fact that it was a Shia mosque located inside a former Masonic Lodge made it a tantalizing prospect, and I wanted to arrive with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.

I had found out that during the last 12 nights of Ramadan the masjid runs a special program where the congregation recites the Quran together for an hour or so before maghrib. I dutifully arrived at around 7:30 and walked towards the cavernous building, where a corridor of holiday lights directed me to the front door. Once inside, I was struck by how incredibly beautiful it was; not only was the existing Lodge architecture stunning, but the congregation had laid down Persian rugs everywhere which only added to the ambiance.

I climbed the stairs and was informed that there were unfortunately only two programs: Persian for the adults and English for the youth. Once I was in the youth program, I realized they really meant youth, and not MCA youth (definition: ages 15-35, I’ve also heard < 40). Almost everyone, save for the discussion leader, was a pre-teen or a young teenager. I opened one of the Qurans on the table and it was one of those copies with the alphabet in the beginning, basically, one designed to teach children how to read Arabic. I mentally rolled my eyes.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I was thinking it would be a discussion on a topic from the Shia perspective, as it was at SABA. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The topic tonight was the importance of Ramadan to Muslims, and it was from any perspective the group wanted to bring to the table. The discussion centered around the point that fasting was not prescribed to the Muslims till 15 years after the first verses of the Quran had been revealed. Why then, do we immediately tell converts to embrace all five pillars of Islam as soon as they’ve accepted the religion? Something to chew on, for sure.

In the discussion, the group cited, to my incredible surprise, Alaeddin al-Bakri and Suhaib Webb, two contemporary Sunni scholars. Alaeddin al-Bakri is the imam of the Saratoga mosque and old William Webb is the best worst comedian in the Muslim community. He’s the worst because he only has one joke—the word biryani—and he’s the best because whenever he says that one word he slays the uncles and aunties.

The fact that the group knew and respected those two scholars (al-Bakri having even spoken at this masjid a couple times) in addition to being personally familiar with many Sunni masjids in the area was my first indication that being Shia is not paramount to this community’s identity. Rather, they value the fact that they are Muslim, and the fact that the discussion never once made reference to the differences in Sunni and Shia history and theology made me a whole lot more comfortable.

The community invited me to stay for maghrib and then iftar afterwards, where I had a very nice conversation with the young muezzin, who had just started high school. He made a lasting impression on me; his maturity level belied his age, and during our conversation I couldn’t help but to think that mosques are not doing a good enough job of reaching out to the youth. By his own admission, he was an oddity in that he attends the masjid regularly. His contemporaries are focused on the mall, school, and, of course, girls. Rather than focus on 35-year-old “youth” masjids need to target the 8-12 demographic. Here in Richmond, kids are lost to the street by age 11 if there’s no positive outside intervention in their lives. I’m not saying the alternative to not reaching out to young Muslims in suburbia is seeing them turn into gangbangers, but I do believe if you can get a Muslim kid through middle school while helping him strengthen his faith, you’ve done your part to develop a Muslim leader for life.

The community again surprised me with their hospitality during the post-Isha lecture. One of the leaders of the masjid asked the imam to speak in English specifically for my benefit, which was touching and also admittedly a little embarrassing. The imam declined, but only because of the large number of non-English speakers in the audience. It was the gesture which counted more than anything.

I haven’t felt so welcome by a total group of strangers in a while. Additionally, I am truly impressed by the community’s awareness of their shortcomings. The fact that hardly anyone between the ages of adolescence and young adulthood shows up regularly is something they’re combating by offering different lectures designed to appeal to a younger demographic. I have the most respect for mosques that go beyond simply being open five times a day for daily prayers, because really, that does nothing for the kids.

I have high hopes for this community, because they’re cognizant of the fact that they need to prepare their youth to lead the masjid in the future. They do realize they have a somewhat negative reputation in the community because they tend to utilize Persian as the primary means of communication, which isn’t the best way to attract congregants in the middle of Oakland. It’s their hope that the youth, utilizing their native English-speaking skills, will serve as the catalysts for the eventual integration of this mosque into the diverse fabric that is the Muslim community of the East Bay.

 Corridor of lights heading towards the front entrance.  One can only wonder what decisions the Freemasons made to destroy the world in these hallways before the masjid took over the property.

The work of mischievous teenagers or an earnest man trying to tell me that my mother is welcome here?

Date Visited: August 23, 2011

1433 Madison St.
Oakland, CA 94612

Tag-team taraweeh: No taraweeh here, only maghrib and isha prayers.

Qirat: Very nice, led by a Persian gentleman with a very soft and pure voice.

Size of congregation: 30-40 tonight, but there were about 300 last night since it was the alleged last night on which Laylut-ul-Qadr could possibly be, but don’t tell that to the Desis who are going to go all out seeking the Night of Power this Friday night.

Capacity of center: Good lord, I can’t even measure that, this place was huge. The prayer hall had a capacity of about 300, but this place has plenty of spillover space.

Parking: Thank the Masons for being rich enough to be able to not only afford to build a huge building in one of Oakland’s more desirable neighborhoods, but also to build a parking lot. Do not worry about having to find street parking here.

Mihrab: Yes.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Yes. The entire building seems to have rugs or carpeting, but you only really have to take off your shoes in the prayer hall.

Building: A former Masonic Lodge. Absolutely gorgeous building, and one I’d driven past many times in my old capacity as a gopher for an Oakland law firm, but never realized was a masjid.

Friendliness towards women: Very high. Women were mingling with the men with no problems, but that also may be a byproduct of almost everyone being the same ethnic group. I expect the rules to change as the community gets a bit more diverse and everyone doesn’t know each other.

Friendliness of congregation: I am grateful to this community for all the hospitality they showed me tonight. Since I’ve moved away from Santa Clara I’ve been looking for a masjid in the East Bay which could fill the niche MCA used to fill (large, progressive mosque with lots of services besides prayers) and I think I’ve finally found it.


  1. They invite numerous Sunni scholars to always speak. Shaykh Hisham Kabbani has spoken here, the infamous Dr. Hatem Bazian (also known as the only Palestinian Maliki on the face of the planet), and they are quite the open uncursing crowd. Makes you realize that every group of the ummah has some good in them...except the ahmadis and progressive anti-shariah muslims. Just kidding.

    They are bashed quite often by the more orthodox Shi'ah in the community, for you guessed it, not being Shi'ah enough.

  2. Very welcoming to everyone. Hopefully you saw both the upstairs prayer hall, and the huge massive room on the first floor which served I guess as a Mason meeting hall, and now...what?? It's beautiful though, with the high ceiling, glass, seating. Jumaa has pretty few attendees, probably because of the pay parking in the area, and many other nearby masjids (without pay parking), or perhaps I as a sunni am missing something. About 20 people total men and women for jumaa.