Friday, August 19, 2011

Islamic Society of San Francisco (Tenderloin)

Everyone has a Shalimar story.

They range from the ridiculous (“I was eating there around midnight and I saw a rat run across the floor!”) to the ridiculously naive (“I gave a really good tip but didn’t get better service the next time I went!”)

No one I know, however, has a Jones St. masjid story, even though it’s down the street from this world-famous Desi restaurant (world-famous according to the Shalimar Times, which is printed by, you guess it, Shalimar Restaurant). I can guarantee that the incoming freshman at UC Berkeley, if they’ve never been to San Francisco before, and they go to the city for the first time with the MSA, are most likely going to visit Shalimar before the Jones St. masjid. I say this from experience, as the MSA regularly used to commandeer my car for many of these excursions. Baraka wasn’t going to fill my tank, I grumbled, as the MSA leadership always informed me they were unable to reimburse me for gas.

In retrospect, I’m struck by the fact that no matter how many times we as a group went to Shalimar, we never stopped at the Jones St. masjid. We were willing to brave traffic and shell out money for bridge tolls and chicken tikka masala which may or may not have been made that day (week?) but never thought to go on a mosque tour to learn more about the communities which surrounded us. Given the fact that the Berkeley Masjid was a distant dream back then, you’d think the Berkeley MSA board would have made more of a concerted effort to connect its membership with the masajid.

It’s a shame, too, because this mosque is a diamond in the rough. In a sense it’s very similar to Shalimar in that its location was chosen because the Tenderloin allows for easy growth thanks to extremely low rent. The streets outside may sometimes be the worst visions of human misery in San Francisco, but once you’re inside, you’d have to be a very hard-hearted person to not feel serenity. The masjid is immaculate and it’s adorned with beautiful tiles which evoke memories of the golden age of Islamic architecture.

This sparkling jewel (look at it from a distance and it adds to the lovely San Francisco cityscape) has an equally beautiful community to boot. Tonight, I received a call out of the blue at 5:00 from a reporter from CBS 5 Eyewitness News. Apparently my glowing review of San Ramon’s masjid last night wowed the community so much they returned the favor by having one of their own set me up with a TV interview. And so began the search for my phone number, facilitated by mass emails sent to the farthest corners of the Bay Area with titles such as “Does anyone have the contact for ZUHAIR SAADAT?” The sense of urgency was palpable.

Anyways, the interview happened, and the reporter mentioned that he would like the cameraman to capture video of me doing my thing in the masjid. That night, I had been planning on visiting an ethnically homogenous mosque. Remembering how visiting an ethnically homogenous mosque with reporters had strained my life last week, I called an audible and decided to visit Jones St. tonight, hoping that because they’re hosting an open house soon they’d be amicable to a reporter and cameraman visiting their masjid.

They welcomed us with open arms. Not only did they allow the reporter and cameraman to enter the masjid with no problems, one of the leaders took me into his office and had a long chat with me about my project and the history of the mosque. It turns out this mosque was not very welcoming when it was founded in the early ‘90s. Women could not stay unless they were dressed appropriately, men without beards could not lead prayer and, oddly enough, the congregation was forbidden from having credit cards, which, as my host explained to me, is essential if one is to ever rent a car.

Things changed, however, and the mosque leadership strove to make it open to all ethnic groups and all Muslims (religious, “non-religious”) and non-Muslims. I was told their policy on women was modeled after that of the Prophet, who was known to never be condescending towards women and had no problem with them attending prayers in his mosque. My host pointed out that the Prophet was welcoming towards all kinds of people, so it would be wrong of them to not follow his example. If only this mosque had more influence, some other masajid could definitely learn a thing or two from their model.

Taraweeh here is tough, though, man. I’d enjoyed taraweeh this week because I was praying 8 in a series of Hanafi mosques, Hanafis being required to pray 20 rakats of taraweeh, which meant that 8 was usually over in a flash. This mosque appears to adhere to the belief that taraweeh should be 8 rakat, and the length of the rakats indicated they were going to finish an entire juz of the Quran. After the fourth rakat, the congregation settled in for a lecture in Arabic, and I bounced, after temporarily switching over to the Shaf’i madhab, which maintains that taraweeh is sunnah and not wajib. Devious? Mayhaps. Legal? Ehh...

Date Visited: August 18, 2011

20 Jones St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

Tag-team taraweeh: Yes

Qirat: The first imam had a solid, rapsy recitation. The second imam was younger and his voice was sweeter.

Size of congregation: 30-40

Capacity of center: 100-200

Parking: Street. Parking isn’t too ridiculous in the Tenderloin, though.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: All along the wall

Building: The Society seems to own the entire building now, as the third floor is reserved for the prayer space and on the second floor we found the imam and his crew enjoying their iftar.

Friendliness towards women: There is no curtain, no wall, no barrier to separate the men from the women. Women also use the same entrance as the men. Women who are not wearing hijab will not be turned away, I was assured. Women wearing jeans will also not be turned away. The mosque leadership is clearly committed to the belief that it’s better to have as many Muslims in the masjid as possible rather than have only a select group and drive away those deemed unfit to be part of the community.

Friendliness of congregation: It may have been because of the reporter, but everyone was very warm towards me. It is a very diverse community and I can believe that they would be open to anyone showing up at their door. Considering it’s the Tenderloin, it’s impressive that they don’t lock their doors or have a doorman; most of the new housing units I see in the Tenderloin have doormen to ensure the safety of the residents inside. It’s just further proof that this community really is open to anyone and everyone.

 The "men's" entrance, though I'm sure they would have no problems with the women using it either.


  1. The man who leads Jumu'ah salaah there is a pretty hardcore desi hanafi. This disparity between jumu'ah and taraaweeh at Jones makes it quite the interesting masjid. It's not strange to find Dave Chappelle or Usama Canon here praying maghrib or 'ishaa.

    The predominantly Arab masjid across the street, Masjid as-sabeel/Golden gate Masjid, also prays 8. They, unlike the Yemeni/Salafi stronghold of SF (aka Masjid at-tawheed), are rather much looser in their approach to deen.

  2. This is one cool masjid and I thought was called Darussalam and the one across the street is masjid Noor. Open house tomorrow! (Saturday)

  3. SF kids will definitely have darussalam stories.. Being scared the folks on the street would follow you in.. Being scared the elevator was going to die on you, being scared the obscure prayer hall would magically disappear and you would be left in a ghetto building with nowhere to go. Nice to see it has changed so much for the better

  4. Unless those things actually happened, I don't think those count as stories :)