Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shia Association of the Bay Area (San Jose)

One of the many reasons I’m glad I went to college (as if I had a choice to not go) was it allowed me to take classes on Islam which would look at the religion from a secular perspective. Up to that point my only exposure to a non-religious look at Islam had been my 9th grade history textbook, which dedicated a full 2 paragraphs to the faith and defined jihad as holy war (it actually means struggle and most of the time involves no slaughtering of infidels).

I’m going to utilize what I learned in college to define the difference between Sunnis and Shias. To do it any other way would be doing so from a religious lens, and I want to avoid a firestorm of controversy if I can. If folks get upset, they can take it up with the Near Eastern Studies department at UC Berkeley.

In a sentence, the reason why the Shias formed their own sect of Islam was political. Following the Prophet’s death, there was a vacuum of power and when Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, was not named khalifah there was a lot of resentment amongst his followers and eventually that led to the creation of a group which practiced the religion in a slightly different way from the majority.

Now that that’s done, let me go ahead and describe my night at the SABA Center.

I found out upon arriving at the center that tonight is one of the most important nights in Ramadan for the Shia community. Tonight is the night which is strongly believed to be Laylat-ul-Qadr, or the night the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet (Sunnis strongly believe it’s the 27th, though both camps agree it’s definitely one of the odd nights in the last ten days of Ramadan). Additionally, it’s the night Ali, the first Imam and the Prophet’s son-in-law, was assassinated.

It being such an important night, the mosque was crowded and the mosque’s leadership used that as an opportunity to do fundraising. Typical, right? Not entirely. First of all, the leadership candidly and apologetically told the crowd that they pick such crowded nights because if not then, when? Makes perfect sense from a nonprofit standpoint; ask for money when the number of individual donors is the highest. Second, the mosque leadership recognized the concept of “donor fatigue,” as they referenced it multiple times. It’s refreshing to hear a mosque see the fundraising drive from the funders’ point of view; it’s not easy, especially in a bad economy, for congregants to keep opening their checkbooks.

However, this congregation has opened their checkbooks and then some. In 2010 they raised 1.5 million dollars, an astounding number given that the nonprofit field has been struggling for money since 2008 (“Flat is the new up” became our motto, as donations merely leveling off is a miracle in itself). In addition to all the cash donations they’ve received, folks are taking out home equity loans and handing them directly to the mosque. I’ve never seen such dedication from a congregation before, and keep in mind, I grew up in a Silicon Valley mosque in the dot com era. Now it’s almost the end of 2011 and they’ve “only” raised a little more than $440k, but the smart approach the leadership is taking is breaking up their larger fundraising goal of 1.2 million into manageable chunks they tackle every few months. Clearly, the approach is working, and they’ve almost completed construction on their mosque and no, they’re not burning cash on a minaret (really never going to let that go).

The more time I spent with the community, the more I warmed up to it. I don’t know why I was a little apprehensive about coming here, ignore the fact that they’re Shia and it really is just like a better-run version of MCA. There’s guys wearing Cal t-shirts, young ones speaking English without fob accents and fobs speaking the same languages they speak over at MCA. In fact, one of the main commonalities SABA has with MCA is its rich diversity. Every night in Ramadan they have lectures in English, Farsi, Arabic and Urdu, and there are plenty of people in the crowd whose native tongues are something other than those four. After having spent the bulk of this month in largely homogenous mosques, it was refreshing to be back in a large, diverse community and made my heart ache to be so far removed from the Santa Clara Valley. Sorry, Contra Costa, there really is no place like home.

To get the full SABA experience, I didn’t bounce after iftar. I stayed for the program and spent a couple minutes debating whether or not I wanted to attend the English or Urdu lecture. I chose the English one, but was warned that due to its popularity with the younger crowd, it tended to be more elementary than the others. And yes, I saw that for myself. The first half of the lecture was basically a simple narrative of the life of Ali following the death of the Prophet, one I’d heard many times, once most infamously during a drive from Berkeley to Stanford when the driver tried his best to convince me to embrace the Jafari school of Islamic law (and since there was a lot of traffic, he had plenty of time to make his pitch).

One thing I will note, and I mean no offense by this, is that the lecturer seemed fully aware that his narrative seemed contradictory to what Sunnis believe went down. I personally would have no problem with the narrative being different, it just seemed like he was being really defensive about the Shia story being different from the mainstream’s. It’s also worth mentioning that when Sunni scholars mention the same story they make no reference to the Shia version (few are the progressive scholars who will even refer to Ali as Imam Ali to appease the Shia population.)

At the end of the lecture, one of the gentlemen in the audience asked the scholar to explain why the Iranis became Shia, as they used to be Sunnis up until the Safavid Dynasty. That question, along with what I’d heard earlier, led me to wonder if members of this community have asked the leadership why they’re different from the Sunnis. It’s just not something I would have expected to be raised, since if I were Shia, I’m pretty sure I’d accept that unquestioningly, just like I unquestioningly accept that I’m Sunni.

One final note, and I’ll get to the profile, as I’m sure you’re dying to learn about the state of the shoe shelves at this mosque.

As I mentioned earlier, the Shia practices do differ slightly from the Sunni practices, and it didn’t take much for the congregation to notice I didn’t fit in. One gentleman from Eastern Europe who was having trouble expressing himself in English first quietly asked if I was part of the SABA youth group due to my bungling up the rituals (the SABA youth group being the place where many of the young learn about their faith). I replied in the negative. He processed that, and I could tell he wanted to ask if I was even Shia. He didn’t, and I’m sure he now thinks I’m just an ignorant Shia who doesn’t know how to pray.

The facade over the front entrance, which is actually technically the back entrance to the building.

Date Visited: August 20, 2011

4415 Fortran Ct.
San Jose, CA 95134

Tag-team taraweeh: Error, error, does not compute. (Shias don’t pray taraweeh in congregation)

Qirat: Since this category applies to taraweeh qirat, I’m going to say N/A

Size of congregation: 400

Capacity of center: The prayer hall itself had a capacity of 500, but they own the entire building in this business park

Parking: Lot, and there’s plenty of it

Mihrab: Yes. It was beautifully adorned with decorations and calligraphy. I’m not sure what the significance of it was, but they’d also bathed it with green light, which made it look even more fabulous.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Looks like they’d converted some old file cabinets they’d found in the building, though some were real shelves. They were definitely inadequate as there were many shoes lining the floor.

Building: One in a business park which they’re slowly adapting to their purposes. In addition to the large 500-person prayer hall, they have multiple assembly rooms, a library and even an entire school which I believe is currently K-4. The prayer hall is absolutely gorgeous. Persian rugs cover the span of the room, and the walls have been modified with Persian architectural features which look like mihrabs but I know have a different name (kids, not everything you learn in college stays with you). Calligraphy lines the top of the walls, flush with the ceiling. It’s very clear to me that this community has spent a lot of time and effort to make this dry office building into a mosque.

Friendliness towards women: Very, very high. The women had a separate entrance but what really blew me away was that instead of modeling a traditional mosque, where women pray behind the men/in a separate room/at home where they belong, the room was split in half vertically by a curtain, thus preserving the women’s modesty but also allowing them to begin their prayer lines the same distance from the mihrab as the men. Why should women be praying behind men, anyways?

Friendliness of congregation: On a scale of 0 to San Ramon (0 to Belmont? Nah, 0 to San Ramon) I’d say this was 1.5 San Ramons. Wow, the hospitality I received tonight. After I’d made my dinner plate, a man asked if I didn’t like the food tonight, because I apparently hadn’t gotten enough. Fantastic! Also, I really like the Shia emphasis on shaking hands with everyone around you after prayer. You see that at Sunni mosques, but Shias do it, well, religiously.

I want to thank SABA for unknowingly playing host to me tonight. I wish them the best of luck with their fundraising, both for their own building and the efforts to end the East African famine, for which the youth for the past 8 nights have run a bake sale.

My attorney informed me that her nonprofit is working with the mosque to host an open house on  August 28th.  Do take a gander.


  1. Zuhair,

    Thanks for the comprehensive review of SABA. I'm glad you made SABA part of your list of masjids to visit, that you stayed after iftar and I'm impressed by the attention to detail contained in your review after just one visit.

    A couple things though that struck me: (and here perhaps I speak as a Shia). There are no neutral narratives of history. Not even secular narratives are neutral (see contemporary philosophy of history). The secular narrative that you do present fundamentally misses the essential Shi'a contention which is that the issue of succession is not simply a political issue but also very importantly a religious one. The standard Sunni narrative, as far as I understand it, seems much closer to what you describe as the secular narrative, i.e. that since the Prophet (s) is held to not have appointed anyone for khilafa, what followed after his death was merely political infighting, however unfortunate. I think, rather than trying to find some neutral narrative, it might have been more effective, and more acceptable to all, had you provided both narratives in a nutshell, rather than to attempt a reconciliation with an allegedly neutral secular narrative.

    You mentioned elsewhere about the defensiveness of the speaker, "and his being really defensive about the Shia story being different from the mainstream’s." I think, this is largely a function of being a minority. Minorities have a heavy self-consciousness not only of their difference, but also of the ways of the majority. I think in some ways, Muslims as a group in the American context, might be found to have a similar defensivenss, and also, no doubt, racial and ethnic minorities.

    I dont mean to mire your otherwise lightheaded blog with debate and controversy. It's a great project that you have, and I appreciate it. Just thought I'd respond to your experience. Hope you felt welcome at SABA, and it'd be great to see you again there. Good luck on the rest of your mosque hopping expedition.

  2. Might I ask who your attorney is? We helped with the Open House, and I don't recall meeting another attorney that night.

  3. Oh, I consider CAIR to be my attorney, so I was referring to you. They've been handing me "Know Your Rights" booklets since I was in middle school, so I figured it was a reasonable statement to make.