Monday, August 29, 2011

Finale

Before I close this blog, I'd like to postulate some theories about the future of the Muslim community in the Bay Area. Upon reflection, it's apparent that there will be three Muslim power bases in the Bay Area: the Santa Clara Valley, the Tri-Valley in the East Bay and the Peninsula. Noticeably absent is San Francisco. Folks not from the Bay Area, you have to understand, we don't call it the San Francisco Bay Area because of the city, we call it that because of the San Francisco Bay. San Francisco is an economic wasteland; when the biggest industry is tourism, it's hard to take it seriously (may be some South Bay bias shining through, but whatever). The communities in the aforementioned geographic areas are diverse, blessed with wealth and a good representation of moderate Islam. I believe mosques like MCA (Santa Clara), MCC-East Bay (Pleasanton) and the Yaseen Foundation (Belmont) are best poised to be the premier Muslim institutions in the Bay Area.

Nothing against ethnically homogenous small mosques, because it's their right to be as such, but frankly, they're not equipped to deal with a 9/11-like event. When 9/11 happened, those moderate mosques lead by eloquent men and women fared the best in terms of PR; the ethnic mosques whose leaderships barely speak English or don't welcome half the population (women) do nothing to assuage the fears of a population largely ignorant of Islam.  I'm sad to say we don't live in a world where Muslims can simply practice their faith; in addition to that, it is incumbent on us to explain our faith to others to fight misconceptions which can lead to hatred.

Okay, enough preaching. Before I finish, I must point out I am not representative of all Bay Area Muslims, but I like to think I'm at least not unrepresentative of Bay Area Muslims.

This is going to be the last time I do this. It's far too mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting and there were times when I was running on spiritual fumes to keep going. What recharged me were the truly amazing mosques who blew me out of the water with their communities.

So what is the future of 30 mosques projects? What I'd really like to see is a girl take a stab at this. My "friendliness to women" category was one of my most well-received sections, but short of me putting on a burka and sneaking into the women's section, it never had a chance to capture the female perspective. I don't imagine many fathers would be happy about their daughters traipsing through East Oakland (as an example) but it's something worth thinking about.

This really has been a blast, though, and I couldn't have done it without the support of my family and friends. All my insiders, please know that I appreciate each and every one of you. To my editorial board, thanks for the suggestions and keeping the posts in check. To my parents, thank you for instilling in me Islamic values which undoubtedly played a huge role in me embarking on this project in the first place.

A Merry Eid to all and to all a good night. Thank you for reading.

Muslim Community Association of the San Francisco Bay Area (Santa Clara)

It's fitting that the first mosque I visited in 2010 was MCA, and I'm wrapping up this quest with a final blurb about my beloved hometown masjid.  Last night was the 29th night of Ramadan, the night MCA finishes the Quran in taraweeh.  They are the only large mosque in the area which wraps up on the 29th (all others finish on the 27th) so the masjid always, always gets packed with people desirous of catching a khatam with Sheikh Jibreel.  I've never really seen it this crowded, though:

Two of dozens of shoe shelves in the building.  I'm most impressed by the fact that there aren't shoes all over the place, though that may be because of the volunteers' vigilance.

Welcome to the largest prayer hall in the Bay Area.

The hall pictured above can hold 1,000 people. The women's hall directly behind me I believe can hold a little more than 500 people. There were men and women praying in the community hall to the left of me, and in the annex to the right. I think it's reasonable to say that around 3,000 people were in attendance. Folks who claim 10,000 people were here last night are Glenn-Becking their numbers. Given that the largest hall in the building can hold (only) 1,000 people, how on earth could 10,000 people have been here last night?

I came here last night because it had been too long since I'd heard Sheikh Jibreel and his famous khatam (you can only hear it in-person, he disallows recordings). It's also been a very long Ramadan for me and I needed to finish this quest in a place where I felt at home. I am grateful to the rising stars (Belmont, Pleasanton and San Ramon) for fostering environments which made me feel comfortable, but there's nothing quite like your childhood mosque.

When I look at this men's prayer hall, I don't just see the minbar and mihrab in the right corner. I see the workout room with punching bags which used to be in its place before the remodeling project, and whose industrial-grade carpet gave me rug burn. Looking to the left, I see the old loading dock, with its cold tile floor and filthy walls, which is now a banquet hall where many of my friends have shackled balls and chains to their feet. Down the hall is the women's restroom into which I was ushered as a child when I split my head open on a file cabinet. I have literally spilled blood, sweat and tears here.

If you read through my archives, you'll see I'm at times being hard on MCA, but it's because I love this place that I'm so critical of it. Every time I saw something wonderful and replicable in another mosque, I wondered why the MCA wasn't doing it. I also felt a stab of frustration every time I perceived a misstep by the mosque leadership. However, I never meant to discredit their work, because if you know what I know and what the community had to go through to even get this place built, you'd know they always have the best intentions in mind.

This place would not function without volunteers, and I don't mean just the leadership, who I can assure you are not paid for their service. Last night the volunteer corps blew me away; here was a cadre of people willingly sacrificing their ability to pray taraweeh to ensure 3,000 or so eager worshippers would all get a chance to enjoy the beautiful taraweeh. Without their support, I can assure you folks' third-world instincts would have taken over and fire code violations would have been the least of the masjid's problems. May God bless everyone who put in even one hour to help make this Ramadan possible.

Bay Area Cultural Connections (Sunnyvale)

There is nothing to indicate on the center’s website that there are prayers held here. Likewise, as you enter the center, there are no architectural features to indicate that this is a mosque. For these reasons, I apologize in advance if I’m blowing the lid off of a well-kept secret: there are religious Turks in the Bay Area, and they have centers in Sunnyvale, Burlingame and Albany (all three of these centers’ addresses were posted on the wall, so it’s not like I did any serious detective work).

Before I continue, I’d like to inform you, if I may, that back in college I spent a semester abroad in Ankara, Turkey. There, I learned many things (or so I told my parents), but two that come to mind in this context are most of the students I met were not religious and the prayer space on campus was primarily frequented by the support staff of the university. The vast majority of students I met, in fact, had a disdain for religion, although a lot of them did worship a god and his name was Ataturk.

It was because of the secularism I observed in my semester abroad that I wasn’t too surprised by the way the center was run. Maghrib rolled around and while nobody started eating before sunset, it was not like a masjid where folks eat a little to break their fast, pray and then get back to dinner. No, folks started lining up at the buffet tables and eating dinner as soon as the sun had sunk below the horizon, and if you wanted to pray, you went into a side room where an admittedly sizeable number of people were praying in waves. So clearly, there were lots of religious people in the building, just not enough to halt dinner to pray. Praying en masse would also have been a logistical nightmare, as the only space large enough was the banquet hall in which we were eating.

When taraweeh rolled around most of the crowd had disappeared, but it seemed like most of the people who’d coordinated the dinner were part of the congregation. The banquet hall where we’d all eaten was cleared out, vacuumed and prepared with sheets. That’s when it started looking more like an Islamic center, although curiously, they closed the doors to the main hall during prayers, thus preventing anyone passing by outside to see or hear what was going on. Quite a different environment from, say, those mosques who lower neighborhood property values by doing the adhan so loudly you can hear it down the block.

Taraweeh was different; instead of sets of two, Turks (ALL Turks. No exceptions) pray taraweeh in sets of four. Kind of throws you off if you’re not expecting it, but of course they have a scholarly opinion to back up that practice. The imam’s Turkish accent also bled through during prayers; close your eyes at some Desi masjids and you wouldn’t be able to tell if the imam was Desi or Arab, but here it was very clear that the imam was Turkish. Kind of makes me wonder how taraweeh at the holy cities was like when the Ottomans ruled Arabia.

Date Visited: August 28, 2011

Location:
1257 Tasman Drive, Unit B
Sunnyvale, CA 94089

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Better than average. I still find the Turkish accent quirky, so I enjoyed the recitation.

Size of congregation: 40 men, 20 women

Capacity of center: 200-300

Parking: A lot in an active business park, which of course was mostly closed on a Sunday. I imagine it must have been difficult to find parking around dinner.

Mihrab: No

Minbar: No

Shoe shelves: None, the center’s not designed for prayer so they didn’t have any.

Building: Good-sized unit in a business park. Kind of hard to find because even though the address says Tasman, the door doesn’t open out that way so if you’re not looking out for it, you won’t see it. In that regard, it’s a stark contrast to most mosques I’ve visited this month.

Friendliness towards women: Women were very active throughout the night. While it was true the men outnumbered the women during the taraweeh prayers, during dinner I’d say the place was split 50/50. This is definitely not a place where a woman would feel even remotely uncomfortable simply because of her sex.

Friendliness of congregation: I was regarded with suspicion by a couple people at first, but generally, everyone was warm and welcoming. It wasn’t as welcoming as the Bosnian masjid I visited last year, but it was a good evening nonetheless. Once the prayer started all linguistic barriers disappeared anyways.

Community members enjoying dinner.  Again, because this is a cultural center first and a mosque second, isha didn't get started till 10 PM because the emphasis is on the community coming together over dinner and not necessarily through prayer.  In contrast, MCA starts prayers at 9:15 these days.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Islamic Center of Livermore

The City of Livermore has always made me a little uncomfortable. It’s not because it’s home to a national lab where they’re concocting weapons which will undoubtedly kill innocent children. It’s because growing up, a couple friends of mine from Livermore used to tell stories of the white supremacist groups who call this city home. Of course, they’re a small minority of the population, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is a homogenous city and, if the Bay Area is blue, this region is purple.

After all, this is one of the few places in the Bay Area where you can still catch a summer rodeo. It’s also rapidly turning into a bedroom community, and it’s likely the old cowboys shed a tear or two as they see old homesteads being converted into suburban sprawl. Probably not, though, as the same cowboys probably made a killing selling their 40 acres to developers. Before greedy ranchers sell off all their land, though, be sure to catch the rodeo in the near future; there’s nothing quite like seeing a white guy (with a sunburned red neck) wrassle with a steer.

It is against this backdrop that the community has developed this masjid in Olde Towne Livermore-e. Size-wise, the place is dwarfed by both Saint Raymond and Pleasanton, both of which are within a 10-15 minute driving distance. However, compared to a lot of other masjids with the same-sized congregation, they’re doing pretty well for themselves. The mosque has taken over the entire second floor of a commercial building, which is a far cry from some of the tiny storefronts you see close to or in the overpriced parcel of land known as the Santa Clara Valley. Also unlike those tiny storefront masjids, it’s not just a prayer area; they have space for a library and a common area used for special events.

I arrived well before isha prayer, which allowed me to explore the mosque and solidify my impressions of the mosque. There were no men when I first arrived, only women, who were having what I can only safely assume was a halaqa. Given the small size of the mosque, I was glad to see that women had that much control over the facilities. Over the years and the past month I’ve discovered that small mosques tend not to cater to women in the best manner, to put it delicately. The fact that there were women there without the presence of men meant they had access to the keys, which means they have some say in how this mosque is run.

The congregation, like the City of Livermore, is also homogenous, in that they’re mostly Arab, with a sprinkling of “other” (in the men’s section, at least, I increased the Pakistani population by infinity percent). However, unlike the other predominantly Arab mosques I’ve visited, they prayed 20 rakats of taraweeh instead of the Shaf’i 8. One might theorize that they were Malikis, but that wasn’t the case. You see, you can spot a Maliki praying from a mile away because they pray with their hands down instead of folded around the abdominal area. I assumed most of the congregation was Shaf’i when we first started taraweeh, but was surprised at the somewhat dirty looks people were giving me as I headed for the exit after 8. Desis, take note: there are Arabs who can be as judgmental as you when it comes to taraweeh, when all we eighters are trying to do is make our religion easier for ourselves (Quran 22:78).

The community is very young, and by that I mean I didn’t see anyone between the ages of 12 and 21 in the congregation. They were either family men or young children, which means this community either hasn’t been around for too long or families tend to go to the bigger mosques in the area. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that for now the facilities seem to be suiting the community fine; an announcement was made following isha that Eid prayers would be held at the mosque.

I was unsurprised to learn, given the Arab dominance of the ranks, that they’ll be following Saudi Arabia, whose citizens sometimes sees the new moon when it’s physically impossible to see it. See, the King of Saudi Arabia gives a reward to anyone who reports that they’ve seen the moon so a lot of overeager dessert-dwellers claim to see the moon and, if it was impossible, call it a miracle (alhamdulillah). This moonsighting debate (clever imams like IT of SBIA call it moonfighting) can get a little ridiculous; there was a year when Eid was celebrated on 3 different days, an impossibility considering the fact that lunar months are either 29 or 30 days.

But I digress. On with the pictures and profile!

You know how I know this building is old?  Wood paneling on the walls, yuck.

Yeah, the stairwell leading to the masjid is that dark at night.  I'm sure there are lights, but nobody turned them on.  Good thing we were in Livermore, right?  This practice is not advisable in cities with more tarnished reputations.

Date Visited: August 27, 2011

Location:
379C South Livermore Ave.
Livermore, CA 94550

Tag-team taraweeh: No, but the person who lead Isha was different from the person who lead taraweeh.

Qirat: Average

Size of congregation: 20 men, tops, 10 women.

Capacity of center: ~75

Parking: There are a few spots in the parking lot, which I’m sure during business hours congregants aren’t supposed to use because the first floor is occupied by a podiatrist’s office and a hair salon. Street parking isn’t too much of a hassle, but considering it’s suburbia, it’s surprisingly difficult. The nearest spot I could find was 2 blocks away because you can’t park on Livermore Ave.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Plenty. Men and women share them (scandalous!)

Building: Second floor of a commercial building. Good-sized space, though it’s obvious the kids don’t have anywhere to go during taraweeh. As I was leaving I found a bunch of them kicking it in their parents’ Prius. Eventually as this community grows they’ll have to figure out a space that’s safe for the kids, because even though Livermore isn’t exactly known for its high crime rate, a commercial building’s parking lot is no place for a child to be left unsupervised.

Friendliness towards women: I would say high, especially after considering how small the community is. Unfortunately, small mosques tend to have a men-first approach, but this masjid seemed pretty progressive. The men’s and women’s section were separated by a series of curtains, all of which were drawn back when I first arrived, which tells me they’re not as strict about the gender segregation as TJ Bhai might be. The one thing which may be a little icky for the women is there’s only one toilet which they have to share with us gross men.

Friendliness of congregation: Very high. There was a gentleman there who’d just moved to Livermore and the mosque leadership wished him and his family a warm welcome.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Muslim Community Center of the East Bay (Pleasanton)

“I used to live in Santa Clara—San Jose—and I used to go to MCA about 10-15 years ago,” began the fundraiser.

I grimaced, expecting boos and hisses at the mention of MCA. There were none.

“…and I hated it when they used to fundraise on the night of the 27th, [but unfortunately that’s what I’m here to do.]”

I paraphrased that last part, obviously, but that was the gist of it. The mosque has hit only 30% of its Ramadan fundraising goal and so was forced to do it tonight. However, there was an apologetic tone to the man’s voice, something you would never hear at MCA. MCA’s more likely to blame the donor: “Yeah, we’re fundraising on Eid, because YOU didn’t donate enough during Ramadan. Now pay up!” MCA’s like the schoolyard bully who beats up children for lunch money so he can provide them services like educational lectures, free legal aid and family counseling (can I give backhanded compliments, or can I give backhanded compliments?).

A week ago, a member of my editorial board—so named because they’re the select few who have a modicum of control over the blog’s contents (“No, you can’t visit the gay Muslim mosque!”)—told me I’d been doing too many repeats from last year. Visit new mosques for the rest of Ramadan, he ordered me.

I defied him tonight because it’s the night of the 27th, the night the bulk of all Muslims believes to be the night the first verses of the Quran were revealed. There is a difference of opinion, of course; one scholar, who says it could be a night outside Ramadan, says the only way to find it is by staying up late to pray every night. In any case, because it was potentially Laylat-ul-Qadr, I wanted to spend it in a mosque with a large, diverse community. Not too many mosques fit the bill, so per the recommendation of an old college friend, I headed to Pleasanton.

Once my Pleasanton insider found out I was heading towards his neck of the woods, he invited me to have dinner with his family. It was there that I was able to meet his father, one of the architects of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center (SRVIC, pronounced ‘service,’ which is a very cute nickname) and MCC-East Bay. I also discovered (to my relief) that I am still very much anonymous in this community. My friend as an aside mentioned that I was behind this blog and it was only then that his family recognized me as THAT guy. Funny, too, because apparently my CBS interview was splashed over the news feeds of many Facebook accounts in the area. I shouldn’t be surprised at my anonymity; last year I got an email from a friend in which they wrote, “Have you seen this??” and included a link to my blog.

I used my place at the dinner table to ask 3 questions which had been burning in my mind: which came first, SRVIC or MCC? Why don’t they combine into one mosque given their proximity? Is there any beef between those two mosques?

It turns out, SRVIC did come first, but MCC was born out a different vision for what a mosque should be. The board which leads MCC believes that a simple community mosque is not sufficient to fulfill the needs of a growing Muslim population, and they’re right. Lots of community mosques are nothing more than prayer spaces that are rarely used outside of the 5 daily prayers. MCC’s vision is to create a community center which will be large enough to provide essential services, like outreach, and basically be somewhere folks attend for more than just the prayers. However, MCC respects the concept of a community mosque and isn’t interested in becoming a behemoth which swallows up all mosques around it. Each city should have a mosque, a belief which goes back to the time of the Prophet, when even Medina had 40 mosques, despite being smaller than the current size of the Prophet’s masjid. Finally, no, there is no beef.

This mosque’s leadership structure is fascinating. Their constitution mandates that their board be composed of 3 people from Pleasanton, 3 people from San Ramon, 1 person from Livermore, and 1 from the area? My insider was only really sure about the representation from the first two cities. I’ve never heard of a board being controlled by a quota system, and it’s certainly not something that would work in the South Bay. MCA being as large as it is, it would be terribly unfair to say that most of its board members have to be from Santa Clara, since most big donors live in the West Valley anyways. I actually don’t get why hometowns are so important. Are the needs of the San Ramon Muslims so different from the Pleasanton Muslims that they need to have an equal representation from both groups?

I adore khatams. Khatams are the night when the imam wraps up his recitation of the Quran, which he aims to do by reciting an equal section of the book every night during taraweeh. Most masjids in the area have their khatams by the 27th night, and it was a treat for me to be able to witness it at this mosque.

When I was younger (like 22, the last year I prayed taraweeh all month at MCA), I especially liked khatams because they were the nights dear old Sheikh Jibreel used to recite the surahs I knew intimately. See, a Desi’s Quranic education tends to begin with the 30th part of the Quran, it containing the shortest chapters of the Quran. As a wee tot I used to bubble with excitement every time the Sheikh recited a surah I knew by heart. I have since lost much of that lust for life, so I was a lot more reserved tonight, but I still felt a warm rush as I heard my old favorites being recited in the imam’s beautiful voice.

What really moved me tonight was the imam’s final dua. Imams traditionally wrap up their recitation of the entire Quran in the month of Ramadan with a final dua which could range from 1 minute to 40 minutes. Sheikh Jibreel in his prime used to do final duas of over 30 minutes, which is quite an accomplishment for him and the congregation considering we’d all be standing still during the time. Tonight was also a lengthy dua, and it was touching because the imam broke down and cried in the middle.

What do the imams pray for? Really, I couldn’t tell you exactly, because I don’t speak Arabic, but it’s a safe assumption that they pray for themselves, their families, their communities and the Muslim ummah as a whole. Certain imams have the power to bring their congregations to tears with their final duas, and tonight was one of those nights. It always is one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of my life and the fact that it comes by only once a year makes it even more meaningful.

So which did I like better, San Ramon or Pleasanton? Hey, look at these pictures below while I dodge the question!

 If you're so far back you can't see the imam, never fear, they've installed flat-screens hooked up to video cameras.  It's a move right out of MCA's playbook for creating a more equitable space for the women (who were right behind and to the left of me)

Exterior of the building.  Classic business park architecture.

Date Visited: August 26, 2011

Location:
5724 West Las Positas Boulevard
Pleasanton, CA 94588

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Phenomenal

Size of congregation: 250 men, 100 women? These are just rough estimates.

Capacity of center: I could tell the center was almost at capacity from the heat and humidity of the room. I want to say they can fit 400 people in there at once in its current configuration

Parking: The lot in the commercial space. Doesn’t seem to be any street parking options, so if you can’t find parking in the designated lots, you’re kind of out of luck.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Racks at the entrance, seemed to be sufficient for tonight.
By the by, I visited SRVIC after taraweeh at MCC and noticed that more than a few congregants had left their shoes outside the front door on the sidewalk instead of carrying them to the shoe shelves in the center of the building. Tsk tsk.

Building: The MCC bought the entire building but kept the tenants while occupying half the building themselves. The fundraising goal for this year is $200,000, $100,000 of which will go to pay for the building. They’re also using the rent from their tenants to help cover the monthly payments they have to make. Because of their focus on getting the building paid off, they haven’t spent too much time making the mosque look pretty; prayer areas are demarcated with tape and the carpet is the standard commercial fare.
However, just looking at the sheer size of this space (including the part they rent out) you can tell this center has a lot of potential. It’s unfortunate that they’ve only reached 30% of their fundraising goal, though they may also have unrealistic expectations from their community. Faithful readers will remember I reported SBIA asks each family to donate $20 per month to cover Ramadan expenses. MCA asks for first-born sons, but they’ll accept $125. This community asks for $300. Steep!

Friendliness towards women: They have a separate entrance, but as I rounded the corner and entered the men’s prayer hall, I discovered there’s no real barrier between the men and women. Sure, there are walls, but there are sizeable gaps in them, thus theoretically allowing for a sightline of the mihrab. Additionally, some women were praying in the same hall as the men. Following the prayer, when the congregation was feasting on desserts (another khatam tradition) men and women were mingling with no problems.
However, I did a little digging, and found that not everything that night had been hunky-dory. During the prayer, the leadership became afraid that the men wouldn’t have enough space to pray. Their solution was to attempt to make the women praying in the same hall as the men to move back into a stuffy, hot, crowded section of the mosque. They failed due to the stance taken by some very strong, determined women, but the story still troubled me. What that tells me is the mosque values the men’s prayer more than the women’s prayer. Frankly, women have a right to an equitable amount of space, especially on such an important night, and it was wrong for the leadership to even attempt to make the women move.
By the way, the men ended up not needing the women’s space, which was good, because they weren’t going anywhere anyways.

Friendliness of congregation: It’s a very large, diverse community. Everyone seemed like they were having a great time tonight, and I’m sure I could have made some new friends if I hadn’t been kicking it with my insider.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Walnut Creek Islamic Center

Welcome to Walnut Creek, one of the more well-to-do ones communities the other side of the Oakland hills. You can sense the wealth by looking at the street on which this mosque is located: there are very few streetlamps and no sidewalks, both characteristics of city planning designed to keep the poors away. Or, city planning that harkens back to Walnut Creek’s rural days, what do I know?

The masjid’s website displays an earnestness to connect with the community at large, but I can tell you they have a lot of work to do. I knew I was looking for a converted church, so I pulled into the first church-like structure I saw on the street. I asked the handful of old white men hanging out in the parking lot where the mosque was, and they directed me to their gymnasium, where all I found were the night janitors doing their thing. Mosque does not mean cleaning crew, gentlemen.

It turns out I was at the wrong address and soon I’d arrived at the right building. It’s a good-sized structure, but it’s right in the middle of the aforementioned residential neighborhood, which will be a problem. See, good God-fearing Christians only attend the church en masse on one day, but good God-fearing Muslims attend it five times a day, every day. The amount of noise the Muslim congregations make is disgraceful; no amount of neighborhood barbecues to foster goodwill can make up for the hours of sleep the neighbors lose, especially during the summers. It’s because of that I strongly believe if Muslims are going to buy property, they should go commercial, because then at least they’re not preventing children from getting a good night’s sleep (an actual complaint in Santa Clara, mind you).

This masjid seems like an awesome place to hang out in fair weather, though, because of the courtyard in the middle of the “compound,” as they call it. I arrived after everyone had finished eating, of course, but folks were still enjoying the relatively warm weather, and lots of kids were scurrying around. Better they be at the masjid than at home playing video games, right?

Well, not exactly. I was looking around the center and in one of the rooms I noticed a group of children huddled around an Xbox, which had somehow made its way into the masjid. I can assure you I’ve never seen a video game system being played with at the masjid, but hey, to each community their own.

This community really isn’t very different from most of the ones I’ve discovered in my travels (travails?). There is a list of guidelines on the wall for the congregation to follow. Granted, each of the ten guidelines is in 12-point font and is composed of 1-2 compound sentences, so I’m not sure how much the people adhere to them. After all, even God only gave Moses 10 commandments of 10 words or less.

This is a very diverse community, and they’re thrilled to be in a new space better suited to their needs. The lingua franca is English, which is probably what prevented this community from becoming homogenous. The lecture after the fourth rakat of taraweeh was given by an African man who spoke to the congregation in English. It’s this inclusiveness which gives me no reason to doubt that this community will flourish. This community’s success has also attracted attention of others looking for a little financial support.

In one of my interviews I said that growing up, I used to see fundraising flyers from far-flung mosques, hoping for support from us, the relatively wealthy community. Well, Walnut Creek had a whole stack of fundraising brochures from the Bosnian community…in Boston. The Santa Clara Bosnians need to step up their game; Bostonians are dipping their hands into a piggy bank in their own backyard!

The main entrance of the former church, which is not the main entrance of the mosque.

Date Visited: August 25, 2011

Location:
2449 Buena Vista Avenue
Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Average

Size of congregation: ~40 men, ~10 women

Capacity of center: 150 if they used their space more efficiently, way more if they needed to ever spill out into the courtyard.

Parking: There’s a lot which can hold a bit more than 20 cars, and of course there’s street parking. The problem is, it’s a residential neighborhood, and it’s not one of those residential neighborhoods where people have to fight for parking anyways (see: Berkeley) so folks probably do mind the increased traffic five times a day.

Mihrab: Yes.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: All along the wall in the courtyard, plenty for tonight.

Building: Let us have a moment of silence for the Korean church that used to be here. I have no idea of why this building changed hands, but I hope it’s not because the Korean church had to close its doors. Rather, I hope it’s because they had to move because they needed a larger space for their congregation. I have a lot of respect for Korean Baptists; a Korean church is on the way from our house in Santa Clara to the masjid and every time my father and I used to leave for the mosque at dawn to pray fajr we’d always seen at least a couple congregants' cars parked outside the church. It’s a broad generalization, but the Korean Baptists are a very devout people and it would be a shame if they had to sell the building because they couldn’t afford it anymore.

Friendliness towards women: Guideline #2 reads, “Women are expected to wear a headscarf in the prayer area and are encouraged to maintain it elsewhere with the compound.” At ICCNC, the youth group leader related a story of when she was at Masjid al-Iman in Oakland and a woman walked in wearing relatively scandalous clothing. At other mosques, she said, the woman would have been forced to cover herself, if not asked to leave. This masjid isn’t quite as open as that place, but I’d say they’ve struck a middle ground that shouldn’t ruffle too many conservative feathers. I personally would lean towards having no hijab requirement at all, because it’s unfair to assume all women congregants are even ready/willing to put it on in the first place.

Friendliness of congregation: Everyone seemed very nice. The diversity of the crowd really helps when it comes to starting conversations or even just saying hello.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Afghan Islamic Center (Concord)

The first thing you want to do when you arrive at this masjid is ponder the fa├žade. It’s just nothing I’ve ever seen before, and certainly nothing you will ever see “back home.” The masjid is on the second floor of a commercial building whose first floor is occupied by a smoke shop. The “Smoke Shop” sign dwarves the tiny, unlit sign pointing to the masjid. So, if you get lost, let the makruh merchant/haram hawker guide you here.

This masjid is composed of Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and Pashto-speaking Afghans, an alliance which would make anyone a little uneasy. After all, the last time Pakistanis and Afghans were caught working together, SEAL Team 6 became a household name.

Seriously, though, it was nice to see the two ethnic groups setting aside their differences to operate a masjid together. The leadership fluidly switches between Urdu and Pashto when addressing the congregation, thus ensuring no one feels left out, unless of course one doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto.

This is a very small congregation, which means everyone knows each other really well, but unfortunately also means they’re homogenous in terms of religious practice. Before taraweeh started, my host turned to me and asked if I knew that they were about to pray 20. I nodded, sure, that was a reasonable assumption to make, but I hoped he wasn’t expecting me to stay, because I left after 8. I was especially empowered to pray 8 by a recently discovered quote from IT in which he implores his congregation not to judge those who pray 8, as it could very well be true that their 20 may not be accepted. The underlying belief, as I understand it, is to worry about yourself and let others practice the way they want.

Another thing which somewhat bothered me was when I was taking pictures of the outside of the mosque, someone stopped me and asked if I was a member of the press. When I said no, he seemed relieved and let me proceed. I don’t know what the press in the area has done to the Concord Muslims, but this isn’t the first time I’ve sensed tension between the Muslim community and the press corps. Back in the day, a reporter from a local newspaper asked if he could cover the Eid prayers hosted by the Concord Muslim community. They agreed, and the reporter spent a few hours with the community, taking pictures and asking questions. When the article came out, they saw the only picture in the paper was of the shoes strewn all over the community center’s floor.

So, two things. Yes, that may have created a bad impression of Muslims to the average Concord resident, but it should have been a wakeup call, as in, hey, we need to stop tossing our shoes around because it looks awful to the common man. Second, negatively reacting to all potential press because of that one event is not the solution. What if I had been a reporter? I would have thought these Muslims have something to hide.

Taraweeh was sweet, though, the imam was on a juz Amma (3mma?) kick, and was picking express-lane surahs (10 ayahs or less). Quickest taraweeh I’ve ever prayed, not counting the time my roommate made me lead taraweeh in our apartment (if I had to do it all over again, I would have used a Quran as a guide and done an hour-long two rakats to teach him a lesson).

 Welcome to Concord, one of the last remaining white bastions in the Bay Area.

Can you see the masjid?  All I see is a sign for one.

Date Visited: August 24, 2011

Location:
1545 Monument Blvd.
Concord, CA 94520

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Average

Size of congregation: 15-20 men, unknown number of women

Capacity of center: 50-75

Parking: The lot is inadequate. For one thing, you have to share the lot with the smoke shop, and even then there’s maybe 5 spots. Fortunately, it being suburbia, there’s ample street parking.

Mihrab: Yes.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: A few at the entrance, shared with the womenfolk

Building: Second floor of a commercial building, the first floor being occupied by a smoke shop which tonight was getting no business whatsoever. Behold the power of the odd nights of Ramadan.

Friendliness towards women: The women have a room which is around the same size and the men’s room. However, it doesn’t seem like many women show up, as the masjid’s fridge is also in there and the congregation was going in and out of there with no hang-ups.

Friendliness of congregation: Above average, it was a small but welcoming community. I’m glad I spoke Urdu, not knowing that language would have made me feel a little out-of-place.

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

Location:
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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Al-Sabil (Tenderloin, San Francisco)

I’ve had a lot of guardian angels watching over me during this quest. Some are genuinely concerned about me, others are pontificators and the rest are just curious about my adventures. The general advice I received about this masjid last year was to stay away because if I entered it, I would instantly be placed on an FBI watchlist. I shrugged off their warnings, mostly because I’m probably already on a watchlist or two, being the son of a former MCA president. I’m not even being paranoid, there was a big hullaballoo when a son of a well-respected late former president found an ill-concealed government tracking device in his car. If that didn’t do it, I was the editor of the premier Muslim newspaper at UC Berkeley, which was sponsored by controversial advertisers like AllahHafiz Cola (Their ad was something like, “AllahHafiz Cola: Because sometimes KhudaHafiz Cola doesn't cut it.” My roommate and I thought it was hilarious).

I ended up not visiting this place in 2010 not because I was afraid of the controversy, but because there were so many masjids for me to explore in the Nickel Dime (510 area code) that I couldn’t justify paying the toll to visit San Francisco more than a couple times during Ramadan.

I do know this masjid sprung out of the Jones St. congregation. I’m not from the Tenderloin, and nor do I visit either mosque regularly, so I’m not qualified to speak about the history of or beef between the two. I will point out that this mosque is literally on the next block; proximity tends to be a warning flag, because if the congregations got along, they would have formed one masjid. It was also curious to me that the attendance tonight here was higher than the attendance at Jones St. when I visited last week. However, that could be explained away by the fact that we’re in the middle of the last 10 days of Ramadan, which generally boost the already swelled attendance at any masjid.

The first thing you notice about this place, just like the Jones St. mosque, is its size. Wow, with such low rents, it’s no wonder the Tenderloin is becoming gentrified! However, the place was massive even when considering the undoubtedly low rent they’re paying. I mean, come on, it was 3x bigger than some South Bay masjids, and those communities are rolling in the dough!

The second thing I noticed about this place was the Pepsi vending machine they’ve had put in right next to the shoe racks. If I may, I’d like to take a stab as to why Pepsi and not Coke. A Palestinian friend of mine from college had an opinion about everything, especially world affairs. He drank Diet Pepsi instead of Diet Coke because, in his words, every Coke you buy is a bullet for the Israeli army. Well, then. Could the same mentality be driving the leadership at this masjid?

Nothing really seemed too different about this masjid when compared to my hometown masjids. There was a banner with post-prayer duas which also hangs in SBIA, there were youth sitting along the walls under signs which explicitly told them not to (fire hazard and all) and the community was very diverse. Well, there were very few Desis, but that’s not surprising because Desis tend to stay away from mosques were taraweehs are only 8 rakats. You see, at these masjids, it takes them as long to do 8 rakats as it does a Desi masjid to do 20 rakats. Desis then prefer to go to the 20 rakat masjids because then they can finish 8 there quickly and bounce. So really, the issue isn’t whether the masjid does 8 or 20, it’s which masjid can get them home the soonest. Verily, Desis are the craftiest and wiliest of the Muslim ethnic groups.

The floors are covered with absolutely gorgeous, non-Persian rugs. At first I thought they were kilms, but they were too soft for that. In any case, what disappointed me was they had scarred the carpets by laying down tape to make the lines for prayer. I realize it’s important to make straight lines, but once you lay down tape on rug, you’ve effectively ruined it. Shame, really, such beautiful rugs.

I arrived relatively early, so I didn’t notice this on my way in, but as I was walking back to my car through the urine-soaked sidewalks of the Tenderloin, I noticed a whole lot of off-duty cabs. There’s a joke in some circles about how it’s impossible in some cities to get a cab during jummah. I’m sure Ramadan has some impact on the availability of cabs as well.

This masjid is brought to you by Bebsi.  Also, as the sign says, the door on the left is for Women Only!

Date Visited: August 22, 2011

Location:
48 Golden Gate Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102

Tag-team taraweeh: No

Qirat: Better than average. Taraweeh tonight was led by a young Arab man, which to be honest, was the first time I’d seen that this month. I mean, I’ve prayed behind Arabs, but up to now they’ve been grown men.

Size of congregation: 100

Capacity of center: 200

Parking: Street. You could be a chump and park in a lot, but I have never done that in the Tenderloin. (Wo)Man up and waste 3 dollars worth of gas looking for a parking spot, but never park in a lot.

Mihrab: Yes.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: A couple shelves, but they weren’t racks. Call me spoiled, but I prefer racks to ensure nobody’s going to be putting their shoes on top of mine. Shoot, I wear flip-flops, and if there’s urine on the streets outside, every time someone puts the soles of his shoes on my flippy-floppies I’m putting my feet in urine. Gross.

Building: The (incredibly large) basement of a building. They’ve dolled it up by throwing some green paint on the walls and have added some very attractive light fixtures on the pillars. The masjid also boasts an array of wudu stations.

Friendliness towards women: I was taking a picture of the mosque from the outside when a family approached to enter, a family composed of a man, his son and women in niqaab. So, it’s THAT kind of mosque. I realized if I was going to take pictures inside, I would have to be as sneaky as the ninjas these women look like. The women’s section is surrounded by walls which don’t touch the ceiling, so it’s not like they’re in a separate room, but it could still cause issues during prayer. During taraweeh tonight, the imam failed to mention he would be doing a sajda tilawat, which my gold standards for taraweeh, namely Sheikh Jibreel and Imam Tahir, never fail to do. A sajda tilawat is when the imam has to go into a sijda after reciting certain ayats before resuming the prayer. I don’t know how much confusion this caused in the women’s section, but if even we were caught off-guard I’m sure some women thought the imam was going into a ruku. Still, I have to assume the best; maybe there were some female hafizes in the crowd who ensured the women knew it was a sajda tilawat. Of course, I have to recognize this mosque for being progressive enough to be a place where the men could bring their whole families and not just their bros.

Friendliness of congregation: I guess I stuck out because a man approached me after saying salams and asked me a few questions about where I was from and what I was doing there. I guess that means it’s easy for the community to tell who the regulars are and who’s new in town. The community was also very diverse, so it wasn’t one of those mosques where I wouldn’t fit in because I didn’t speak Persian (as a hypothetical example).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taha Education Center (Sunnyvale)

Santa Clara Valley used to be famous for its orchards before it was known as the Silicon Valley. Now most of the orchards are gone, replaced by tons of steel, glass and concrete. In Sunnyvale, however, it’s apparent that the local Muslims have planted the seeds of a nascent community which has already started to bear fruit.

I found out about this masjid through Twitter, similar to how I found about the Marin City garage musallah through a comment on my blog. I’m no fool, so before I visited I Binged the address and verified that this was an established mosque.

For such a small center, they seem to be doing a lot. Despite the mosque being a few rooms in a small commercial building, they run a school where they teach their young about Islam on the weekends. I was glad to see that this community values education; some mosques concentrate on developing their prayer area without thinking to provide services to better the community. Truth be told, the fact that they had a school should not have surprised me. This is, after all, Sunnyvale, home to Yahoo! and other tech giants. The Desi community did not make it here without obtaining an education and it only makes sense that they’d pass on the same values to their children.

Prayers tonight started at 9:45, and since I’m (now) used to eating quickly, I was there a little early. I used my spare time to explore the tiny mosque. One thing which caught my eye was a list with 11 points about how one could get involved in the masjid. Numero uno was pray at least one prayer at the mosque. I approved because they easily could have said pray all five prayers at the mosque; there are some imams in MCA’s stable which make it seem as if you’ll have a terrible day if you don’t pray the dawn prayer at the masjid. Number two was invite others to come to the masjid, which to me implied the mosque leadership implores its congregation to focus inward before reaching out to others.

“Donate” was down the list at #5, which was great. I like how this mosque wants you to focus on getting yourself to the mosque first and learning more about your faith before thinking about supporting the community financially.

The other thing I noticed on the bulletin board was a taraweeh schedule. From it I learned in the beginning of this month the masjid had enjoyed the recitation of three hafizes* every night, and were now down to two. In addition to posting the starting rotation, the schedule also had which chapters of the Quran the hafizes were going to recite that night. Wonderful idea; I know at MCA you can ask any other hafiz what chapters Sheikh Jibreel is going to be reciting on any given night, but it may not be a bad idea of Web-2.0 the concept and make it available via Twitter/Facebook. I’m sure the congregation would appreciate it, as I’ve seen many people holding Qurans following along as the imam recites the verses.

The one issue I have with this place is the restroom. As I mentioned earlier, it’s in a commercial office space, and all the tenants share the restrooms. Because of this, there’s a long list of rules written on the door instructing the congregation on how to use the restroom. Simply put, they recommend avoiding doing wudu in these restrooms, which seems kind of silly because if you’re heading to the restroom you’re going to have to do wudu anyways. In any case, if one absolutely must perform wudu here, one must ensure no water is spilled out of the sink and to wash one’s feet one must do it over the toilet and then use toilet paper to wipe their feet to prevent any dripping whatsoever. The detail to which they went in to how to do wudu in this restroom tells me the congregation has a hard time understanding something simple like, “If you do wudu, don’t spill any water anywhere.”

Otherwise, the mosque reminded me of MCA’s old days, right after they’d moved into the big center but hadn’t done any remodeling. There was tape on the commercial-grade carpet to delineate the prayer lines and the center’s size far exceeded that of the congregation’s. I’m sure this place gets full-up during jummah, as it’s located right off of a major tech corridor, but tonight was relatively intimate.

The congregation is exceedingly Hanafi (read: Desi) and that was apparent during taraweeh prayers. I almost felt bad for cutting out after 8 because all Hanafi taraweehs are a relatively quick 20 rakats, but shoot, you gotta do what you gotta do on a weeknight. Because of the Hanafi influence, however, the hafizes they had were extremely skilled at reciting the Quran at a fast pace. Tonight’s starter was sublime and I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear such a talented pair of young men.

The inside of the mosque.  The women's section is behind me.  The pink sign on the door is one of the many written instructions the mosque leadership has lovingly written for the congregation's benefit.

Date Visited: August 21, 2011

Location:
1260 Persian Drive, Suite A1
Sunnyvale, CA 94088

Tag-team taraweeh: Yes

Qirat: Great! Both of the hafizes were either young men or old boys, and they were both very talented.

Size of congregation: 20

Capacity of center: 50, if even that much

Parking: Lot, though there are instructions (this mosque is big on written instructions) to not park in front of the mosque during business hours. Instead, for jummah prayer the congregation is asked to park as far away from the actual mosque to ensure the other businesses’ customers are not impacted. There is a La Quinta hotel or something next door and I’m willing to bet tons of Muslims park illegally there.

Mihrab: Yes. It wasn’t anything gorgeous, but it was functional and is definitely better than nothing.

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: A few shelves by the entrance

Building: A couple of suites in a commercial office space which they share with businesses like a dental practice. The parking lot is very small considering how many Muslims can fit into the center and the restroom situation is clearly not ideal for any Muslim community. I’m sure this is not going to be the permanent location for this mosque, but I do have to note I saw a flyer on the wall which implored the community to donate as only a couple families support this place, apparently. The masjid, however, clearly belongs to the community as yet another note implores the last one to leave to lock up behind themselves.

Friendliness towards women: They have a section which was open when I arrived but as more people showed up was closed off by a door. The section was more than enough to hold the female congregation tonight, and women use the same entrance as the men.

Friendliness of congregation: Everyone seems to know each other here, so I did stick out, but everyone said salams to me and asked about my well-being. Had I stuck around I’m sure I could have made a few new friends.

* My editors have told me I can no longer use words like masajid (plural of masjid) and huffaz (plural of hafiz) if I insist on using words like hijabis (not the proper plural form of hijabi).

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

Location:
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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Islamic Center of San Francisco (Bernal Heights)

On my way to San Francisco tonight, I picked up my Oaklandish friend for some company.

“Where are we going?”
“Crescent Ave.”
“Never been there.”
“It’s run by TJs.”
“Should we start rolling up our pant legs now?”

TJs are a species of Muslim best known for forming roving groups of proselytizers. They are also known for wearing trousers well above their ankles, beginning sentences with, “Our success in this life and the hereafter depends on…” and concentrating their efforts on getting Muslims to come to the masjid. All of them at least once embark on a 40-day journey to help fulfill their mission of converting Muslims to Islam. It is because of this merry band of delightful dogmatists that many masajid have been forced to institute a no-overnight policy because bless their hearts, they won’t put up the cash for a motel room.

The thing is, TJs are everywhere; my alma mater was home to many who flocked to the MSA. When I visited UC Berkeley this past Ramadan I found myself in a conversation where a young man had studied the hadith that day concerning the length of a believer’s pants and from that apparently deduced the approximate length of the Prophet’s trousers. He claimed he was wearing pants that were the proper length that evening. I looked down. He was wearing capris.

Joking aside (for a bit), I suppose the TJs really are a friendly bunch. The prayer hall tonight reeked of food, which means they’re accustomed to serving sustenance to all comers. The local TJ group in my hometown of Santa Clara used to organize ostensibly free iftars for the congregation who showed up at sunset. They’re a very generous people, but I was always afraid they would come collecting for the price of the meals by knocking on my door and, of course, asking why I didn’t come to the mosque more.

Taraweeh tonight was led by young men but supervised by the ear of a grizzled veteran. The starter unfortunately was having a lot of trouble and stumbled every inning. His struggles reminded me that it’s not easy being green, and by green I mean a hafiz. Ask any hafiz and they’ll tell you how difficult it is to maintain their knowledge of the Quran. Even on the day their services are not required they must review the Quran for a substantial amount of time lest they forget some verses. The nights of Ramadan are even more stressful due to increased expectations in terms of recitation quality and length. It’s no surprise then that despite children being awarded the title of hafiz many of them are unable to retain it due to a variety of outside responsibilities which limit the time they can spend with the Holy Book. I don’t know the attrition rate for huffaz, but I’m sure it’s not 0%.

The community itself was mostly TJ, judging by the large number of rolled up jeans and khakis, but there were also the rebels whose pant legs were either touching or coming dangerously close to touching the floor. It would seem as if this community is welcoming to all men (keyword: men).

Date Visited: August 19, 2011



Location:
400 Crescent Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110

Tag-team taraweeh: Yes

Qirat: Standard Desi fare in that it was quite rapid. My friend's theory as to why this happens is since Desis don't understand Arabic anyways, the congregations want to get the prayers over with as soon as possible. The second imam’s recitation was nicer than the first one.

Size of congregation: ~40

Capacity of center: ~75

Parking: Street. It’s in a residential neighborhood, so be prepared to walk long distances as San Franciscans have usually settled in for the night well before prayer time, thus taking up most of the nearby parking spaces.

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Yes

Shoe shelves: Looked like something out of an IKEA catalog

Building: I found out this isn’t just a mosque, it’s a waqf, or an endowed piece of land. Someone from on high made sure this property was designated for the mosque and nothing else. One might wonder why they chose this neighborhood in San Francisco, as they could have gotten a larger space for less money elsewhere. In fact, they had indeed looked at larger places on Cross St. and Star of David Blvd. but ultimately decided to stick with the Crescent Ave. property.  The building is slightly imposing in that the front door is a solid wooden affair with a peephole. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a mosque whose door had a peephole. Do they have one so they know not to open the door when other TJs knock?

Friendliness towards women: There is no women’s section here. If they had one, who would take care of the kids when the men are off on their 40-day quests for conversions? [Ed. Note: There is a women's section, but I didn't see it from my vantage point in the prayer hall or when I was looking around the hallways.  Given that, I thought it would be indecent of me to go looking for a women's section because if I couldn't see one at first glance, it was obvious they wanted to keep the men and women completely separated if they had one.  I will also note I did not see any women when walking towards the masjid, which is unlike the vast majority of masajid I have visited so far.]

Friendliness of congregation: Everyone was pretty courteous during prayer. At some masajid some folks take the “shoulder-to-shoulder, feet-to-feet” commandment during prayer too seriously and demolish any Western notions of personal space, but not here. I saw smiles all around, folks seemed genuinely happy to be here.

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

Location:
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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

San Ramon Valley Islamic Center

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was an exodus of Muslims from the South Bay. Faced with rising home prices (“$300,000 for a 3 bedroom house?? We’re out of here!”)* many families fled for the Planned Communities, er, Cities of San Ramon, Pleasanton and Danville. At the time, my parents were considering purchasing their first home, and almost made the move to the outer limits of the East Bay themselves. The biggest reason they didn’t was they didn’t want to leave the South Bay and its relative plethora of established masajid. Judging by what I saw today, the San Ramonians have done all right in terms of establishing and developing a mosque.

From time to time, especially as I observe the decline of Santa Clara as a livable city, I do imagine what could have been had we moved to San Ramon or Pleasanton. I probably would have been in this video. As an aside, three of the characters in this video are Berkeley grads, one of whom attends Georgetown Law, another is completing an MD/PhD program at UCSF and the third has has one of the most awesome last names known to man: FireBoatMan. Such are the activities of the most accomplished young men of this generation.

I didn’t link to the video to make it seem as if all the young Muslim men in San Ramon are goofballs who wear JabbaWockeeZ masks in the prayer hall and like to ghost ride their mothers’ minivans in the mosque parking lot (although obviously, they are and they do). My point is that they’ve formed a very tight-knit brotherhood, and that brotherhood is apparent amongst boys of all ages in this community. Even the elememtary-school children have formed packs of young scholars who tonight were excited to be at the masjid tonight to learn a tad more about their own faith.

The most impressive thing about tonight was that the iftar and small lecture following it was organized by the young men and women of the community. I took a look around at the volunteers who were running to show and it seemed to me few, if any, were older than 25 years old. It was heartening to see the young taking the lead because at larger mosques they tend to be marginalized by a rapidly-aging group of old men who can’t seem to let go. Many of the largest mosques in the area were established in the 1980s, which, as many can’t seem to grasp, was more than 20 years ago. I’m glad to see that this community recognizes that they must train the youth to be leaders or else risk the mosque dying with the old guard.

The lecture was by one William (Suhaib) Webb, arguably one of the most famous American clerics in the US, if not the world. In a nutshell, he’s a DJ turned Islamic scholar. He was educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo thanks in large part to a grant from the Muslim American Society (MAS), i.e. the ikhwan, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to MAS, Minister Webb has become well-versed in Sharia Law and has returned to the United States to teach it to the American Muslim community. It’s the emotions evoked after reading sentences like that which will drive the Palin/Bachmann ticket straight into the White House.

During the lecture I was quite pleased to see the enraptured faces of the elementary school youth as they literally circled around Minister Webb. I cannot remember being that passionate about my faith at that age and it’s wonderful that they have the presence of mind to understand who he was and what he was saying was important. Back in my day, youth at MCA would most likely be concocting ways to ditch the lecture for a quick game of basketball. Whatever they’re doing with the young in San Ramon, I approve.

A few days ago, I announced that I had chosen Novato as my new favorite mosque, which to that point had been Belmont. After intense lobbying from my Belmont insider, I reversed my decision. Belmont is still my #1 mosque, but I have to say their hold on the top spot was severely weakened after what I saw tonight. The only thing Belmont has on this community is diversity. San Ramon is wall-to-wall brown with a smattering of “other.” If San Ramon diversifies, however, Belmont will have to step up their game to retain their top spot.

* Housing prices in the South Bay have since skyrocketed. You’d be lucky to find a 3 bedroom $300,000 condo in the South Bay, let alone a house.

Date Visited: August 17, 2011

Location:
2232 Camino Ramon
San Ramon, CA 94583

Tag-team taraweeh: Yes

Qirat: Slightly better than average

Size of congregation: 100-200

Capacity of center: On a scale of 0 to MCA, I’d say a little less than 0.5 MCA

Parking: Lot

Mihrab: Yes

Minbar: Strangely, no

Shoe shelves: The shoe situation was interesting. You are not allowed to cross the threshold of this masjid with your shoes on; in that sense it’s very much like the masajid “back home.” You must carry your shoes to the heart of the building, where they’ve built a good number of shoe shelves, but unfortunately not enough to sustain the community (lots of folks were sharing shoe shelves). What I found most impressive, however, is the community is disciplined enough to not take their shoes off outside and leave them on the sidewalk. Given that this is a business park that would look horribly out of place and I commend the community for having the presence of mind to not do that.

Building: This mosque is located smack-dab in the middle of a business park, but the only business in which the congregation is involved is increasing their stock in the eyes of Allah and marketing their obvious love for the Prophet. My San Ramon insider informed me that they recently doubled the capacity of the center by taking over a neighboring office space. Unfortunately, while they may have a nifty new community hall, they didn’t expand the size of the prayer halls and I’m afraid they’ll fall short in a few years because Muslims, strangely enough, don’t stop having children.

Friendliness towards women: This masjid is a model for how women should be welcomed at the mosque. The women’s section is innovative and it’s honestly set up in a way that my own mother was lobbying for back in MCA. Instead of locking the women behind a one-way mirror, they’ve chosen to make arches in the wall, thus allowing women a clear sight line of everything in the men’s prayer hall. Women who prefer privacy have the option of setting up screens. I must point out, however, that the screens are effectively useless as anyone standing on the sidewalk outside can look directly through the windows into the women’s section. Being the modest man that I am, I did lower my gaze, but you can’t expect everyone walking past in a business park to do the same.

Friendliness of congregation: The congregation is definitely composed of a friendly bunch of individuals. Everyone was very respectful of each other and the chaos one sometimes sees at free iftars was non-existent at this one.

The wall between the men's and women's section.  No women were photographed in the making of this blog post.