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Celebrating the commonalities at Oakland’s ‘sushi’ mosque

This story originally aired in 2015. 

Through much of their history, Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together in countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. But since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, sectarian conflict has escalated in the region. Here in the Bay Area,  around 75% of Muslims identify as Sunni, just four percent identify as Shia.
Mosques here are generally identified by sect, you have, say, the Sunni Mosque, the Shia Mosque, the Sufi Mosque. But the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (or ICCNC) has made itself purposefully into a place where all of these worshippers meet.

It is located in Oakland, a block from Lake Merritt, and unlike most of the 80 mosques in the Bay Area, the ICCNC was founded by Shia Muslims, not Sunni. Recently, they held a celebration for Prophet Muhammad’s birthday - also rare among mosques. ICCNC holds such a celebration every year. But this time was different. It was three days after the attacks on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

The first thing you notice walking into ICCNC is that it doesn’t look like your average mosque. The towering, majestic turn of the century building used to be a Masonic Temple. There’s no minaret, and they left the temple’s tall painted glass windows as is.

Manager Azita Sayyah shows me around -- there’s a Persian language kindergarten, a library, exhibition space and a prayer hall upstairs.  Because it was founded by Iranian immigrants, the second language here is Persian. Persian rugs are scattered around the cherry wooden floors and Islamic art adorns the walls.

ICCNC hosts plays, open mic nights, drumming, painting and ceramics classes. Artistic expression is a focus here for a reason, says mosque leader Ali Sheikhulislami. He says it fills an important gap in the conversation about Islam.

“I think one thing missing now is beauty. Really paying attention to the beauty of Islam, and its rich history,” he says.

Which is why this doesn’t SOUND like your average mosque, either.

On this night, I walk in to the huge auditorium where dozens of people are sitting in chairs and pews facing a stage. On stage, under a large embellished dome, a Moroccan musician in a traditional white and gold hooded robe stands playing his oud. Next to him is a drummer with a dumbek. Music is definitely something you don’t hear in other Islamic centers. Most mosques preach against even listening to music, let alone performing. The word Allah, or God, is illuminated in calligraphy behind them on the wall, and the walls are adorned in Arabic calligraphy with God’s attributes – The Compassionate. The Generous. The Merciful. Then, there’s a black piano in a side pit, and a huge golden pipe organ up high on a balcony behind the audience.  

Ask anyone who’s been to a mosque, this scene is definitely not a common one. And that feel is exactly why Ali Saadeghi drove here tonight from San Jose.

“It’s a unique experience,” Saadeghi says, “if you go to a traditional Muslim place, that’s not something that you’re gonna get. It’s more fun, and it’s a good place to bring my wife and kids.”

Fun. When’s the last time you heard ANY place of worship described that way?

Tonight is the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Also, not a common event in mosques because Muslims differ amongst themselves about celebrating any birthday. The Moroccan musician is singing the praises of the Prophet -- an ancient and beloved tradition in many Muslim communities.

Look around the room, and you’ll see people who are White, Black, and Asian. There are people in elaborate green and white Sufi robes and sashes, others in black robes and Shia turbans. Some women wear scarves on their heads, some don’t. There’s even a guest Jewish Rabbi in the house.

This is also what sets the ICCNC apart. Sure, it was founded by Iranian Shias, but everyone is welcome here, says one of the founders, Ahmed Sheikhulislami.  It’s like a multi denominational Church, where Presbyterians, and Lutherans – there would be services that they could do together.

In this case, it’s Shias and Sunnis coming together -- two groups that have been in the headlines for the past decade, killing each other in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon.

Yaseen Ali Jones has made the trip here from Sacramento. He’s decked out in an elaborate green Sufi robe and turban.  “It’s the first place where I got to interact with Shia and Sunni together – so it’s definitely special to me.”

He identifies as Sufi-Sunni, and says nights like this, in times of rising violence, are when Sunni-Shia unity is especially important.

“I’m definitely hearing similarities in our reactions to extremists and extremism, too. People are very firm in their stance against that type of behavior,” says Jones.

The night is festive, but somber, as well. Santa Clara engineer Salman Mashayekh says he’s enjoying the night, but it’s also making him ponder what the Prophet would say about the recently heightened Sunni-Shia divide. WWMD? What Would Muhammad Do?

“To me, it’s nonsense Shia and Sunni people fighting each other and killing each other,” Mashayekh says. "That’s not something the Prophet would not have wanted. “We need to work together and sit with each other and listen each other out and just have our own beliefs and not fight over anything!”

Ahmed Sheikhulislami says, being in the US, far away from the violence, gives room for that kind of Sunni-Shia dialog.

“The unique thing about the American experience is, we are able to come to this country and practice the religion the way WE want to,” Sheikhulislami says. "And to do it in a way that we’re tolerant of each other.”

Tolerance means having dialog, even friendship and warmth. But what happens when they’re part of the same family? Ask 35 year old educator, Imrul Mazid.

“I identify as Shia, my parents are Sunni. But we’re all Muslim. It’s all one,” Mazid says. “We respect one another, we love one another- if you’re grounded in love- love for the prophet and his family, that’s all that matters.”

A friend introduced Mazid to Shiism in his early twenties, and he acknowledges the theological and historical differences between himself and his parents that do cause heated debate with Sunnis. A big one is the question of who should have succeeded the Prophet after his death. So, when talking to his parents or other Sunnis, he avoids those contentious topics. He says it’s frustrating others can’t see past these. And, Mazid says, he’s especially tired of people nitpicking differences in the smallest things, like how to stand during prayer.

“Unity first. So I don’t think it’s necessary to say “oh man! You pray like this? Your hands are like this, my hands are like that. You know, it doesn’t matter! It’s about the message itself.”

ICCNC is a place that supports all forms of Muslim prayer. Mazid is part of a growing number of mixed Sunni-Shia families in the US. There’s even a name for them. Ahmed Sheikhulislami explains.

“I was talking to a friend and he said 'my mother is Sunni and my father is Shia, so we call ourselves Sushi!' So we like that!”

“We are one, these things should not divide us. We are all humans. We’re all sushis," Sheikhulislami laughs.

As the audience joins the singer in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, their collective voices soar high into the Oakland night sky. And I realize that word also describes this place, where Sunni and Shia meet, pray, talk, eat, and sing- together. It’s a Sushi Mosque.

This piece is part of KALW's reporting project, The Spiritual Edge -- stories about innovations in belief, belonging and practice. For more stories, visit the website thespiritualedge.org.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.