Center: Islamic Society of Santa Barbara, 158 Aero Camino, Suite D
Service Attended: Friday, 1 p.m.
Imam: Abdur Rahman
Denomination: Muslim; open to all faiths
Special Offerings: Five daily prayers at 158 Aero Camino, Suite D; Friday prayers at Goleta Valley Community Center, 1 p.m.; qualified members are available to speak at schools, organizations, and events to “break down barriers.”
Every Friday afternoon, between 30 and 100 Muslims gather to pray collectively under the auspices of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara. Although the area’s approximately 2,000 Muslims are poised to have their own mosque at the corner of Los Carneros Road and Calle Real, for the last eight years they have borrowed the large auditorium of the Goleta Valley Community Center for Friday prayers, which are mandated to be a communal experience including a sermon, unlike the five daily prayers that take place throughout the week.
Beginning at 1 p.m., brothers and sisters filter in to the auditorium-turned-worship center, leaving their shoes, briefcases, and laptops at the door. Women gather in the back of the room behind a screen which separates them from the men; some arrive in regular street clothes, then pull larger dresses or shawls over their clothes and fasten scarves over their hair as head coverings. Behind the screen in the back, there is a sense of camaraderie amongst the women, who greet each other with, “Assalam Alaikum” and share food with one another before and after the prayers.
To begin the service, the muezzin’s booming voice echoes throughout the auditorium, signaling the first call to prayer. Imam Abdur Rahman gives a sermon in Arabic both before and after his talk in English. All worshippers sit casually on mats on the floor throughout the sermon and talk, listening attentively. Rahman speaks in a casual, accessible way, applying the teachings of the Koran to modern life in Santa Barbara. Last Friday, for instance, he spoke of the danger of losing one’s self in the distractions of email, Blackberries, and iPhones. “I’m not saying I’m against technology,” he said. “I’m just worried I would get too much into it.” Rahman often humbly couches lessons in the first person, connecting with his brothers and sisters by freely admitting his own flaws.
He also urged his brothers and sisters to take the Zaca fire seriously, and to prepare both spiritually and practically to avert any danger. “We can’t miss this opportunity to strengthen our faith,” he said. Similarly, he urged the congregation to take responsibility for the oppression of their brothers and sisters around the world, rather than just attributing those problems to the sins of Muslims in those countries. “We must build up our faith so there is more vigor in our worship and Allah is pleased,” he said. Not by blaming others, Rahman suggested, but rather by strengthening their own faith can Muslims hope to be free from the harassment they are currently suffering “simply because they are Muslim.”
At the end of Rahman’s sermon, the muezzin chanted the second call to prayer, which signaled for the brothers and sisters to line up and perform a series of prostrations. One woman had her adorable young son with her, who couldn’t have been more than three. He carefully imitated the prostrations and prayerful hand gestures of the women, some of whom cried as they bowed and repeated, “Allah u akbar” (Allah is the greatest). Watching the line of women, so close as to be touching despite the roomy space, and the young boy earnestly observing them, I sensed a faith in God so strong it was almost tangible.
Although men and women are segregated during the service – as is the case in most modern mosques in keeping with Islamic tradition – the two groups enter through the same door and socialize freely in the courtyard after the service. I got the sense after speaking with Abdur Rahman and other brothers and sisters that the Islamic Society is entirely devoid of evangelism; rather, the goal is to offer a place for Muslims to feel a sense of community and support in their quest to live well in Allah’s eyes.