Fairy lights and Persian rugs guided Muslims up an elegant, high-ceilinged stairway and into a special religious service held Friday to mark the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is undertaken by some 1.8 million Muslims every year.
Although none of those in Oakland’s Iranian community who attended a service at the Islamic Cultural Center for Northern California had completed the Hajj this year, they came out to celebrate Eid ul-Ahda, the end of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, with two prayers and two sermons in downtown Oakland.
Eid ul-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abrahim to sacrifice his son Ishamel to God. Muslims around the world believe that a sheep was killed in Ishamel’s place, and now celebrate by slaughtering livestock to distribute among the less fortunate. They also observe a day of prayers.
Muslim communities held fairs and family events around the Bay Area on Friday to mark the event. The day is an opportunity for Muslims to spend time with their communities and give gifts to children.
At the Oakland center, about100 people knelt on prayer mats, repeating verses from the Qur’an and following prayers led by Imam Rahim Nobahar, with men and women sitting or kneeling in separate areas of the room and the elderly seated in chairs.
“It is mandatory for every rich Muslim to go to pilgrimage once during his or her life,” Nobahar said. But Muslims who can’t afford to visit Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, celebrate the end of the five-day Hajj by praying and spending time with their families and the Muslim community.
“The holiness and the greatness and significance of these days and nights are not limited to those who are in pilgrimage,” Nobahar said in a sermon to the kneeling congregation.
“Still, you have time to do something, sisters and brothers,” Nobahar said, as he solicited donations for a food bank to help the less fortunate.
Completing the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, but only for Muslims with the financial and physical means to travel to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The other pillars are daily prayers, a declaration of faith, offering regular charity and fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Shiite Muslims, the predominant Islamic sect in Iran, celebrate two Eid festivals in addition to Eid ul-Adha: Eid ul-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid ul-Ghadeer, to mark the prophet Mohammed’s appointment of Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor.
“I had the fortune of going to Hajj with my brother about 8 years ago and experience that first-hand,” said Hamid Rezapour, a co-founder of ICCNC.
After growing up in Tehran, Iran’s capital, Rezapour moved to the Bay Area 33 years ago, graduating from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with an MBA before going on to practice dentistry for over two decades.
“For me, this takes me back to my Hajj experience and that was really an unforgettable, very personal experience that everyone should experience on their own, inshallah,” he said of his pilgrimage.
Yasir Al-Wakeel recently moved to Oakland from London and said he was attending the ceremony to get to know the Bay Area’s Muslim community. He went on Hajj in 2007.
“It was a lot harder than I thought,” he said. “I thought it would be like sitting on a mountain and contemplating God.”
During their journey to Mecca, pilgrims are taught to assume a state of self-control known as ihram, and not to harm any living creatures or raise their voices. They also wear two pieces of unsewn white cloth, to symbolize their equality before God.
“Hajj to me is a microcosm of my life: you’re spending time trying to observe certain rituals,” Al-Wakeel said. “And it’s not easy to accomplish those basic acts of walking from point A to B to C, because of the number of people around you.”
Pilgrims also circle the Ka’aba, which Muslims believe to to be the first sanctuary on earth dedicated to the one true God; gather near Mount Arafah, where the prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon; and throw stones at three pillars symbolizing a rejection of evil temptations.
“But at the same time, you’ve got to try not to lose focus of the ultimate purpose of why you’re walking from A to B,” Al-Wakeel said. “And that to me is just like life. In life you’re being pulled and pushed in all directions, and in Hajj, you’re physically pulled and pushed in all directions. But what you’ve got to do is make sure that that central force is pulling you back to the epicenter, which is God.”
The events hosted by the ICCNC are primarily attended by the Bay Area’s Persian community, but Rabia Dastmalchi, a volunteer and committee-member at the center, said that this is changing.
“The people who tend to utilize this Mosque are mostly Persian people from Iran,” she said. “But that’s changing–we’re beginning to draw in more people from the neighborhood,” she said. “People are using this as a gathering place and I think that’s really positive.”