On a quiet Wednesday night, the Lighthouse Mosque in North Oakland is packed and bustling. Men and women pour into the place of worship, some with calm grace and others with visible glee and excitement, as they gather for Iftar, a special evening meal during which Muslims break their daylong fast and pray.
Iftar is mainly practiced during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Observing the fast during this sacred month is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam. On this evening, they are fasting for Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar and one of the four sacred months of the year.
Both Shia and Sunni Muslims observe Muharram; the Shia use the tenth day, Ashura, to mourn and commemorate Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who died at the battle of Karbala in AD 680. Sunni Muslims engage in a voluntary fast on Ashura to follow the example of Muhammad, who fasted on the tenth day in the city of Medina in 622.
Sundiata Al Rashid is Lighthouse’s Emir: his duties including arranging the Friday sermons, giving announcements and teaching a few classes. Al Rashid highlighted another reason for the community’s observation of the sacred month: “The days of Muharram are important because these are known as the days where Moses was freed from Pharaoh,” he said. “So Muslims, to commemorate that, do a highly-recommended fast. It corresponds with the Jewish day Yom Kippur.”
Facing the direction of Mecca, members of the Lighthouse community in rows bow their backs, then kneel on their floor and bow once again in reverence. The room is silent and still as the ritual is performed several times in succession.
When the prayer is completed, the atmosphere reverts to a calm excitement. A few children run around, laughing and chasing each other back and forth. An older member tells one young boy to calm down, and the child darts back to his friends.The set up team begins rolling out plastic mats on the floor. The younger men turn to talk to each other, while the older ones cluster into groups throughout the room.
A group of Senegalese men huddle into a corner of the mosque and begin reciting a Dhikr, a chant of praise for their creator. Their voices fill the entire space, though everyone else continues on with their conversations. Esa Drammeh, a Senegalese Lighthouse attendee, said that these men are Mourides and part of the Mouridiyyah, a large Sunni brotherhood founded in Senegal in 1883.
Explaining the meaning of the chant, Drammeh said they are repeating the same phrase over and over, but with a different melody: “There is no one worthy except Allah.” “It was mostly Arabic,” Drammeh said. “Sometimes they would add a Senegalese word, you know, just to add more melody.”
The Senegalese members maintain a regular presence at Lighthouse and are one of the many cultures that make up the diverse Lighthouse community, which reflects the eclectic ethnic makeup of Oakland, ranging from Middle Eastern to African American to Latino to White.
Drammeh is part of the Mouride brotherhood, and said they asked the Lighthouse board if they could host Iftar at the mosque. “In the past we’ve asked the Lighthouse community if we could host it there, and they’ve accepted,” Drammeh said. “Whenever the Senegalese community comes, it’s a lively Iftar. My son thought it was Wakanda,” Al Rashid said with a hearty laugh, referring to the fictional African country from the hit Marvel film Black Panther. “He was like, ‘Daddy they’re doing that Wakanda song!’”
Al Rashid said the Senegalese chanting reminded him of his ancestry and how grateful he was to experience this culture. “As an African American, I could just see, like, our African roots,” Al Rashid said. “How they were dancing and they were moving, that was like how my dad’s generation was. They would stand on the corner and croon. They called it ‘bebop,’ but it looked like what they [the Senegalese] were doing.”
The lighthouse community has continued to attract Muslim worshippers from different backgrounds with their hospitality and culture of inclusion. The mosque was co-founded in by Imam Zaid Shakir and Usama Canon. Shakir is a senior faculty member of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, while Canon is a Zaytuna graduate and founder of the Ta’leef Collective. The collective is non-profit organization based in Fremont, CA and Chicago, IL, and serves as a space for Muslims to delve into their faith outside of the Mosque.
Lighthouse is a Sunni mosque, though Al Rashid says all are welcome. The mosque also does outreach through their Community Feeding Program, which meets every last Saturday of the month and is ran by Rosalyn Abdullah. Alice Muhammad runs a similar Lighthouse program through the Rainbow Recreation Center in East Oakland.
Jamil Lacey, a Lighthouse member who regularly attends events at the mosque, said that they are an important part of his life. “This is essentially home. The camaraderie comes from doing right, living clean lives,” Lacey said. “And in the academic interest, we get fed so well; we learn a lot from each other.”
When the food is finally laid out for the Iftar meal, members are greeted by the aromatic fragrance of Senegalese dishes. They line up to eat hearty, filling servings of lamb, chicken and millet, often described as “Senegalese couscous.” People volunteer to cook each Iftar meal.
Serving as the hosts of this Iftar, Senegalese members prepared the food. Members sit together on the floor as they fill themselves with the warm meal. For Lighthouse member Abdul Amilik, Iftars remind him of the joys of being a Muslim. “My first Iftar was [during] Ramadan. It was something I’ve never experienced before because everyone is nice to each other, hugging and praying together. It got to the point where I couldn’t wait to go to Iftar,” Amilik said.
“I couldn’t wait to break my fast and try the different foods and talk to different people from all over the world,” he continued. “What were the chances of me being able to come in contact with people from all these different parts of the world and cultures if it wasn’t for Islam?”