It’s well past midnight and I’m cooped up against a corner with my laptop outside the prayer room. I furiously begin to hammer away at the keyboard to write up this blog post so I can at least salvage a few hours of sleep before I have to get up again and head to the next state.
A guy named Jason decorated with piercings and tattoos walks into the room alongside a girl named Jacqui wearing a white headscarf. Jason’s friend Fedi is with them too and asks me to tag along.
“They’re about to get married,” he said. “Want to be a witness?”
My phone reads 12:42 a.m. The only thing I can think about right now is by the time this wedding is over, the only place to hold the reception at would be Taco Bell (what else would be open?)
Wait, wedding? What? Before I get up to basically be the Best Man at a wedding for a guy I met about three hours ago, how the heck did I get here?
I walked inside The Ta’Leef Collective in the Bay Area tonight encountering a radiance I’ve very rarely witnessed before. The center is often described as a “safe space” for Muslims from all walks of life. I look around the room and see everyone from men covered in tattoos, clubbing-types with spiked hair and pencil-thin facial hair, elderly men decked out in South Asian garb, basketball-nerds with matching fitted hats and jerseys, women in face veils and other women with multi-colored hair and spiked earrings.
I’ve been to hundreds of mosques in my lifetime, but nothing like this. Almost every person in this room, if they were to step foot inside a mosque, they’d get dirty looks. Heck, if I were in the mosque and saw them, I bet I might even give some of them a look or two. But it was something comforting about this place that didn’t make that an issue at all. I had to find out why.
I chat at length with Usama Canon and Mustafa Davis, the co-founders of the center. I asked how they’re able to attract people to this center who probably get hostile reactions when they enter mosques.
“We have a very clear agenda where we say ‘Come as you are to Islam as it is,’” Mustafa said. “The reason we have that second part is because we’re not trying to change the religion.”
Mustafa said the reason why they try to embrace everyone’s identity is because of a rampant problem Muslims have at mosques that I’m sure we’re all guilty of at times.
“We’re trying to stop the schizophrenia that often exists in the Muslim community where ‘I’m religious in the mosque and there’s a certain set of rules I’ve got to follow at the mosque,’” Mustafa said. “’ But when I leave, those rules I don’t have to follow anymore.’”
It’s true. Mosques can often become theatres, where Muslims come in and put on masks when they step inside the place and pretend to be someone else. I asked Usama how do you address that problem, especially with such a wide net of people that frequent The Ta’Leef Collective. He said the center emphasizes how the circle is just as sacred of a space as it is a social one for people to feel welcome in.
“What we’re trying to nurture is a very visceral God consciousness that is not limited to a particular place,” he said. “In other words, when I’m the ‘Social-Me,’ I’m still the ‘Muslim-Me.’ When I’m the ‘Muslim-Me’ I’m still the ‘Social-Me.’
My conversation is cut short by someone holding a tray with some sort of metallic vase on it. Inside the metallic container are wood embers emanating an aroma whose scent is so vivid the hairs on my arms begin to tingle.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s oud,” the man said. “It’s kind of like an incent made from rare wood. Breathe it in.”
I have no idea what to do here but I’m the kind of person who loves jumping in head first into experiences that seem foreign to me. The man tells me to take off my fedora and cup it over the embers. I let the aroma sift through the fabric on my hat before I place it back upon my head. The wood scents begin to massage my scalp taking away a headache I had been dealing with earlier.
“Nice and toasty,” I said.
Watching me try out the aroma is Jason. Underneath the gray wool cap and thick brown hipster glasses he’s wearing are two lip rings circulating through right side of his lower lip and studs almost the diameter of dimes popping through the bottom of his earlobes. I asked Jason when he accepted Islam two years ago, how people responded to his appearance.
“You come to Islam as who you are,” he said. “I had people coming up to me saying I needed to dress differently or change my name. But it’s not about that. It’s really what you have for your heart and what you have for the Creator upstairs.”
I look down at his arms and notice a forearm tattoo of a red-haired woman holding a spraypaint can. I ask him how does he mentally deals with the criticism from many Muslims he encounters about the way he looks.
“I always represented this as a test,” From the very beginning, I was told Allah tests the ones that he loves. He doesn’t put too much on your plate that you can’t handle. So my test is going to be very different from your test, know what I mean?”
He shared with me one example where he felt he was “tested” by getting flack for his tattoos.
“After I got done praying once, a guy pulled me outside and said I can’t come inside the mosque with my tattoos,” he said. “Then he tried to tell me his kid wants to get tattoos and he literally blamed me for his son. Who am I to judge him though, may Allah help him and help us all.”
It’s past midnight as most of the people at the center have left. I pull out my suitcase from the car and set up camp inside the prayer room for where I’m sleeping for the night. But first thing is first, I need to blog. I begin writing about my encounter with Jason and am drawing a blank about what his tattoo looks like. I look around and don’t see him and get frustrated because I really wanted to paint a vivid picture of what it looked like for the blog post.
Seconds later (literally), Jason comes walking back into the center with Jacqui, the woman he’s about to marry. Myself and a few other people still inside the mosque gather around for the wedding ceremony. But before the wedding takes place, Jacqui tells Usama she wants to embrace Islam. Usama first walks her through the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith basically saying there is only one God and Prophet Muhammad was his final messenger.
Next, Usama asks Jason to join Jackie as he officiates their wedding ceremony. I look at my phone – 1:13 a.m. Wow, this is really happening. Usama explains to them the terms of the marriage the two agreed upon and leads the group in a small prayer to bless the couple’s new union. The couple is now married and everyone takes their turn to congratulate the newlyweds.
I hug Jason congratulating him for what just went down.
“So how about that,” he said with his piercing smile. “We just met a few hours ago and now you’re here at my wedding. Allah’s mercy is beautiful.”
Jason told me he met Jackie, an atheist at the time, at his work a few months ago. The two began talking but Jason realized he shouldn’t try pursuing anything. He wanted to cut things off because his faith was important to him and wanted come closer to God alongside someone else who had similar beliefs. He couldn’t ask her to convert either because Islam forbids forcing someone to believe in the faith. But she soon she developed an interest in Islam on her own, making Jason question if he should have cut things off to begin with.
He added many of his friends, including Usama, would give him flack asking him if he feels serious about this girl, why waste her time if he’s not willing to commit to her for marriage?
“So when did this whole plan to marry her go down?” I asked.
“About an hour ago when I was talking to Usama in the parking lot bro,” he said. “It just felt like the right thing to do and I feel even better about it now.”
Islam is a fairly simple religion to follow. But oftentimes we as human beings overcomplicate things. Take Muslim weddings for example, in some cases families will spend tens of thousands (in some case hundreds of thousands!) of dollars on lavish festivities. But for Jason and Jackie, I don’t think you could ever put a price tag on how beautiful those two looked getting ready to start not only their physical lives together but their spiritual ones as well.
Like I was saying before, all the sights I encountered today would probably seem bizarre at any other Muslim establishment in this country. But there must have been something in the air at this place that made it seem so natural. And it’s got to be more than just the aroma from the wood embers that are still engrained into my hat.