With Song And Celebration, Mosque Chips Away At Sunni-Shiite Divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims have been in conflict for centuries. But a mosque in the Bay Area is trying to break down those walls. With music, open mic nights and open arms, they've found common ground.

With Song And Celebration, Mosque Chips Away At Sunni-Shiite Divide

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we started the program in the Middle East. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Sunni and Shia Muslims are often in headlines because of fighting between the two groups. But the San Francisco Bay Area, one mosque is trying to be a model of Sunni-Shia harmony. Hana Baba of station KALW reports that the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California is finding more common ground than conflict.

HANA BABA, BYLINE: First off, it doesn't look like your average mosque. The towering majestic turn-of-the-century building used to be Masonic temple. Manager Azita Sayyah says that history is cherished here.

AZITA SAYYAH: Each inch of this building is just - has a meaning.

BABA: So went the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California bought it, she says, they left the high painted glass windows as is. They left the pews and the pipe organ. What they did change is one of the decor. The stained-glass windows now have the names of God painted on them in Arabic. There are Persian rugs on the wooden floors, Persian art on the walls and the smells are different, with the old Masonic dining hall now serving things like saffron rice and lamb kabobs.

SAYYAH: For Muslim people, getting together and eating together is a very holy thing to do.

BABA: The center hosts plays, open mic nights, painting, ceramics classes. Artistic expression is a focus here for a reason, says mosque leader Ali Sheikhulislami. It fills an important gap in the current conversations about Islam.

ALI SHEIKHULISLAMI: I think one missing thing in the whole - right now, today - is the beauty - you know, really, really paying attention to the beauty of Islam and its rich history.

BABA: Which is why this doesn't sound like your average mosque either.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

BABA: Many mosques preach against even listening to music, let alone playing it on the premises. But here, in a huge auditorium filled with dozens of people, a Moroccan singer on stage sings the praises of Prophet Mohammed, playing a stringed instrument called an oud.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUD MUSIC)

BABA: Next to him, a man plays a North African drum called the dumbek.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUMBEK MUSIC)

BABA: People here are white, black, Asian, some in embroidered green Sufi robes, others in black Shia turbans or flowing white Arab jalabeyas. Some women cover their hair. Some don't. Ask anyone who's been to a mosque - this scene is definitely not a common one, which is precisely why many people feel comfortable here - people like Imrul Mazid.

IMRUL MAZID: I identify as Shia. My parents are Sunni, but we're all Muslim, you know. It's all one (laughter).

BABA: He's a 35-year-old teacher from Oakland who converted from Sunni to Shia in his 20s. He says he gets along fine with his parents, but not all conversations are comfortable. The main disagreement between the sects is a big one - who should have succeeded the prophet.

MAZID: Among my Sunni peers or family friends, I might not be that open about it. There's a long history of persecution against Shias, and you got to be smart (laughter), you know.

BABA: But Mazid says there's plenty they do agree on, and it's frustrating others can't see past the ideas that divide. He's especially tired of people nitpicking differences in the small things, like how to stand during prayer.

MAZID: Oh, man, your hand - you pray like this, man. Your hands are like this. My hands are like that. You do - you know, it doesn't matter, you know? It's about the message itself.

BABA: Mazid says that's why he likes this center. These issues aren't fought over here. Center cofounder Amid Sheikhulislami says that's the point of this place - to break down those walls. And he says being far away from the Middle East gives room for that.

AMID SHEIKHULISLAMI: We are able to come to this country and practice the religion the way we want to and to do it in a way that we're tolerant of each other.

BABA: He says this center is reflecting what's happening nationwide with the growing number of mixed Sunni-Shia families.

AMID SHEIKHULISLAMI: We were talking to a friend, and he said, my - you know, my mother is Sunni, and my father is Shia, and said - and so he said, we call ourselves sushi (laughter).

BABA: Sheikhulislami says in this space, there's no room for divisions. All Muslims are one, he says. All are sushis. For NPR News, I'm Hana Baba in Oakland.

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