The founders of the Islamic Center of San Francisco didn’t choose Crescent Street for its Islamic symbolism. But it’s been in Bernal Heights since 1965, which makes it the oldest mosque in the Bay Area.
Ebrahim Nana, a former board member and current trustee, remembers making the drive from Mill Valley to San Francisco for Jummah, or Friday prayer. Until South African missionaries walked from one liquor store to another in the early 1980s to connect Bay Area Muslims, the center didn’t have enough people to hold the prayer when he first started attending in 1977. (Islamic tradition teaches that at least five and ideally more than seven people must be present.)
Nana also remembers upgrading the site from a center to a waqf mosque around the same time — a move that, from a religious standpoint, makes it permanent. Previously, many adherents would study in the U.S. and later return home, so few required a long-term place of worship.
“That’s not something that one would do lightly,” Nana says. But the waqf designation also came as prayers were held in other cities. “Instead of one big center, more local centers are being set up.”
The only other mosque Northern California Muslims had to choose from at the time was Masjid Annur in Sacramento, a trip that many made in spite of the distance. By 1980, two other Oakland mosques opened, but Muslim immigrants had not yet meaningfully connected with Black Muslims, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the One Nation Bay Area Project.
Many of the people who flock to Crescent Street are of Indian and Pakistani heritage, but members of several nationalities can be present at any one time. Although worshipers would come from all over the Bay Area, it’s easy to find San Francisco natives and residents of the immediate neighborhood.
Today, there are at least five mosques to choose from in the city. But another neighbor, Ishaque Shaikh, goes to the Islamic Center of San Francisco every day and knows that many fellow worshippers are local to Bernal. Others are cabbies-turned-Uber-drivers stopping to pray before embarking on their super-commutes from as far as Lodi.
Shaikh has been part of the Crescent Street center for 30 years and now sits on the board. He says neighbors have been very accommodating and helpful over the years, even letting worshipers park in their driveways during big Muslim holidays like Eid Al-Fitr.
“We give them a hard time,” Shaikh says, acknowledging the parking impact.
But some neighbors don’t reciprocate even that much tension — in fact, “We Love Muslims” signs have popped up nearby since the Trump administration took office. All are welcome any time but many non-Muslim neighbors typically wander in for the open house twice each year.
The center also has youth programs, such as teaching Arabic, because “if we don’t take care of our youngsters, our religion goes,” Shaikh says.
Amaan Shaikh, no relation to Shaikh, is one of the youngsters who took their Arabic lessons and has attended the mosque since he was eight years old. He describes it as a close-knit community where he was able to make Muslim friends, something that was harder when he attended Rooftop Elementary School in Twin Peaks.
The 19-year-old is happy the center still exists as a place where his extended family still gathers. But he also looks to the religious center nestled in Bernal as a way to unwind from the busy region.
“I kind of think of these prayers as a form of meditation,” Amaan says. “It’s a relaxing thing.”
Read more from SF Weekly’s Bernal Heights issue:
Everybody Loves Bernal Heights!
But the beauty and charm of San Francisco’s preeminent urban village may not be fully appreciated.
From Bikini Joggers to Dead Cats: Bernalwood’s Tales of a Neighborhood
For eight years, the “community-powered news magazine” Bernalwood has carried the heart of Bernal Heights.
The Thrillpeddler: How Bernal Heights’ Punk Record Shop Keeps It Real
The volunteer-run Thrillhouse Records encourages people to come by with a beer and hang out.
Co-founder Angela Wilson on the challenges of running Bernal Heights’ beloved butcher shop.