A white Rolls Royce pulled into a driveway on a service road off San Antonio Road in Palo Alto. The door opened, a man emerged and a crowd of 2,000 people erupted into thunderous cheers, their excitement tangible.
The man was Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin, the 53rd leader of the Dawoodi Bohra, a sub-sect of Shia Islam, and he traveled from India to Palo Alto on Saturday evening to officially bless the city's first-ever freestanding mosque. Construction on the mosque, which sits just west of U.S. Highway 101 on an offshoot of San Antonio Road across from the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, was completed last summer but could not operate as a religious space until the high priest visited.
The 12,000-square-foot mosque, an elegant yet simple building that melds traditional and modern architecture, began as an idea seven years ago when Durriya Tyabji, an artist originally from India who now lives in Los Altos Hills, wanted to build a more convenient, centralized place of worship and community gathering for about 100 Bay Area families who, along with her, belong to the Dawoodi Bohra sect. With a committed team of local architects, a contractor and Tyabji's husband, this idea became a reality over the last seven years, culminating with Saturday night's momentous visit.
"For me, the evening has been a dream," Tyabji said. "The reality hasn't sunk in. Today is the day that what we have been trying to do has come to fruition."
The high priest arrived at the south Palo Alto mosque to a band playing tin drums (and one trumpeter) and throngs of men, women and children dressed in their sect's traditional garb, the men and boys wearing all white three-piece outfits, called saya kurta, and white and gold hats. The women and girls were in stark contrast, dressed in bright colors and patterns, with the women all wearing ridas, a type of burqa, and their heads covered with scarves.
People came from all over the Bay Area, United States and even abroad for the high priest's first visit to the United States in this capacity. He stopped in Palo Alto as part of a blessing tour, with three other visits to Dawoodi Bohra mosques in Bakersfield, Los Angeles and Orange County.
Saturday's opening, called a iftetah, featured a symbolic opening of the mosque. Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin walked up the steps of the mosque, surrounded by a sea of white (and a drone hovering in the air to capture the moment) and unlocked a large, ornate lock hanging on the mosque's front doors, signaling the first formal opening of the masjid, or mosque. He then led the evening prayer inside a downstairs prayer hall, which is for men, with women watching from an upstairs room, which centers around a balcony that looks down into the first level.
(Depending on space, women traditionally pray either behind men or in a separate room to maintain modesty and ritual purity, but Tyajbi designed the upstairs prayer hall to be airy and comfortable with high ceilings, the same height as the men's room, and windows that look out onto the Palo Alto Foothills.)
Others in attendance watched the evening prayer via live stream on TVs in a separate community room or listened in a large white tent set up in an outside parking lot for overflow seating and a celebration held later in the evening.
At each stop on his California tour, the high priest has invited local officials to attend the celebratory events. Palo Alto City Manager James Keene, Councilman Marc Berman, Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, head of school at Kehillah Jewish High School, along with representatives from the offices of state Assemblyman Evan Low and Senator Jerry Hill, all attended. Following the evening prayer, each addressed the high priest, who sat in a throne-like armchair draped in blue and white embroidered cloth and placed on top of a raised stage. One man's eyes filled with tears as he watched the priest enter and sit down.
"We want to welcome you with an open heart to our city," said Keene, presenting the high priest with a tiny heart-shaped pin that represents "For the love of Palo Alto," a recent community discussion the city hosted to talk about why people love the city.
In Berman's comments, he honored the legacy and work of the sect's leader.
"As a global ambassador for peace, your dedication and devotion to humanity and work in health, medicine, education and the uplifting of the underprivileged is an inspiration to our diverse and welcoming community," Berman said. "Your leadership, focus on equality, respect for the environment and belief in citizenry is embedded in the Dawoodi Bohra community and Palo Alto is privileged that individuals and families of your religious community have made our city their home."
Kleinberg offered his own blessing, speaking the words in Hebrew and then translating into English.
Others noted the timely significance of the event during what one woman called a "climate of Islamophobia."
"In a climate where all you're hearing is about the violence and the conflict in terms of Muslim communities, so much in terms of the fact that the debate is centered on is there anything inherently violent within Islamic ideology?" said Durriya Badani, who traveled from Tampa, Florida, for the high priest's visit. "In contrast, his holiness only talks about remaining true to your Islamic identity but always be contributing, active, engaged citizens in whichever country you live in."
She described the Dawoodi Bohra sect as entrepreneurial, active and engaged, rooted in tradition but also embracing of American freedoms and culture. The south Palo Alto mosque is a manifestation of that dual identity, she said.
And it was designed as such, with both traditional Islamic elements modeled after a seminal mosque built in Cairo, Egypt, in 1125 A.D., and contemporary touches throughout. The mosque also pays homage to the sect's 53rd leader, with exactly 53 light bulbs on several modern, silver chandeliers that hang in both prayer halls.
The mosque will serve what is known as the "San Jose" congregation. A mosque in Fremont, which was blessed by the high priest's father in 2005, serves the "San Francisco" congregation.
And though construction finished last summer, there was one final decorative piece awaiting the high priest's arrival: a rectangle of white marble outlined in gold, with Arabic text written across: "bismillah ayahman arraheem," a prayer often recited before doing anything significant, Tyabji said. The text is studded with tiny rubies, and the entire piece could not be attached to its place over the mihrab, a hollowed out archway in the first-floor prayer hall that Tyabji defined as "the heart of the mosque" (it indicates the mosque's qibla, or the direction to Mecca, which Muslims must face while praying), until the priest puts in place one final ruby.
After he left, with the Orange County mosque to bless the next day, and after most people had gathered in the community room and outdoor tent to eat dinner served on top of large metal circles on the ground, Tyabji and members of her team Palo Alto contractor John Lerch and Abha Nehru of Palo Alto architecture firm Carrasco & Associates and others stood in the prayer hall and watched as two men attached the marble piece to the wall, putting the final touch on the mosque.