Most of us learn as early as elementary school that it’s best not to judge a book by its cover. Of course, the principle applies to making assumptions based on external appearance, and sometimes adults need a reminder that differences among people are, in part, what make life interesting. However, there are many more aspects that people have in common, which may escape our notice.
As Canyon Country has mirrored the growth of the Santa Clarita Valley as a whole, its human landscape has broadened. As the number of residents grows, so does the breadth of cultures, food sources and religious opportunities.
When you pass Al-Umma Center on Sierra Highway, less than a mile north of Soledad Canyon Road, you may not know that it is a place of worship if you aren’t acquainted with Islam. The Muslim mosque was established in 2013 and occupies the property that used to be a tile and granite store. It was originally the area’s first feed store, said Majub El Arabi, a founding member of Al-Umma Center, who said they chose the name for the mosque to give it a connotation of a community center.
“From time to time we have family nights, where we invite the community and bring food and have a movie for the kids. And we have a youth group with a lot of activities,” El Arabi said. “We saw Canyon Country as a developing area. What better way to serve the community than to establish a center in the eastern part of the valley.”
There are hundreds of mosques in Southern California, three in Santa Clarita. Al-Umma Center was opened to serve the eastern side of the valley, which enables Muslim worshipers to find one conveniently close to their homes and workplaces. It is an added convenience during their five prayer periods per day, called “Salat.”
Each prayer time has an Arabic name: Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha’a. There are a certain number of “Rakaas” for each period of prayers, which is an act where Muslims bow, prostrate on the floor. The floor at Al-Umma Center has markers (photo above), which guide the body placement of worshipers so they face Mecca.
The local congregation gathers together on Fridays for prayers and reading verses from their holy book, the Quran, which is written and recited in Arabic. They hear sermons from fellow members, which are delivered in English.
“Most of our community is not Arab-speaking,” El Arabi said. “The Muslim world is made up of, roughly, 1.8 billion people, but the Arab world is only about 400 million. People mix up Muslim and Arab. Arabs don’t have to be Muslims.”
El Arabi and his family are Americans, and he brought his three children to his native country of Libya many times. He believes it would benefit this country if each young person could travel overseas.
“I think it would enlighten them,” El Arabi said. “They would be better-rounded people and appreciate more what we have. We always think the world revolves around here, but there’s a whole world out there. We are a very small part of the world.”
El Arabi moved to the United States to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a degree in engineering. A job in the oil industry brought El Arabi to Santa Clarita in 1982. His children, now grown, attended local public schools and grew up in this community, where the prominent religions are Christianity and Judaism.
“Most of our friends are non-Muslims and they are the greatest people in the world,” said El Arabi, who sits on the board of trustees for Al-Umma Center. “We create these places not to convert people, but so people can worship. … Faith is more on the individual. The spiritual part of it is personal.”
“The Muslim religion requires the faithful to fast for one month during the daytime, from sunrise until sunset, and in that month we gather together at the mosque for more prayers,” El Arabi explained.
During Ramadan, the congregation comes together to break the fast, after sundown. Members take turns hosting the nightly meal in the outdoor area at Al-Umma Center. There are sometimes 200-250 people who attend those events.
“We hosted an interfaith event one night and we had 25-30 guests who were non-Muslims. People were very amazed at how lively the place is,” El Arabi said.
In addition to the simple lack of exposure Americans have had to the beliefs of Islam and the message of the Quran, El Arabi points out the image portrayed in the news, particularly when reporting a terrorist attack.
“The media doesn’t do a good job,” he said. “Every time there is a terrorist, they show people praying. … They’re contributing to the ignorance of people. … Islam does not condone any of this.”
It has been smooth sailing for Al-Umma Center’s experience in Canyon Country so far.
“We’ve never had any issue at all,” El Arabi said. “One of the things that was really gratifying was when we went through the permitting process. The city sent out a letter to people within 500 feet from the boundaries of the mosque property to see if they had an objection. … They had to include hundreds of (apartment) units. If somebody says no, they don’t have to justify it. … When they sent the letter, nobody objected.”
The Muslim congregation sometimes gets letters of approval from individuals in town, saying they are happy to have the Center here. “By and large, we’ve been good neighbors to them and they’ve been good to us,” El Arabi said.