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For Ramadan worshipers, Thai Muslim mosque in Azusa offers diverse practice of faith

For Ramadan worshipers, Thai Muslim mosque in Azusa offers diverse practice of faith
Sahrish Akram snaps a photo with her family after taking part in setup for an interfaith iftar — the meal that breaks the day's fast — hosted by Masjid Al-Fatiha in Azusa. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It was near 5:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and Aranyani Phyakul had only a few hours before congregants started arriving for Ramadan prayers and iftar — the meal that breaks the day's fast.

Phyakul is in charge of daily operations at Masjid Al-Fatiha, a small Thai mosque in Azusa that was founded 20 years ago.

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She scurried into her office and began to delegate tasks.

"Make sure you cut the cucumbers in a slant and put a few slices in each plate," Phyakul reminded a worshiper.

As Ramadan enters its second week, and Memorial Day is celebrated across Southern California, Muslims have gathered with family and close friends to observe the holy month meant to encourage self-reflection and piety.

As with many mosques across Southern California, congregants at Masjid Al-Fatiha extended the invitation to people of all faiths to join them one evening for prayer and to break the day's fast.

"What better way than sharing a meal with people and having them see our community?" Phyakul said.

It's a fitting objective for a mosque known within the Muslim community for embracing diversity and uniting Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds.

Phyakul's father, Rahmat, was raised as a Buddhist in Thailand until he met his wife, Sukatee, in the 1960s and converted to Islam.

The establishment of the Thai mosque underscores Southern California's diverse Muslim population, according to Jihad Turk, president of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School.

"Every mosque has its own culture because in Islam there is no hierarchical structure," Turk said. "Some mosques tend to focus on the culture of the founders from back home, wherever that may be, or others are adjusted in the American context."

A child plays as men offer their nightly Ramadan prayers this month at Masjid Al-Fatiha.
A child plays as men offer their nightly Ramadan prayers this month at Masjid Al-Fatiha. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates there are around 500,000 Muslims in the region. In 2010, there were 59 mosques serving about 69,000 Muslims in Los Angeles County, according to USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Some of the most established mosques in Southern California still tend to reflect the country of origin of its founders, according to Brie Loskota, executive director of the USC center.

"Other people from that country know people at the mosque so they become worshipers there," Loskota said. "So that mosque becomes more known to the larger community and develops its own character."

Congregants at the Thai mosque are not only from Southeast Asia, but also first- and second-generation immigrants from Bangladesh, Niger, Pakistan, India and Morocco, as well as white and African American converts.

At first, community members were wary of the Thai mosque when it was built, Phayakul said.

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"People didn't know what to make of us. They thought it was going to disrupt their life," she said. "You don't expect a Muslim to look like me."

The Thai mosque offers a space for worshipers who want to develop their faith but who don't necessarily want to adhere to strict rules imposed at more conservative mosques.

"Our parents decided to establish this Masjid for the future of their grandkids," Phyakul said. "The way we interact with people is out of love."

The mosque's subsequent popularity within the Muslim community suggests it is filling congregants' spiritual needs.

For Sahrish Akram, the mosque has given her a second chance at connecting with her faith.

"I don't get judged here," Akram said. "I always feel included no matter if I wear jeans, or if I don't wear a headscarf."

Jing Wang, left, is greeted by Aranyani Phyakul, executive director of Masjid Al-Fatiha.
Jing Wang, left, is greeted by Aranyani Phyakul, executive director of Masjid Al-Fatiha. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent Saturday evening, more than 120 people from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds gathered at the mosque's parking lot before sunset.

Not far from sight, dozens of plates filled with dates and pastries lined tables.

The temptation to eat was strong.

Groups huddled near the food, some fixated on the sugary delights. Some hadn't had anything to drink or eat for over 15 hours. But worshipers resisted the urge.

Kaamilah Sha, 17, and her friend Rukan Saif, 16, stood at the entrance of the mosque, greeting worshipers as they arrived and encouraged guests to wear hijabs — a headscarf worn to show modesty.

The Arcadia High School students wrapped their arms around each other and posed for a picture under a sign that read "Ramadan Kareem," a common greeting during the holy month.

Rukan invited Kaamilah to the gathering last year, and the girls returned this year.

Kaamilah grew up in a diverse household in the San Gabriel Valley. Her parents are Chinese; her dad is Muslim, her mom Christian. It's that type of inclusion she craves but has a hard time finding at other mosques, she said.

"Other mosques can be too conservative," Kaamilah said. "This is the most diverse mosque I've been to."

Abdonrosak Mahachal, 35, leads nightly prayers during the month of Ramadan. Mahachai is a hafiz — a person who has memorized the entire Koran.
Abdonrosak Mahachal, 35, leads nightly prayers during the month of Ramadan. Mahachai is a hafiz — a person who has memorized the entire Koran. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Shortly before sunset, the guests filed inside the mosque for prayer.

It's customary in Islamic tradition, as in some other Abrahamic faiths, to separate the sexes during prayer.

Men sat in the front and women huddled in back; but unlike with other mosques, no walls or curtains separated them.

The room was packed as the Koran reciter, Abdonrosak Mahachal, began singing the call to prayer. His voice filled the renovated room with rhythmic passages from the Koran.

Mahachal is a hafiz — a person who has memorized the entire Koran — from the Songkhla province in southern Thailand. The 35-year-old is one of many Koran reciters invited to America during Ramadan.

By the time evening prayers finished, night had fallen.

Muslim congregants eager to break fast rushed toward tables filled with plates of appetizers. They bit into plump dates and washed it down with sweetened tea.

Nearby, Hadiara Diallo and her guest Carr Oduro began serving guests the main course: Thai food.

Diallo, a first-generation immigrant from Niger, moved to America 33 years ago and said the community of worshipers at the mosque make her feel comfortable for how she chooses to practice Islam.

"There's no politics here and no preaching," she said. "I can hug people if I want and nobody judges me. After prayer people actually talk."

It was the first time Oduro, a 46-year-old programmer, observed Ramadan.

Oduro, who is Christian, said she wanted to be at the interfaith gathering because as more Muslims and minorities face discrimination in the Trump era, she wants to get to know different communities.

"In this climate we have to get together and talk," Oduro said.

Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad

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