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See the spectacular Sufi temple built with Cheesecake Factory money

White-domed sanctuary divided tiny town of Saranap

Music and culture publication Fader took a look this week at the startling but tranquil Sufi temple in Saranap financed largely by Cheesecake Factory founder David Overton.

Several obvious questions present themselves—chiefly, where is Saranap and why does it now have a $20 million Sufi temple?

Saranap, it turns out, is a small town of just over 5,000 in Contra Costa County, bounded on the south and east by Walnut Creek and on the north and west by Lafayette, but those who don’t recognize the name right off the bat can hardly be blamed.

Back in 2006 the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the town:

Driving from Lafayette to Walnut Creek, you could pass through Saranap without ever knowing it. There are no welcome signs for this Balkanized village, and the name isn't on any business in the commercial strip. You can't even find it on an addressed envelope.

Saranap is a long-lost railroad town and, ironically, the only place that honors it is the Saranap Filling Station.

Apparently the village has always kept a low profile. Which makes the addition of its new multi-million dollar Sufism Reoriented center at 11 White Horse Court (which officially opened in March) all the more surprising.

In 1952, Indian-born spiritual leader Meher Baba—who, according to his followers, went almost 44 years without speaking, communicating to his congregants through written means only—founded his Sufism Reoriented order in tiny Saranap.

Sufism is a branch of Islam, noted for its mysticism, meditation practices, and music and poetry tradition. The Oxford Islamic Studies center says the faith emphasizes “cultivation of the soul over social interaction” and “emotion and imagination” over literalism and logic.

[Update: Duncan Knowles, Sufism Reoriented’s spokesperson, tells Curbed SF that the Saranap congregation does not identify as Muslim .

“In 1952 Meher Baba totally reoriented this spiritual order and school to make it an entirely new spiritual path, intended for living a life of love and service in the Americas,” says Knowles. “Today Sufism Reoriented is a nonsectarian, thoroughly American approach to worship.”]

The Saranap Sufi sect is relatively few in number (estimates range in a few hundred people) but it seems they’ve mostly just been regarded as part of the community after 65 years.

Fader writes:

They ran a popular elementary school attended by many children outside of their faith; they were recognized for their agreeability, their youth-arts and food-bank charities, and their penchant for dressing in whites and soft pastels.

[...] Their anonymous, walled-off headquarters was a former nightclub called the Iron Gate. They were mostly white, largely well-educated, and generally middle-aged or older. They were well-liked, accommodating, low-key.

But, of course, this being the Bay Area, some locals pushed back when designs for Sufism Reoriented’s huge, new, white 66,000-square-foot sanctuary made up of “13 interlocking domes” came up five years ago.

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Walnut Creek Patch reported some of the complaints about the Sufi project at one of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors meetings:

Ellen Osmundsen said the project is too big. The county board should assemble a task force to examine the effect of the excavation required. She suggested Sufi leaders meet with the Saranap Homeowners Organization to come up with "a smaller design to accommodate all of your needs."

[...] Dennis England said, "I've always valued the quiet nature of our neighborhood with a semi-rural atmosphere. I have fought various proposals to take away from that … We do not want to have a showcase, as this has been portrayed.

Neighborhood critics questioned why a small religious community needs a temple with more square footage than the White House (albeit two thirds of it underground) and designed by a New York firm, Philip Johnson Alan Ritchie. But the Sufis had particular reasons underpinning their designs.

Says Fader:

The softly arching domes, the color white: these are “a physical expression to the faith principles of a congregation,” [Sufism Reoriented member] Pascal Kaplan said. The proposed sanctuary was “sacred architecture.”

Despite the wrangling and some harsh words spoken, the Sufis eventually got their sacred space. Much of the money came from David Overton, founder and CEO of the Cheesecake Factory and a longtime member of the congregation.

Back in March, San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King characterized the building as “massive and static” and noted that despite the scale the grounds seem “cramped.”

However, King also said that “despite all this, the curvaceous compound radiates an otherworldly air” and called it a one-of-a-kind find in the Bay Area ‘burbs.

As for the Sufis themselves, head of the order Carol Weyland Conner calls the final structure an expression of “the still, sacred space at the center of the human heart, where man is joined with and can know God.”