Outside a small, converted house in Lomita, a group of Muslim faithful wait for the sun to inch past its zenith, signaling the time for Friday jum'a prayers.
As the ancient Arabic call to prayer is broadcast over a public address system, conversations grind to a halt.
Basima Abdelkarim, a 17-year-old Palestinian whose family moved to Torrance five years ago, adjusts the traditional hijab scarf that covers her hair, slips off her shoes and crowds into the mosque with fellow Muslims from more than a dozen countries.
By the time latecomers squeeze their cars into the parking lot, the rows of praying worshipers extend out the door.
Narrow mats are hastily rolled out into the lot so congregants outside can join the service, prostrating themselves toward faraway Mecca and touching their foreheads to the faded rugs.
Inside, Hasan Ud Din Hashmi, a Pakistani scholar of Islamic studies who immigrated to California eight years ago, leads his nearly 200-strong congregation in reciting Islam's 1,300-year-old creed:
"I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."
Although the congregants come from places as different as Thailand and Morocco, this basic belief draws them to the Islamic Center of the South Bay each Friday.
"Islam is not different whether it's in Saudi Arabia, Iran or here in America," said Hashmi, recently appointed imam, or spiritual leader, of the Lomita mosque.
The mosque, which attracts Muslims from all over the South Bay, is for many an oasis of familiarity in an alien, Christian-dominated society.
Abdelkarim, who graduated from Torrance High School in June, said the center is a haven where she can socialize with other Muslims her own age and practice her religion at the same time. "Without the mosque, my life would be empty," she said.
A growing number of Muslim immigrants, like Abdelkarim and her family, has helped to boost membership at the Lomita mosque from 30 families in 1985 to 100 today. An additional 400 are on the center's mailing list.
The small building on Walnut Avenue, purchased just five years ago, is already far too cramped for its burgeoning congregation.
"We didn't realize there would be so many Muslims coming," said Zaffar Hassanally, a member of the board of directors and one of the center's founders. "We're out of space. It's packed."
The center's beginnings date back to 1982, when Hassanally's family and a few friends starting meeting for prayers at each other's homes.
As the numbers grew, the group rented progressively larger rooms wherever they could--first in the Courtyard Mall in Rolling Hills Estates, then at the Torrance YMCA and finally at the Clark Stadium Community Building in Hermosa Beach. Finally, the congregation bought its Lomita property, tucked behind a 7-Eleven store that fronts Pacific Coast Highway.
"At that point, we needed a permanent place where we could pray and also set up classrooms for the children," said Hassanally, who moved here from Pakistan and started a real estate firm in Torrance.
Drawing on Muslim immigrants from around the world, the South Bay center is marked by tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity that contributes to a unique religious atmosphere, Hashmi said.
Although there are no Kuwaitis in the congregation, Hashmi said there was concern at the mosque last Friday for fellow Muslims involved in the current conflict between Kuwait and Iraq.
The center attempts to strip away cultural influences in its practice of Islam and concentrate instead on elements common to all Muslims, said Hashmi, who taught religion for 25 years in Pakistan before moving to California to study Islamic texts at UCLA. "From a religious point of view, this is good because we focus on basic fundamentals."
A distinctively American brand of Islam emerges in which common fundamentals prevail over sectarian religious differences, Hashmi added.
Shiite immigrants from Iran and Sunni Muslims from Iraq, whose countries fought a long and bloody war fueled in part by religious differences, pray side by side in the Lomita mosque.
The growth of the Lomita center mirrors a general increase in the number of mosques in Southern California. Maher Hathout, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, the largest mosque in Los Angeles, noted that there are 30 mosques in Los Angeles County today, compared to only two 14 years ago. There are two other mosques in the South Bay, both in Inglewood.
The increasing number of mosques is partly a result of Muslim immigration. Hathout estimated that 650,000 Muslims live in Los Angeles and Orange counties. He said, however, that the new mosques are also due to a growing desire among Muslims to openly practice their religion.
Hashmi said that Muslim immigrants, faced with American society and culture, want to keep their identity. "When they find Christians everywhere they want to find out more about their own religion. This is human psychology."