June 8, 2004

The massive mosques of Malaysia

By Ramsay Short

KUALA LUMPUR: The towering impact of the many modern mosques in Malaysia is astounding to the eye and the spirit - even for the nonreligious - and reveals much about the practice of Islam so far from its birthplace in Mecca.
Islam first came to Malaysia through Muslim merchants and traders from the Middle East and India in the early 14th century, but its growth became more prominent in the early 15th century during the Malay sultanate of Malacca.
From Malacca, Islam was disseminated to all areas in the Malay Peninsula and the town established itself as an important center for the spread of Islam in the region. Many mosques of the traditional architectural style were built to hold prayers and other activities associated with the teachings and dissemination of Islam. The architectural style and building materials of the mosques built during this period were similar to that of traditional wooden Malay houses. They were raised on stilts and timber was largely used for building structures. Attap, or Nipah thatch, and clay tile roofs were commonly used in both the mosque and Malay houses.
By the 15th century, numerous Muslim traders had settled in many parts of the Malay Peninsula and built mosques and Koranic schools, or madrassas, in their community. Indonesian, Indian, Javanese, Pakistani and Arab Muslim settlements all existed and all these communities' mosques had distinctive architectural styles. Later during the colonial occupations of the Portuguese, Dutch and British in that order, more mosques were built at the behest of Malaysia's local sultans. Nearly all had an incredibly rich vocabulary of architecture with features that the modern mosques of the country built since independence in 1957 do not have. These include onion-shaped or top-shaped domes, turrets, classical columns, pilasters, pointed arches, keystones, pediments and plastered renderings on cornices and capitals.
And all these many mosques in this nation of 22 million people, the majority of whom are Sunnis - even the oldest mosques from colonial times, such as the very beautiful Tengkera Mosque in the state of Malacca, built in 1728 - are huge in scale and color.
With such a large Muslim community built over many hundreds of years, the mosque has become a common building found in most urban and rural areas in the country. The varying architectural styles display particular design characteristics that are reflective of many factors including ethnic culture, colonialism, technology utilization and the political environment.
But it is the modern mosques, built in the years after independence in 1957, that prove the largest and most interesting in what they indicate about Malaysia today.
The fact they are so big reflects the massive influence of Islam in Malaysia and the seriousness with which religion is taken here, but also the increasing number of Muslims in the country - Friday congregations in the National Mosque in central Kuala Lumpur often reach the maximum capacity of 15,000 people.
That, however, is nothing in comparison with the Sultan Abdul-Aziz Mosque at Shah Alam, in the state of Selangor. Known as the Blue Mosque and completed in 1989, it is the largest in South East Asia, with the ability to accommodate 24,000 worshippers at one time - and it regularly does. This imposing mosque boasts the world's tallest minarets and the biggest dome.
The beautiful blue and silver dome is 51.2 meters wide and soars to a height of 106.7 meters above the ground featuring an intricate rosette of Koranic verse. The four minarets guarding the dome tower rise 142.2 meters, making them the tallest in the world, and decorative khat, or calligraphy, can be seen on the outer and inner parts of the dome and on parts of the main prayer hall. The calligraphy is the work of the famous Egyptian calligrapher, Sheikh Abdel-Moneim Mohammed Ali al-Harkawi, assisted by local calligraphers.
While the size, scale and Islamic design of the Blue Mosque, and others such as the Ibai Mosque of Kampung Cendering, also known as the Floating Mosque - built as it is on water at an estuary in the eastern coastal town of Kuala Terengganu - represent fantastic feats of architecture, they also represent what one local architect calls Malaysia's "Middle Eastern inferiority complex." This is the suggestion that Malaysia in more ways than just architecture (Sharia law, Islamic banking and religious observance to name a few) is considered by some to be in thrall to Middle Eastern Islamic states instead of forging ahead and creating a natural cultural and religious identity of its own. Rather than reflecting local design and building techniques, as they perhaps should, these massive constructions instead attempt to imitate and go one step better than the mosques of Istanbul, Mecca and Damascus.
Though there is some truth to this, at least the National Mosque actually does fulfill more of the spirit of the Malaysian people than the other modern Islamic mosques. Its unique modern design embodies a contemporary expression of traditional Islamic art, ornamentation and calligraphy.
Built in 1965, its most striking features are the multi-fold umbrella-like roof and stylish minaret rising 71.6 meters into the sky, which are meant to symbolize the aspirations of an independent nation. Furthermore, the National Mosque's open hallways and long water pool reflect the spirit and climate of Malaysia in a way that the other modern mosques do not.
Even the Pink Mosque, the focal point of Putrajaya, which is the new administrative centre of Malaysia, a city built over the last 10 years on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where the business of government is conducted, is much more Islamic in architectural influence than Malay, though that makes it no less impressive.
Whether future mosques will look deeper into design, innovating and creating using local craftsmen and reflecting local culture more than the modern day mosques built to resemble the Islamic architecture of the East, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Malaysia's modern Islamic-influenced mosques remain striking examples of style, form and function, grand and large as they are.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"