Among the more interesting Southeast Asian fields of study is that of mosque (masjid in Indonesian/Malay) architecture.
Of course I speak only for myself, but surely there can be little more interesting than discerning the architectural clues to local and broader Southeast Asian history inherent in mosque designs.
And there is a vast amount to discover, recognise and infer from the mosques of Southeast Asia.
These include more traditional style mosques, such as the Masjid Indrapoeri in Aceh, depicted here in 1880, in Demak, Central Java, the old Surabaya Mosque and the Kampung Laut Mosque and Kampung Hulu Mosque in Kelantan and Melaka (respectively), which are among the oldest surviving mosques in Malaysia. The defining feature of these mosques, the multilevel tiered roof, is clearly distinguishable.
Of course one problem is defining what is traditional, and this quest for authenticity fed an appetite for building mosques with a more distinctive Middle Eastern (as opposed to indigenous) character beginning just over a century ago. A distinctive feature of these mosques is the presence, and often the prominence, of domes and minarets.
Among the oldest of these newer style mosques in Indonesia is the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, which dates from around 1880, while in Malaysia the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque (at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, in Johor Bahru) was built around ten to twenty years later. The first mosque in Singapore reflecting this new orientation, the Sultan Mosque, was constructed some twenty years later again, and can be seen in the picture below.
Looking at these mosques now, which at the time must have appeared quite significant statements of faith, is how quaint and restrained they are compared with the massive grandiosities that exist today. In Indonesia this approach can be seen in this mosque at the Universitas Muhammadiyah and the Tiban Mosque both in Malang, East Java, the Agung Al Karomah Mosque in Martapura, South Kalimantan in Indonesia, the Agung Mosque in Medan, North Sumatra, and across the archipelago in places including these mosques in Kalimantan, Depok and Sulawesi. Interestingly, the sequence in which the domes and minarets were more broadly adopted differed throughout the region.
This architectural inclination to a more Middle Eastern inspiration was briefly (in a historical sense) interrupted by a wave of European influence, visible in Malaysia in mosques such as the Sultan Sulaiman Mosque in Klang, with its north-American style tower and glass work reminiscent of a Christian cathedral, the al-Muhammadi Mosque in Kota Bahru which incorporated a clock on a minaret face, and the Sultan Ibrahim Mosque in Johor, with strong hints of European Catholic classical architecture, along with its neighbouring replica on the other side of the Muar River.
There are also hybrids, such as this masjid in West Sumatra featuring both the older local style with the multi-layered roof and minarets, this mosque in Bengkulu (South Sumatra) with a form of tiered domes as well as minarets, and the al-Akbar Mosque in Surabaya, East Java, which nods to its local heritage in the roof lines.
Mosques that blend both local history and these Middle Eastern traditions are particularly treasured. These include the venerable Krue Ze Mosque, in Pattani in the deep South of Thailand. With its round pillars, extensive use of brick and mortar and its oval arcades the architectural style is highly distinctive. The Telok Manoh Mosque in the adjacent Tha province of Narathiwat, near the Malaysian border, is also striking for its combination of Thai, Malay and Chinese architectural styles and its wooden structure completed without using nails.
In contrast, Southeast Asian mosques that feature all (or most) or the “right” Islamic elements can still struggle to gain community acceptance, such the Yala Central Mosque, also in Southern Thailand, that was initially considered tainted through the involvement of (predominantly Buddhist) government architects and a design feature considered reflective of Buddhist symbolism.
Mosques in Southeast Asia can be huge (such as the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, at the centre of the picture above and here) or comparatively tiny (such as this village mosque in Lombok, Indonesia). Speaking objectively, they can also be places of immense beauty, demonstrated by the list compiled here (with the Crystal Mosque also deserving a night time picture, as does the mosque in Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah), or places of, how to say, considerably less elegance.
Regional mosques can be inspired by local culture, such as the mosques in West Sumatra here and here and here, reflecting the unique and distinctive Minangkabau culture and architectural style captured in the symbol in the picture below.
Regional mosques also draw on cultural elements from further afield, such as Chinese influence evident in this mosque in Palembang, Sumatra or in East Java (see the picture below).
Most prominently, regional mosques can intentionally be fused with state power, such as Masjid Negara, the Malaysian National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, and the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta (named to symbolise national independence). Indonesian leader Suharto supported the Istiqlal Mosque construction and sought to standardise mosque construction in Indonesia away from the Middle Eastern influence, but with his death the adoption of Middle Eastern design features in Indonesian mosques recommenced with renewed vigour and shows little sign of waning.
I’d love to say more, but this is already the longest post to date on the blog and I will undoubtedly return to the topic another time.
In summary, the diversity of mosque architecture and history throughout the region is breathtaking, and I wish I had the several lifetimes I would need to fully understand the narratives that accompany them.
Finishing with my favourite, I want to introduce you to a tiny, wooden masjid in a village in southern Thailand. I know little about it beyond what I have learnt here, but as potentially the oldest mosque on the Malay Peninsula I’d love to go there one day (if it is still there)and would welcome any reader’s stories, photos or updates that seem sadly absent on the internet.