Wooden drums struck before the azan, in times gone by.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya

My in-laws are from a small isolated village mostly preoccupied with growing coconuts. It has only between 50-60 homes, two small stores selling basic necessities like sugar, rice and fermented shrimp paste, a primary school …and three mosques. One of them is Madrasah al-Kamaliyya, a surau lying about 150 meters from my mother-in-law’s house.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was built in the 1920’s. It is built essentially the same as a traditional Malay house, entirely of timber on stilts, with the prayer area one full floor above the ground. It was not uncommon for homes in those days to be built entirely without nails, as was the home my late father-in-law built. Instead, the posts and beams are assembled using a mortise-and-tenon system, with the beams leveled and tightened in place by wooden wedges. The forests of Malaysia and Indonesia have some of the best timber in the world for building, and the Malays certainly make good use of it.

The design of the surau does have some differences with a house. It has two stairways leading to the prayer hall. During a mixed gathering, men and women would use separate entrances. The two flights of stairs are on either side of the ablution pool. The stairs are withdrawn under the building, such that they enter the prayer hall in the middle. This allows women and men to both enter without disturbing each other’s sections. In a home, there would be a single stairway that would enter the living room in the front of the house. If there was a second stairway, it would be to the kitchen, around the side or back.

Unlike Surau Darul Rahman and most other modern suraus, this one was built directly by the villagers of the area without government funds. I don’t really know how this affects the nature of the waqaf; I imagine it is still held by or at least under the oversight of the religious department – maybe someone can inform me. But it is a source of pride for the village that it was built entirely by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ hands.

The village is not as heavily populated now as it was twenty years ago, with many of the young people migrating to the big cities. The bulk of the population now are older couples without children at home (not unlike the American farming heartland). Maybe because of this, the surau is not as actively used as a madrasah as it may once have been, resulting in the library deteriorating sadly.

Another element of the surau that has not aged well are the drums. There is a double-headed goat-hide drum, and an all-wooden drum that is a hollowed out log with a long narrow opening along one side. In the days before amplified speakers, these drums, or beduk, would be struck prior to calling the azan, since their sound would carry farther through the jungle and plantations than the human voice could. The drums at the Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah are still struck even now. The drums of the surau, unfortunately, have become unserviceable. The wooden log has cracked. The uncle I spoke with the day I took these photos said that there’s only one man he knows of who is skilled in making and repairing these drums, and he lives a great distance away. So the drums have been moved to below the stairs until someone is able to have them repaired. They used to hang in the prayer hall.

Madrasah al-Kamaliyya was the first surau I prayed at in Malaysia, and it remains the one most dear to me. I was struck with wonder the first time I prayed there, when, after the salat, the imam and the whole congregation recited an awrad that was virtually identical with the one I had learned from the Tariqat Naqshbandi Haqqani. I was later to learn that many of the elders who founded the community a hundred years ago were followers of Naqshbandi Tariqat, albeit from a different branch. Others held bayats with other orders. The righteous practices that they taught their children have persisted within the surau although they themselves have passed on.