Temasek: saints past and present
Shaykh Hisham Kabbani swept through Southeast Asia this summer, traveling back and forth between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, in the company of renowned nasheed singer Habib Syech Abdul Qodir Assegaf from Solo, Indonesia. SimplyIslam was organizing a huge public event, and with more than six years having passed since I last sat in his blessed company, I determined to travel to Singapore with my 15-year-old son to take part.
First off was a visit to Masjid Sultan, the heart of the old Arab quarter, for lunch at the Alaturka, where I got eggplant cooked six different ways. I love eggplant like I live in the time of cholera, so this could have been the high point of my visit right there. But just next door is Wardah Books, with a selection so fine that if you find it on the shelf, you know it’s worth reading. I left with The Crusades through Arab Eyes and Myth of the Lazy Native. Wandering out from Bussorah Street, my son and I passed through the grounds of the Istana Kampong Glam with its lovely stand of Palmyra trees. Once the palace of a Malay Sultan, it is now the Malay Heritage Center. From there to the Madrasah Al-Sagoff, founded in 1912, presently an all-girls private religious academy with a streamlined Singaporean curriculum. Another block took us to the Malabar Mosque, behind which was a quiet graveyard marked as the Old Malay Cemetery, although no doubt full of Malabaris and Arabs as well. Some of the more prestigious graves were still well kept up, with weeds cleared, and fresh cloth tied around the headstones. My son declined to follow me in – clearly one of us has heard too many cerita hantu.
Our lodging was around the corner from the Abdul Ghafoor mosque, a gorgeous building with an Indian flavor, wedged between rows of shoplots, two blocks from a major artery. The benches within the compound were attractive for their quietude; more than once I saw older Chinese men sitting there resting from the day’s busy-ness, and inside the mosque itself, men slept on the verandahs in the late afternoon.From time to time I’ve come across mosques with signs prohibiting sleeping. For myself, I love the sight of it: the masjid as an intimate and welcoming space. One oddity I noticed for the first time: plastic kufis! The mosque had some in the corner, like a stack of colanders in a cupboard. Men would walk in bareheaded, wear one for their salat, and then return them to the corner as they left. I appreciated the observance of the sunnah, and yet… I’m not sure this represents progress.
That evening, Shaykh Hisham arrived to cut the ribbon on Baraka Bazaar, a religious goods boutique behind Abdul Ghafoor Mosque, stocking everything from books to beads to clothing, like those stylish vests the Naqshbandis are so fond of. I managed to present my son to the Shaykh, who declared him “Better than his father!” Not much of a compliment, I must admit, but I’ll take it and hope he meant far, far better, inshallah. A kind brother slipped me a complimentary CD of the hot new nasheed album Nurul Anwar by the Singapore Haqqani Ensemble, one of the bands that would play next evening. The CD itself is lovely, designed by the talented hands at Muhammadan Press. What more the music? My kids have been listening to the CD on pretty much non-stop rotation in the car ever since.
Singapore, or Temasek as it was known long ago, has been home to many scholars and saints. None are remembered so reverently as Habib Noh. Sayyid Habib Noh Al-Habshi (1788-1866) is considered the patron saint of Singapore, and Shaykh Hisham makes a point to visit his maqam to make dua whenever he visits. The next morning my son and I hopped on the subway and made our way to the site. The hilltop where he is buried is a remarkable spot, remarkable perhaps because it is still there while everything in every direction has changed so incredibly. Directly in front rise tall office towers. A massive elevated highway curves close behind it, and just beyond that are the dockyards of Singapore, a maze of shipping containers stacked six or seven deep spreading over acres and acres to the water’s edge. But there inside the maqam is absolute tranquility.
After Jumaat, Shaykh Hisham, Habib Syech and any and all hangers-on were invited to lunch at the home of Captain Kassem. Having packed the captain’s spacious home to the corners, Habib Syech and his band threw down. Many in the room joined in the singing and clapping till the joy and pleasure of exalting Allah & His Messenger drove brothers to their feet. I captured a bit of it in the video clip below. To get the full experience, go to Sufi Live, where every nasheed, qasidah, zikr and speech from the whole trip is available to view.
Nasheed, qasidah, zikr: these things are acts of devotion that are far better actively performed than passively received. By the time evening fell, though, I was happy to just sit and watch a good show, and the Grand Mawlid Fest, organized by the dedicated people at Simply Islam, was a very good show with a beautiful crowd. Held in a public park under a huge canopy, the event became standing room only as more and more people arrived, despite the drizzle. Habib Syech, the Singapore Haqqani Ensemble and several other groups sang and drummed for hours and it felt too short. (On the other hand, some obnoxious pop star played for 5 minutes and it felt way too long – but enough said about that.)
My son was good company throughout the trip, down for whatever transpired. Before we headed back to Sarawak though, there was one thing he wanted to do, which was to try some of the exotic foreign food of Singapore that is unavailable in Kuching, where we live. I had to commend him on wanting to stretch his horizons and explore the unfamiliar, and so before we got on the airplane …
… we hit the Burger King.