The Masjids and Musallahs of Jalan Rungkup


My Bagan Datoh Vacation, Final Installment

The house began to look like a hospital wardMy five children weren’t the only ones sick over the vacation. The wife was busy vomiting all over the place too. The problem: Penyakit buatan orang. That literally means a man-made illness but refers to a hex or voodoo curse placed on someone. Black magic is alive and well in Malaysia, at least in people’s minds. It is not uncommon to hear people complain of illness, change of a spouse’s affections or other problems as being caused by witchcraft and to seek remedy from bomohs, often in the form of Quranic verses and the like. In this case, though, the hex was placed by me: she’s pregnant. Thank you, thank you. Bin Gregory Production #6 is due sometime in early July. Blame it on Malaysian birth control.

I never imagined I would become the father of such a large family, but now that it is happening it feels very right, masha’Allah. When I reflect back, maybe I should have known it would be so. The family I had been closest to over the years prior to getting married was an American convert couple who have six kids. My wife’s wali and the mediator between me and my wife’s family back in Malaysia during our marriage process also had six kids. In fact I had completely forgotten, until my wife recently reminded me, that he had made dua for us on our wedding day that we should have more kids than him. Uh Oh.

Anyway, with all five kids down with the measels, and the wife incapacitated by a single-celled organism of a different nature, our vacation post-Pangkor consisted of me slipping out of the house on excursions for medicine, diapers, hot chocolate, and so on. Thus, my final offering to you from our school vacation is a windshield survey of the musallahs and masjids of Rungkup Road, Bagan Datoh. Not quite the Bridges of Madison County but I do what I can. You can also see all my photos of Islamic places of worship in Malaysia as a slideshow on Flickr.
Madrasah al-Maarof Surau Jamiatul Islamiyyah Masjid Khayri Surau, Kg. Sungai Burung Surau Idrisiyyah Masjid Ismailiyyah Surau along Jalan Rungkup Masjid along Jalan Rungkup Kecil Masjid al-Falah Masjid Sungai Nipah Baroh Sign

Masjid Sungai Nipah Baroh

Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah

masjid jamek jawiyya

In the heart of our kampung in Bagan Datoh lies the Masjid Jamek Jawiyyah, a beautiful mosque built entirely from wood over one hundred years ago. There have been a few expansions since then, but the original timbers of the structure are still intact and unchanged. Since it was built before running water, the ablution pools are fed by gutters that channel rainwater from the roof. The main roof is square and built in two tiers. The red metal dome may not be original and in any case is not structural but just a decoration placed on top. The minaret is also square and tiered.

The whole structure reflects a tremendous amount of care, skill and art on the part of the builders. The cross beam in the cupola is ornately carved, as is the gingerbread along the roof edges. The beams and posts are all fitted together without nails or metal joiners. The pillars are huge square timbers maybe 8×8. The wood is of such high quality, some of the beams are even spliced together over the long spans yet still look sturdy today. Hardwood of that size and quality is hard to find in West Malaysia these days at any price.

Every Friday there is a cerama before the khutbah, held on the large airy front porch. The ustaz sits crosslegged on the floor with a small wooden table on which is the Holy Quran in Arabic. He recites a verse, translates it on the fly and then proceeds to give classical tafsir and commentary from memory. The ustaz is an elderly man of the village, who, as is so common, has moved away to KL. He comes back every Friday just for this.

The mosque was built by the settlers of this area who were migrants from Java, hence the name. Although the kampung population has dwindled considerably due to urban migration, the main prayer hall is still full for juma’ah. The residents have a lot of affection for the building. Even in its heyday this region was never wealthy, yet the mosque was entirely built by hand by the community without government patronage. Many residents can still name which ancestor of theirs helped to build the mosque. May it be an unceasing source of blessings for those many souls who set their hands to establish this house of God.

Masjid Negeri Sarawak

You’d be forgiven for thinking these pictures were taken in Central Asia somewhere, but they are from the Sarawak State Mosque in Kuching. I was on holiday for the first Friday after Eid, so I took the chance to visit the masjid with my son and nephew. As you can see, it has a very austere and imposing exterior, a giant white box perched on a slight rise in the middle of spacious grounds. It sets off the dome nicely, a turqoise shade that can be seen from some distance.

There are many things to appreciate about this masjid. One of them is the setting. The grounds meet with open land of several other institutions including the Sarawak State Library. It lends the whole area a quiet, stately air. The grounds are landscaped with shade trees which is a nice change from the usually bare masajid in town, though a lot more could be done to flatter the mosque as it deserves.

Another is the attention to detail. The mosque really only seems bare at a distance. At closer range, you can see calligraphy everywhere. And if you really take a close look, you see that the calligraphy is not a single word or phrase repeated over and over; in the case of the cornice along the inside, it appears to be the Asma ul-Husna. The interior of the dome is spectacular, with two bands of calligraphy along the base, one in red, one in black, dancing over a spiral flower motif. The black band is Surah ar-Rahman. I couldn’t make out the red. I couldn’t take a clear enough picture in the dim light to be able to examine it from the photo. The calligraphy in the gold circles reads Allah, Muhammad Rasul.

I’ll let the other pictures speak for themselves. If you hold your mouse over the photo, you’ll see a short description, and as always, you can click the picture to see the full size photo. You can also follow this link to see all my photos of the Sarawak State Mosque.

Journey to Ihsan: looking back

Alhamdulillah, I was able to fly to Singapore to attend the conference Journey to Ihsan last weekend. It was my first time in Singapore, and I came in the hard way, landing in Johor Bahru, then taking a three hour combination of trains and buses before arriving at my hotel, across the street from Dar ul-Arqam, the Singapore Muslim Converts Association. The Geylang street area was lovely. Just a block from my hotel were two old masajid across the street from each other, Masjid Khalid and Masjid Ta Ha (I think – there’s an excellent Singapore mosque portal here, but the second masjid isn’t listed). I sorely missed my camera the whole trip long, which I left at home, inoperable for lack of a screw.

I started at Masjid Khalid with Subuh Saturday morning, and then made my way across town to Arab Street by rail. Impressions along the way: The public transit was superb, the city is shiny and new, every nook and cranny is lush with landscaping. Singapore has much more in common with New York than with Kuching, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s a measure of how long I’ve been stuck in the sticks (almost four years now) that I was so bowled over. One thing that kept coming to mind due to its absence was the sight of children. There weren’t any. Every now and then I’d see a couple with one child and it would only reinforce the feeling: This is the land of the DINKs.

I got off at the Bugis train stop and proceeded on foot to the Sultan Mosque, where the weekend event was to be held. Mash’Allah, from the opening session till 4 o’clock the next afternoon when I had to leave before Shaykh Hisham’s closing speech to wind my way back to Johor, I had a wonderful wonderful time.

I’ll admit the main attraction for me was Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, whom I hadn’t seen in four years. Shaykh Hisham started, as he often does, with a bit of stumbling, a bit of awkwardness, just enough for you to think maybe he’s unsure up there, and then the spirit moves him and he explodes into just the most moving oratory imaginable. I’ve never seen another speaker like him, may Allah bless him and elevate his station.

Many other speakers gave interesting presentations, from a wide range of perspectives. Prof Gianotti brought up the issue of humane treatment of animals as an aspect of making meat halal, an issue I sorely wish our local halal certifiers would look into. The halal chickens I buy every week uniformly have there forelegs (drumsticks) broken. I’m fairly sure this is because they are hung upside-down by their feet on metal hooks as they are conveyed down the line to the killing floor, their legs breaking from struggle. Even if their necks are then slit, how can this be halal? Here in a muslim country, if our halal council certifies it, I’m not one to dispute. Still, it’s not the path of Ihsan, that’s for sure.

Sister Aisha Gray, the founder of Fons Vitae, is an American convert to Islam who performed the Hajj before I was even born. If that isn’t enough reason to sit quietly and pay attention, I don’t know what is. She showed an excerpt from a new documentary on sacred art and architecture in Cairo. It was stunning, but then at the end, there were some selections from the Hikam of Ibn Ata Allah that, after gazing at all the sacred imagery preceeding it, moved me to tears. Looking back at the selections that night from my hotel room, they were beautiful, but they didn’t touch me the same way as they had that afternoon. It proved her point to me, that being surrounded by sacred art softens the heart and makes one more receptive to sacred knowledge.

I had the opportunity between sessions to go around the block to the storefront of Wardah Books, an Islamic bookseller you should really take a look at. Their collection isn’t enormous, but it is 100% quality. Last time I wrote, they had come out with a translation of Mawlid Daiba’i. Well, they’ve got another now, a new version compiled by Shaykh Hisham that I picked up. I sprung for a few of Imam al-Haddad’s books that have been translated by Mostafa Badawi too. I had to pick up what I could, since sadly Wardah Books doesn’t deliver outside Singapore.

All in all, it was a great trip. Living in a muslim country, you rub shoulders with people all day long who have only a tenuous connection to their faith. Attending events such as this, shaking the hands of people who are committed to the spiritual journey, listening to advice from our scholars and saints, it is truly invigorating. I just hope next time I have a camera with me. And that I don’t lose my phone again. Mash’Allah, you win some you lose some…

[Update: Streaming audio of Shaykh Hisham’s speeches at the conference is available at Sufi Online.]

Masjid India, Kuching

Masjid India Kuching

Masjid India is perhaps the oldest standing masjid in Kuching, though the nearby Masjid Bahagian is built on a hill top that held an older structure. Masjid India is so named because the small Kuching Indian community requested the land to build the mosque from the first White Rajah, James Brooke, in the late 1800’s. Over time, the Indians, who were mostly traders, built shop houses adjoining one another around the perimeter of the deeded land, until the masjid was completely contained. Only a few modest signs mark the main entrances into the enclosed compound, such that upon subsequent visits I still did not notice them. Only after having my lunch at a “mamak” restaraunt and hearing the call again did I enquire from the shopkeeper where I might make salat. He directed me to the back of his store. Past the bathrooms, through the kitchen I went, till I stepped through a doorway and found myself on the grounds of the masjid.

The masjid is very modest. Grungy may be a better word. It is dimly lit, since the open spaces between the backs of the shops and the roof of the masjid have been roofed over with corrugated metal sheets to protect against the heavy seasonal rains. The rugs in the main hall look worn; only thin vinyl sheeting covers the bare cement in the outer prayer areas. The masjid is clad in wood siding thickly covered with greenish paint. The views away from the masjid terminate abruptly at the fading whitewash coating the rear ends of the shophouses. The mihrab is decorated with a blend of small greyish tiles more often seen in bathrooms. One formal entrance squeezes between shops selling scarves, clothes and the like. Another informal entrance is barely wide enough for a toddler to pass – most people must turn their shoulders to fit through (my toddlers are presented there for scale, with their aunty). It comes out in the bulk storage area of a spice and dry goods store.

The people inhabiting the area in the off hours add to the gritty feeling. In between prayer times, a few men can be found resting here and there. The masjid’s location at the end of several bus lines means many visitors are transient, on their way to somewhere else. The small number of blind people who eke out an existence around the district (by selling packets of tissues on a donation basis, actually a nice practice to prevent the appearance of begging) can often be found taking refuge from the crowds.

Despite all that, the masjid is surprisingly pleasant. It is quieter than you would imagine during the day despite the bustle outside. Something about its mystery and age make it very appealing to me. Among the relics not often found in masajid any more is a large drum called a beduk. As I mentioned elsewhere, such drums where used to draw attention prior to the calling of the adhan, in the days before microphones and loudspeakers. My favorite detail of all is the wudu area. The only unroofed area of the masjid, the middle of the wudu area is filled with potted plants making use of the “gray” wudu water that would otherwise go down the drain wasted, while enlivening the masjid with a bit of green. I would love to see this idea incorporated in other masajid. All in all, the India Street district is perhaps the earliest example of that modern Malaysian innovation, a shopping mall with a built-in prayer area.

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.

Mawlid ar-Rasul: Surau Darul Rahman

Darul Rahman

Prophet Muhammad’s birth was commemorated last wednesday night throughout the muslim world. The tiny corner of it that I inhabit was no exception. Surau Darul Rahman held an evening of learning and celebration. I feel extremely fortunate to live two blocks from our neighborhood surau.

      This one does not enlarge

A surau is a prayer hall just like a masjid except that it does not hold the Friday congregational prayer. Our surau could probably hold about 200 people maximum. It is a fairly new building, about 10 years old, built around the same time that my subdivision was developed. Prior to that, the area only had a few clusters of kampung-style homes sprinkled through the woods at fairly low density. Like most suraus and masjids throughout the country, ours was built in part by government funds and its activities are nominally overseen by the religious department. Often, large planned unit developments will include a surau as part of the basic infrastructure, just like pocket parks.

You may wonder why there is no dome. Well, the traditional masajid of Malaysia were built of timber and had no dome but rather a set of square tiered roofs. The grand masjids with huge domes that have been built in recent times are often gorgeous but are not really classically malay in form. I’m not saying our humble surau was built with a hipped roof as some kind of architectural statement: it’s a fairly homely building really. It’s just that the dome is not a necessary part of mosque-building around here. But I digress.

For this special night, a guest was invited to come and speak after maghrib prayers. Our guest was an ustaz from Indonesia who has been teaching Arabic and Religion at a religious school in Kuching for the last ten years. He came to us from the pesantren of East Java, an area reknowned throughout the nusantara for the high level of scholarship they maintain and the da’is they have produced. He gave a wonderful talk, touching briefly on the the fatwa of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi Al-Maliki concerning mawlid from which he read for us excerpts in Arabic and translated on the fly into Malay. There is great good in gathering together, beautifying the masjid, remembering the Prophet and praising him to the best of our ability, though we can hardly praise him as he deserves to be praised. Our only transgression, as the ustaz reminded us, is that we don’t do it everyday.

Following the cerama, the congregation broke for a meal, to be followed by zikr and nasheed. Some of us ran off with the ustaz instead to another gathering, where we recited the Ratib al-Haddad and the Mawlid Diba’i late into the evening until our throats were raw. I can’t find translations of the Mawlid Diba’i anywhere online, but you can listen to it here.

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal ahdaqi la fawqan naja’ib/
Wa law anna ‘amilna kulla yawmin/
Li Ahmada mawlidan qad kana wajib”

“And verily though we rushed to do it at every moment/
We could see around us nothing more noble/
And verily, even if we did it every day/
For Ahmad celebrating his birth is nigh unto obligatory”

[Forgive my poor Arabic. It’s just me and Hans Wehr working alone. Corrections welcome.]

[My coverage of Mawlid Nabi, Kuching 2003 is here]

Malay Contributions to English, pt.6: The Gong Show

Drummers perform near Jalan Masjid India
Drummers perform near Jalan Masjid India

While wandering around the Jalan Masjid India area last December during my sisters’ brief visit, we stumbled on a live performance in a small plaza. The show was of traditional Malay song and dance. There was a large squad of men sitting crosslegged, some with drums, some clapping, some singing lead, some chorus. The dancers were men too, with a few playing female roles in full female attire. Whether they were real-life pondans or skilled actors I don’t know, but they were very convincing. My sisters and I went back and forth a bit before deciding they really must all be guys.

Gongs, drums and props
Gongs, drums and props

Laying nearby were the props and instruments waiting to be used. Among them was an enormous brass gong. The gong is a popular component of traditional music around here, perhaps the best known of which is Gamelan, the percussion orchestra. “Gong” itself is an English word taken directly from the Malaysian language. It comes from the Malay word gaung which means “echo”. I wonder if the object itself originates in Malaysia. It may very well have come from China, since the Chinese also use gongs and are a relatively older culture.