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A new book examines the architectural history and origins of mosques in Malaysia

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3rd January 2017

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A newly-published book documents the fascinating architectural history and origins of mosques in Malaysia, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin IN 1967, a team of Malay craftsmen set out to restore and renovate one of the most important mosques in Malaysia — Masjid Kampung Laut in Kelantan. The mosque, the oldest in the country, was a simple place of worship originally constructed in 1676 out of wood and mangrove palms. It sat near the Kelantan River and even closer to the swaying coconut trees that hugged Kelantan’s seashore. The mosque has since been relocated to Nilam Puri, away from the ever-increasing water levels and threats of floods which ravage the northeastern state on a yearly basis. But Masjid Kampung Laut doesn’t look like a mosque — it never has, not at least to many who grew up seeing mosques all over the country. It resembles a kampong house on short stilts, has a three-tiered pyramid-like thatched roof and is devoid of any domes that define mosques as we know it. Masjid Kampung Laut is just one of many examples of a history most of us have forgotten about. In Masjid —Selected Mosques And Musollas, architect and author Azim Aziz reminds us of the heritage of the mosques around the country whose architectural heritage reveals the colourful history of our nation and influences of the outside world as Islam spread across the region. The book, which examines the designs of these places of worship and documents their history, is an enlightening collection of over 109 mosques around Malaysia, starting from the very first documented mosque to the futuristic, sustainable mosques of today. PRINTING THE PAST “Do you know that mosques in Malaya never had domes? They were only introduced to our architectural landscape when the British came and the Mughal-styled dome was popularised. Also, most of the dome mosques in Peninsula Malaya were designed by British architects or the Dutch,” says Azim, the CEO of architectural firm ATSA whose interest in mosques has already seen him produce two books, including the commemorative Masjid Negara: 50 years (1965-2015) and Masjid — Selected Mosques From The Islamic World. “It took us more than two years to compile the information for Masjid — Selected Mosques And Musollas,” confides Azim. As he flips through the 750-page book with a contented smile, Mohamad Haziq Zulkifli, the firm’s creative writer who assisted in the research for the book, chips in: “We travelled to so many places across the country including Sabah and Sarawak doing recces and finding out about these small, but historically and architecturally significant mosques in Malaysia.” As Azim explains, the process of crafting the book was a long and arduous task. “The challenge was to get the right information including the architectural plans; the elevations and sections of each mosque we featured in the book. Some will, otherwise, go missing or be forgotten over time. We also had to involve many people including universities, local authorities, government agencies, heritage and museum-linked organisations and many architectural firms,” he shares, adding that conveying the information via writing and the editing process was equally as difficult. “It was a lot of work, but we wanted to produce something significant, not something half-hearted so we went all the way, including getting professional photographers to capture the beauty of these mosques.” ACCIDENTAL FIND The idea of producing the book, reveals Azim, was a cross between fate and faith. “We were working on The Cyberjaya Mosque (Raja Haji Fisabilillah Mosque) when I thought of initiating a book on the history of mosques since Islam has been a religion of many, even during the Malacca Sultanate,” he shares, noting that the mosques of those times were often built with wood and were based on rudimentary designs. As Azim and his team of architects at ATSA were designing the Cyberjaya Mosque (the first of its kind in the country to receive the Platinum rating of the Green Building Index standard), Azim thought about the possibility of merging the Malay vernacular designs with the environmentally-friendly concept of sustainability. “Many of the old mosques were not preserved, and there was a need to convey how the Malay vernacular mosques also came about. The Cyberjaya Mosque was designed around our climate and so we wanted to marry those two to find a new typology that’s suitable,” Azim explains, citing Masjid Negara, built in 1965, as an iconic building that exemplified a new form of architecture for that era that embodied the Malaysian identity. The initial idea for Masjid — Selected Mosques And Musollas, as stated in the book, started off with documenting 50 mosques. As more and more research was carried out, Azim and his team bumped up the numbers. From 50 mosques, the figure rose to 99 mosques, an idea that coincided with the 99 names of Allah. They tried to keep the mosque count at 99, but research efforts by various scholars were so overwhelming that they continued pursuing stories behind each mosque they wanted to highlight. BOOK FOR A BUILDING “While we were running research and recces for Masjid — Selected Mosques And Musollas, Dr Mohd Jaki Mamat, a conservationist from one of the universities we were working with, Politeknik Ungku Omar (PUO,) alerted us about the Kampung Teluk Memali Old Mosque,” Azim says, referring to the 106-year old mosque in Perak which is mostly still intact in its original state. “That’s how we came across this structure and decided to restore it.” ATSA is now restoring the mosque and collaborating with many of the people who helped produce the book. The restoration process will also involve the skills of local craftsmen, something Azim is certain will help the trade. “Many of the old mosques in the country relied heavily on craftsmanship — if you look through the book you’ll see just how intricate these carvings and motifs are. There were no such things as computer generated drawings or CAD systems in those days. They worked with whatever they had so it’s a skill which I hope will encourage younger people to learn this great heritage of craftsmanship.” The cost of restoring and relocating Kampung Teluk Memali Old Mosque to a new site in Taman Sei Bougainvillea will cost an estimated RM500,000 — all of which will be collected via donations and through the sales of Masjid — Selected Mosques And Musollas. “Yes, it’s easier to tear it down and just build a new mosque,” Azim concedes, before adding in conclusion: “But keeping our heritage is important for our future generations to learn about and understand our history. How did our forebears live and what were the traditions they kept? Keeping these structures will also help us to reject any distortion of our history.” Masjid-Selected Mosques And Musollas Publisher ATSA Architechs Sdn Bhd The book can purchased at the following venues: • ATSA Architects, 45 Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 3, TTDI • Kinokuniya, KLCC • Times Book Stores (selected outlets) • Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur • Silverfish Book Stores, Bangsar Village, Kuala Lumpur • Basheer Book Stores, Avenue K, Kuala Lumpur • Areca Book Store, Penang • Penerbit UTM Press Book Store, Johor Bahru • KALAM UTM Research Centre, Johor Bahru • To find out more about the book and restoration efforts, visit

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