My first somewhat surreal introduction to Islam was in Mersing, a small coastal town in the east of Peninsular Malaysia. It came at sunrise as we wait for the first boats for travel to Pulua Tioman when the haunting sounds of morning prayer resonates from nearby hills. I can remember having mixed feelings at the time; intimidated by past misconceptions, yet intrigued and curious. I wanted to explore and to follow to the not-so-far mosque, yet I was worried at what I might find there. Would I be welcome? Before travelling to Southeast Asia all I really knew about Islam was the radicalization of the Arab world or maybe the social problems of the UK. The negatives, and stereotypes which are often hard to see past when couched in front of a big screen TV. It wasn’t until my travels in Asia where I find a less extreme side to Islam, a simple and humble side. I first approached with apprehensive, which is understandable having been brought up by sensationalist British press, but soon Muslim culture became everyday, a norm in society, friendly, and in no way intimidating. I would go on to brave many more experiences with Islam in Malaysia (and Asia) with visits to Mosques in Kuala Lumpur and further. For those planning similar, the most popular mosques in Kuala Lumpur would be; Masjid Jamek (top), the National Mosque of Malaysia (left) and As Syakirin Mosque at KLCC (right). You’ll be warmly welcomed at all.
Having exhausted pretty much every tourist option in Kuala Lumpur we look for something less well known on our most recent visit to the city. In doing so we stumble on the Federal Territory Mosque, a site far enough to not attract tourists, yet still within a short(ish) taxi ride. Setting out we expect the journey to be further than it actually is. We were somewhat duped by the lack of interest with tourists and a 15 RM taxi ride gets us there from the central tourist areas in Kuala Lumpur. On arrival we find the Federal Territory Mosque to be very different than other Mosques in Kuala Lumpur with unique influences from the world over. The two minaret towers (I think) are Egyptian in design, the turquoise domes Persian, and much of the decoration and carvings are Moorish (Moroccan and Andalusian, Spain). Architectural influences are even taken from the Taj Mahal. So in short, the mosque is beautiful and is well worth visiting.
We arrive to the Federal Territory Mosque just after midday when it sits quiet and seemingly empty. We remove our shoes at the front steps and are greeted by a helper of the mosque. The helper waves us to follow, but says nothing… at all. We hesitantly follow as he leads us through doors, alleys, rooms, backrooms and up and down stairs. At this point we do feel uneasy following the man with no words, into the darkened back rooms of the empty mosque. However, much of the unease was with our shoes, the Federal Territory Mosque is the largest mosque in Peninsular Malaysia and our shoes were pretty much lost after the first four of five turns. So after what felt like three full circles of the mosque we arrive to a back office in an unknown part of the compound. Here we are greeted by Bob and Tini the volunteer tour guides working at the mosque. The office they are in is a temporary office which even the mosque helper seemed unsure of. Anyway, with any other religious temple the ‘scam’ bells would have been ringing at this time but with mosques and Islam there are stricter regulations on cheats and touts. We go along.
It is Bob who volunteers to guide us and we happily accept. Bob turns out to be one of them all-round good guys, the best friend you’ve never met, who reminds me oddly of a Malaysian Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond). Photo below? No? By this stage of travel I also fit well with my speckled grey beard almost matching that of Bob’s. Anyway, Fanfan is given a gown to better cover her arms, and she does her own thing, exploring, photographing etc, while myself and Bob do the grand tour. We start the tour at the ‘wudu’ taps a water room used for ritual purification before entering the Prayer Hall for prayer. Wudu (or partial ablution) is the act of washing the face, arms and legs in preparation for prayers. Bob shows me the ropes and I follow. First I clean my face neck and inside my ears (long overdue). Next I was my hands, right to left, cleaning from the hand up to elbow. Lastly I clean my feet, up to ankles. We are now ready to enter the prayer hall.
Non-Muslims shouldn’t really join prayer but Bob agrees to show me the basics. We start by facing the Mihrab a niche in the wall which faces Mecca, and the direction of prayer. Bob then begins the prayer in Arabic words telling me first “You don’t do this part”. After his I join him for the postures. First, we lock our hands to knees and arch forward, bending so the back and neck are straight and level with the ground at a 90′ angle. This position is called “ruku’. Next we crouch on the ground, placing the head, knees and hands on the floor in the ‘sajdah’ position. Of course there is a lot more to prayer than these basics but we don’t delve to much further. In both postures I feel the blood run to my head which Bob says makes the brain work better. So in all I can say it was enjoyable, the cleansing, the stretching and the yoga-esque postures making the experience feel therapeutic and almost enlightening. It brings a feeling I’ve not really felt since learning Hindu in Bali under sounds of Gamelan, or maybe stumbling on monks in prayer through the back forests of Chiang Mai. While I’m in no way religious I do find religion, and learning religion, enjoyable.
With idle chit-chat Bob invites me to ask “anything” about Islam almost in anticipation to hash out global issues. I have little interest. Why should a simple Malaysian man make excuses for wack-jobs on the opposite side of the world. It’s like walking into a Church and asking “What about George Bush?”. It’s absurd, and sad that such moralistic and humble people can be tarred by a fanatical few. Anyway, chit-chat as always for me, sways towards food and drink. Passing through the celebration halls I can’t help myself “So this is where everyone feasts on pig, get drunk and dance funny…” I hoped for a chuckle at this point but my Brit sarcasm falls flat, and lingers a little. I think this was more to do with Bob’s uncertainty of my seriousness, almost as if he didn’t want to insult my culture, or lack of it. He goes on to explain that Muslim’s don’t drink alcohol, and that pork is not eaten by Muslims, merely because Allah said so. “So you’ve never eaten pork?”, “I did as a kid, but not since joining the mosque.” “I love Mutton”. Bob then invites us the following day to join the Hari Raya Haji festival (known globally as Eid ul-Adha). Known as the ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’ it is where animals (normally cows) are sacrificed and shared with family, local community and the poor and the needy. Of course sacrifices are in the way of Halal, the throat being cut, so I personally opt out. I’d happily eat steak after someone else had killed it… so who am I to judge. “Have you ever sacrificed an animal?, “No, you give it to the mosque and they do it”. Later we see similar Eid ul-Adha rituals in Kuala Lumpur (below right).
Now with the important food questions out of the way I struggle to find more. Other interesting tidbits include the negation of hierarchy or control in the mosque, so if a King is late for prayer he joins at the back behind the peasants of society. Also the Imam (Leader of Prayer) can be anyone and a 5 year old kid has even led prayer. The Imam selection is based on the best versed speaker. So ending the tour we find ourselves back in the office again where Bob offers pamphlets on Islam. “The Truth About Jesus Christ” catches my eye so I flick through curiously. It turns out Muslims and Christians both love and revere Jesus, albeit in different belief of his role (Prophet of God vs. Son of God). This is also an area of conflict where Judaism and Jews completely reject Jesus, and for for this reason Jews are seen as being intolerant toward others. Anyway, Christianity is only part of Islam and both follow the same timelines and teachings from Adam and Eve to the prophets of Noah, Abraham, Moses and of course Jesus. Yup, all the big names are in there. Islam then goes further, following the line of Ishmael (brother of Isaac) to include more recent teachings from the prophet of Muhammad, who is seen as the final messenger of God (or Allah as his name is in Arabic). Therefore Islam encompasses both Judaism and Christianity, and in theory, all three religions worship the same, one God (Allah).
If planning to visit mosques in Kuala Lumpur there are a few guidelines you will need to follow. First, mosques are active sites of worship. They are not tourist attractions so don’t be intrusive and don’t disturb people in prayer. Non-Muslims should always be welcome to mosques but the more popular tourist mosques may not permit visitors during certain times of the day. One of these is the National Mosque of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur where set visiting hours are restricted for Non-Muslims. This ensures important prayers go undisturbed (visiting times of National Mosque below right). Respectful dress is also necessary meaning no short skirts, shorts etc. or entry will be refused. It is only the face, hands and feet which should be visible inside the mosque and for the ill prepared there will be veils and traditional dress available on entry to the mosque. Again, don’t annoy people and be respectful when visiting mosques in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia is a uniquely multicultural country where many cultures and religion coexist with the state religion of Islam. On the streets veiled women will mix with non-veiled women, with little prejudice or conflict. Islam isn’t oppressive, overbearing or even noticeable in Malaysia, at least to visitors. The only restrictions I find as a traveller come in food and drink where Halal restaurants are commonplace in parts. Halal restaurants don’t sell pork but with tasty fish, mutton, beef and even goat substitutes this isn’t a big deal. Halal food also offers a welcome addition to the diverse cuisines of Asian cuisine. Again, Alcohol is prohibited in these restaurants so if you plan to have a drink or two look for restaurants fronted by beer signs (often Carlsberg). Alcohol is also relatively expensive with high ‘sin-taxes’ so for more affordable options find the local Malay or Chinese stores which sell them. There will be a markup in Muslim run stores. Other signs of Islam will be in mosques where daily prayers echo through the streets even in the early hours (morning prayers). In hotels you will also notice ‘Kiblat’ (Qibla) signs which define a fixed compass in the direction of Kaaba (Mecca), the direction for prayer. Malaysia isn’t the only Muslim country in Southeast Asia and while the region isn’t always known for Islam, it is by far the most practiced religion in the region (around 40% of the population). While the more prominent influences are found in southern countries; Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, they are also closely ingrained in other parts of the region, including Thailand and Myanmar.