JUST a stone’s throw from where I live is a huge mosque with golden minarets and a dome. When the sun hits at the right spot, the minarets seem to glow and sparkle like diamonds.
On Fridays, when the imam calls for the Solat Jumaat (Friday prayer), hundreds of men, women and children congregate at the mosque to perform their prayers.
The neighbourhood takes on a lively air, thanks to the cars parked along the roads in front of the houses. The more courteous of the lot will ring our doorbell and ask if it’s okay to park their cars at the front, by our porch, as they don’t block our driveway.
While some neighbourhoods put out traffic cones to prevent drivers from parking in front of their houses in my neighbourhood, we look out for each other — we want them to pray peacefully without worrying about their cars.
Traffic aside, surrounding the mosque are various stalls selling rice and dishes. My favourite is the nasi lauk with its spicy and aromatic kuah (gravy).
I have always been curious to know what actually transpires inside a mosque; how the men pray and, most importantly, what is it like to be in a mosque. What little knowledge I have about mosques are mostly from books and the TV.
I have been living in Malaysia for most of my life but I have to admit that I’ve never stepped inside a mosque compound, let alone wander along its corridors.
MASJID WILAYAH PERSEKUTUAN
Recently, I was invited to visit one of Malaysia’s well-known mosques, the Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal Territory Mosque), better known as Masjid Wilayah.
On the day of my visit, I wore a modest attire — I covered my head using a scarf, and wore long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and covered shoes.
The drive to Masjid Wilayah in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim (Jalan Duta), Kuala Lumpur took about a half hour from home. As it was late morning, the traffic was fairly smooth. I parked further away from the mosque as I was informed by colleagues that the area can get very congested, especially on Fridays. After parking I met up with my photographer.
“Ah, there you are!”, said a gentleman in his 50s as my photographer Nik and I busied ourselves checking out the mosque’s intricate architecture. The gentleman introduced himself as Ustaz Wan Ahmad, a former financial engineer at a foreign bank.
Now retired, Ahmad is among 100 volunteers who give guided tours of the mosque to tourists and visitors. “I worked in a foreign bank that’s why I can speak English which is an advantage to my work here. We get lots of tourists from all over the world,” he says before flashing us a nearly toothless grin.
Ahmad walks with the aid of a walking stick that was fashioned out of a steel golf club. It’s amazing to see him speak so animatedly about his religion. “It’s sad to see so many misinformed people liken Islam to terrorism. It is not. Islam is a beautiful religion which teaches moderation and respect for one another. Islam is not just for the Malays or the Arabs. It’s for everyone,” he says as we begin our 30-minute tour.
I am taken aback by Ahmad’s straightforward nature but I just nod at his remarks. After all, what he says is true. People tend to fear things they don’t know or don’t understand. I appreciate Ahmad’s frankness and open-mindedness.
Ahmad and his team of volunteers aim to change people’s perception by opening the mosque’s doors to those keen on learning about Islam.
He says there are two types of people who visit the mosque, which was built in 1998 and completed two years later. “About 90 per cent are seeking spiritual guidance while the rest are curious about the mosque and the teachings of Islam.” Last year, the mosque played host to about 9,000 visitors from all over the world including Korea (the highest), followed by China, France, Malaysia, the United States, Spain, Australia and Japan.
Ahmad says that in the old days, mosques served as a place for people to congregate to discuss world affairs or for travel-weary visitors seeking a place to stay. “This is why you can see people sleeping within the mosque compound. It’s free and open to everyone,” he says.
Outside or inside, I can’t get enough of the beautiful architecture, surrounded by hills and a water fountain. Dubbed Mosque in a Garden, Masjid Wilayah is one of Malaysia’s largest and most modern of mosques with its mix of Islamic designs and architectural influences from Turkey, India, Iran and Morocco — all in perfect harmony.
The cool verandahs lining the courtyard are influenced by Moroccan architecture and its archways and wide open spaces. Like a child I am fascinated by all the things I see in the mosque. Just then Ahmad invites me to the main area — The Musallah, an open space mainly used for praying which is free of furnishing.
I ask if it’s okay for a woman to walk into the and Musallah Ahmad gives a hearty laugh. “Of course, as long as you’re dressed appropriately and are respectful,” he says. “This is why Islam is such an open religion. Islam welcomes anyone who wants to learn about the religion.”
As I observe a man praying at the far corner of the mosque, Ahmad tells me to close my eyes for a minute and just take in the environment. It surprises me that despite the traffic outside, all I can hear inside the Musallah is the silent whispery sound of the man praying. It is quiet and very peaceful... almost reminding me of the time just before dawn. The time when a man prays, as Ahmad says, is the most personal one.
The prayer hall, which can house 17,000 people at a time, has significant Islamic designs and features. The mehrab (a semi-circular wall that indicates the direction of Mecca or qibla) has inlays of semi-precious stones embedded into carved marble. It was skillfully crafted by the descendants of artisans who built the Taj Mahal.
As I look up, I am mesmerised by the turquoise-glazed tiles which cover all 22 domes. Inspired by the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul and the Masjid Imam of Isfahan; the overall design, when viewed from below, has a very humbling effect.
Then I take the elevator up to the fourth floor which is where the women pray. No different than the prayer hall below, the women’s prayer hall is equipped with a changing room. Stacks of Al-Quran, Islam’s holy scripture, are placed inside the changing room as well as on the chairs outside. Surrounding this area are intricate wood carvings of floral patterns.
On weekends, the mosque is transformed into a lively atmosphere. Couples come here to have their wedding photos taken. From the courtyard to the beautiful interior, the mosque makes a perfect backdrop for a photoshoot. Not only that, some even have their solemnisation ceremony done here, witnessed by family and friends.
At 1.30pm sharp, the head muezzin calls out for prayer. His voice, calm and assuring, can be heard over the loudspeakers surrounding the mosque. As men and women gather at the prayer hall, I make my way to the top floor where I sit and just take in the view.
My perception of the religion has changed and my visit has opened my eyes to things that I previously had little understanding of. Just keep an open mind and who knows, you may learn something new, like I did.
Do’s and don’ts while visiting a mosque:
1. Dress appropriately. What might look good on you might not be comfortable for others. So remember to dress moderately.
2. The mosque is open from morning until night. You are welcome to stay and meet other Muslims and learn about the religion.
3. Do not walk or talk when someone is praying. If you must talk, please keep it to a minimum.
4. Remember to leave your shoes outside the mosque (on the rack provided). Wash your feet before going in.
5. Have a positive attitude and don’t forget to greet everyone.