As appeared in The Star Sunday May 25, 2008
By MOHAMAD TAJUDDIN MOHAMAD RASDI
In the bones of buildings, political agendas can be discerned.
THE main intention of this week’s column is to show that there is no one view of Islam and, therefore, of architecture. I hope to show that architectural “language” must be understood within its own political framework and must be read in context of the agendas of those who command it.
Once this is understood, perhaps this country can begin a healthy discourse on ethnic and religious symbolism that is so important in a multicultural society.
I will examine three different ideas of political Islam as propounded by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman; former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad; and PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang. The National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, the Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, and the Rusila Madrasa in Kuala Terengganu represent the ideas of the three politicians respectively.
The prince and the national icon
Built in the early 1960s, the National Mosque remains a unique contribution to the lexicon of mosque architecture and is a monument to the struggle to create a national architectural identity.
Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the generous floating veranda that forms a horizontal plane gracefully hovering just shy of the earth’s surface. There is no mosque to date in the country that has a veranda space that is larger than the interior, which, in the national mosque, is the loosely enclosed space under the umbrella like roof.
The floating verandas of the National Mosque are identified more with tropicality rather than a particular religion, thus allowing the building to strike a common cord of identity.
Another distinguishing feature is the “folded” plate roof that departed from the clichéd Indian-style onion domes prevalent in colonial days.
The third important feature is its asymmetrical massing, which is highly uncharacteristic of monumental state mosques or of buildings of that time and the times preceding. The mosque sits relaxed and welcoming in a site close to the urban fabric rather than secluded away on a hill or in the middle of a lake.
I strongly suspect that Tunku, in his effort to rally the Malays behind him in those turbulent times just after Independence, chose to project the importance of Islam as a unifying tool that would cut across parochial state loyalties.
The decision to build a national monument in the form of a mosque can be seen as a political strategy towards this unifying effort. The strong influence of late modernism that shuns symmetry, grandeur, and exotic revivalism allowed for a “progressive” idea of the mosque in a dynamic but humble expression.
The doctor and the symbol of a new Islam
Unveiled in the final year of the 20th century, the Putra Mosque sits majestically in the centre of the shiny new city of Putrajaya, the brainchild of the country’s fourth Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir – and it seems to be a complete antithesis to the National Mosque.
While the National Mosque sits in a relaxed asymmetrical mass, the Putra Mosque rises up symmetrically in a grand fashion with a commanding view of the man-made lake beside it. While the national monument sits within the urban fabric, the new mosque commands a large piece of real estate all to itself. The Putra Mosque uses a foreign Egyptian and Iranian vocabulary of eclectic revivalism in contrast to National Mosque’s modernist language. Such architectural attributes underline the fact that there is a different political idea inherent in the structure that can be understood by examining Dr M’s political agendas.
The Putra Mosque uses a distinctly Middle Eastern and Central Asian revivalist architectural language.
He came into power as a no nonsense “ultra Malay” leader with no aristocratic background. While he was never identified in his early political career as an “Islamist”, his reign witnessed the rising of the global Islamic reformation movement that began, arguably, with the Iranian revolution in the 1970s that ousted the Shah of Iran and American influence in the region.
History saw Dr Mahathir deftly handling this issue by riding on a reformist wave. He set out to make Malaysia not only a model for Muslim countries to emulate but also as an alternative to the Western notion of secular civilisation.
By doing this, the canny politician not only pushed Malaysia almost centre stage in global politics but also checked the advance of Islamic party PAS for two decades – it was hard, after all, to argue with what was deemed as progressively Islam.
I therefore suspect that the choice of Middle Eastern and Central Asian revivalist architectural language for the Putra Mosque was quite deliberately an attempt to bolster this identify he was trying to create for Malaysia as the new centre of Islamic civilisation.
The irony is that the image that such language projects is a new idea of Islamic imperialism as seen in palatial buildings in “Malay-Muslim” garb, like the Putra Mosque.
Thus, the Putra Mosque was possibly an attempt to push the Malay-Islamic agenda and herald Malaysia as the world’s new centre of Islam while, at the same time, redefining our national identity towards a single ethnic variant.
The teacher and the simple mosque
The Rusila Mosque and madrasa (religious school) in Terengganu is not an “architecturally” designed building, as it simply grew from its original timber structure to a four-storey building.
The building’s ground floor is the main prayer space with ablution facilities, the madrasa, and a library running along one side. The first floor is a series of classrooms arranged around a central open space that is used as an “overflow” space for prayers. The second and third floors are dormitories for students.
The Rusila Mosque has virtually no fence and just one gateway, which allows for easy access and which makes it truly a part of the community it serves.
The building exudes a quiet strength because of the way in which it is sited and because of its landscaping.
The mosque has virtually no fence and just one gateway separating the building from the main roadway. It is surrounded closely on three sides by houses with hardly any demarcation.
As for “landscaping”, it consists mainly of sand thrown up by the South China Sea that is a mere 60m or so from the mosque. On Fridays, the space around the mosque is filled with a huge market that stops an hour before the commencement of prayers.
If there was ever a mosque that could be termed a “work house” for community development rather than a symbolic monument, it is this one. Other mosques hundreds of times more expensive than this one could never boast such a social contribution.
Abdul Hadi’s political idea of Islam has always been demonstrably true to the traditions of early Islam. Trained as a religious scholar, he ventured into PAS with the intention of creating, through education, a generation of Muslims who would not live separate secular and religious lives.
This focus ensured the Rusila Mosque remained in its unpretentious form that merely offers shelter for educational activities.
The ease with which one can enter the mosque and gain an audience with its founder is in line with the humble spirit of the Prophet in his own mosque. The building’s stark simplicity testifies to the idea that Islam abhors all kinds of wastefulness, even in the building of mosques – especially in the building of mosques.
The architecture of the Rusila Mosque is merely a backdrop to the important work of building a new generation. One certainly can’t say the builders of this mosque tried to manufacture an identity since its unplanned growth is its identity.
Thus, the Rusila Mosque demonstrates that, as a building, it is nothing more than a tool to be used for the purpose of national development without much care for a manufactured identity of Islam.
It can, therefore, be seen that the political idea of Islam as propounded by individual leaders can have a profound affect on the type of architecture used for mosques. From the progressive and relaxed expression of the National Mosque to the imperial grandeur of the Putra Mosque and finally to the unpretentious expression of the Rusila Mosque, each building holds key lessons for the student of architecture and history.
Let us learn from them before starting any debate on religious symbolism in Malaysia.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia lecturer Prof Dr Mohamad Tajuddin passionately believes that architectural design that respects cultural values, religious sensitivities and the ideals of democracy is vital to nation-building and harmony.