TO GAIN A SENSE OF PLACE IN Malaysia, one has to understand its foreign origins. In a country that is situated in the geographic heart of Southeast Asia and is surrounded by historic sea passageways, Islam came from outsiders. Spreading throughout the Malay Peninsula from the trading port of Malacca, where Muslim merchants from India and the Middle East bartered in pottery, spices and textiles, mosques and madrasas sprang up in communities settled by Javanese, Arabs and Pakistanis. And each of these groups, along with their ethnic cultures and languages, brought their own brand of architectural style.

Islam flourished in Malaysia in the 15th century under the guidance of the Malay sultanate. Mosques, built in the tradition of Malay houses, with raised stilts, timbers and claytiled roofs, facilitated the dissemination of Islamic teachings and activities. By the end of the 18th century, the Portuguese (1511-1641) and Dutch (1641-1795) had conquered the region, with the latter handing the Malay Peninsula over to the British in exchange for Sumatra. And although the influences of Portuguese and Dutch colonizers remained, for the most part, in Malacca, the prolonged British occupation (G795-1957) coincided with a myriad of imported architectural styles.

Malaysia’s Islamic symbols reflect the expanse of designs and influences of British and Malay engineers and architects. In essence, the amalgamation of colonialists, who had worked in India and other Empire domains, and Malay Sultanates, who sought to incorporate Islamic art, created a fusion of eclectic structures still seen in the rural landscape.


Two main styles stand out in these colonial period mosques – Moorish influences and Moghul architecture. Of course both styles departed from traditional Malay designs that reflected the craftsmanship of local artisans and building materials found in tropical rainforests. Instead, British architects turned to classical designs to project an Islamic image that would respect the religion of the Malay people and satisfy local rulers.

Mosques built in the colonial period began a trend that continues today. From simple wooden structures with intricate carvings arose a proliferation of mosques that differed in scale, proportion, features and materials. Onionand top-shaped domes became the pinnacles of Islamicimagery as turrets and minarets punctuated the skyward plane. Modesty gave way to monumental as a humble beginning was usurped by size and grandeur. Many believed that the glory of Islam was captured in these new monuments.

In 1913, the Sultan of Perak commissioned British administrators to build a mosque of great beaut} in Kuala Kangsar as a tribute after recovering from an illness. Four years later, a Moghul-influenced structure, with an imposing central golden, onion dome surrounded by four smaller domes and 24 minarets of varying heights, illustrated the architectural transition. Striking in its compactness and dominance, the Ubudiah Mosque remains one of Malaysia’s most treasured historical landmarks. One local architect explains that many mosques constructed during the colonial period “were built to appeal to Malay societies, particularly the Malay rulers,” and so some mosques were sited in proximity to royal palaces.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, the Jamek Mosque and Masjid India represent how governments in Malaysia, in pre- and post-statehood periods, played a key role in establishing and maintaining the country’s Islamic symbolism. The Jamek Mosque, built in 1909, sits at the confluence of two rivers at the site of the first Malay cemetery. Moneywas raised from the Malay community to augment British funds to build a Moghul inspired design with umbrellashaped cupolas, red- and white-striped minarets and arched colonnades. The Jamek Mosque served as the city’s principle mosque until 1965 when the National Mosque opened. As the capital’s oldest surviving mosque, the Malaysian government spent nearly $2 million dollars in 1979 to renovate and refurbish Jamek Mosque.

Masjid India began as a simple wood and thatched roof hut in the mid- 19th century; a nearby river provided the water for ablution. After World War II, it was rebuilt to accommodate a larger congregation – about 1,000 worshippers – of Malaysia’s increasing Indian Muslim community. When statehood arrived in the 1960s, the site was reserved for a new mosque that could hold 3,500 worshippers. Although both the Federal and Selangor state governments provided money to build the mosque, the Indian community donated the lion’s share of funds. The new mosque was built in the Southern Indian style with onion domes, arch windows with Islamic motifs and a single minaret. As a private institution, a board of trustees, appointed by an Indian Muslim mosque committee, oversees its operation and maintenance, supported by member contributions and public donations. Services are held in Arabic and Tamil.


With predominantly Moorish influence on Malaysian mosques, Art Deco designs made little headway during the 1930s. Only a few colonial mosques featured the geometric shapes of this western architecture. But the real boom in modern day mosques, incorporating various Islamic architectural styles, came after independence in 1957 when a proud new nation set forth to prove its prowess.

As the population in urban areas increased, it became apparent that traditional structures could not accommodate congregational gatherings. Advances in technology coincided with the desire to build large-scale structures, now possible with better construction methods and materials concrete, steel and marble. Pride in Islamic architecture became the catalyst for contemporary designs to mimic, in part, mosques found throughout the Muslim world.

For example, the Sultan Abdul Aziz Mosque in Shah Alam, Selangor had the tallest minaret and biggest dome in the world when it was completed in 1988. As the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, the dome balloons to 350 feet above ground and 170 feet in diameter. Four minarets placed in each corner rise to a staggering 460 feet to accentuate the majestic size of the dome. Its immense size holds up to 24,000 people with an enormous prayer hall carpeted with fine worsted wool. Its design and color mirror the Ottoman mosque in Istanbul and the calligraphy work was done by a famous Egyptian artisan.

In contrast, the whitewashed Tengku Tengah Zaharah Mosque, built in 1994 and set amid an estuary on the Terengganu coastline, floats in ethereal splendor and reflects the designs of less opulent North African mosques. Though distinctive, its placement near the open sea along the flat horizon seems to swallow any ostentatious attempt to dominant the scene. Its plain and unadorned style combines the elements of Moorish architecture in a modern design to produce a natural, bold, yet humble statement.


During the last decade, Malaysia’s goal to be recognized as a developed nation showcases its economic progress through its modern day mega-structures. Chief among these monuments is the Petronas Twin Towers, one of world’s tallest buildings with a surreal supremacy over the Kuala Lumpur skyline. Religious symbols are also part of the revival as new mosques in Putrajaya, a spectacular and flashy newly built city for administrative offices, and the Federal Territory, the seat of the federal government, instill an alien quality to the Malaysian landscape.

As one of Putrajaya’s prominent landmarks, the Putra Masjid can handle up to 15,000 worshippers inside and tens of thousands more in the outer courtyard. The soft, pink hue of the granite tiles covering the main dome is the color of sunlight at dusk. Modelled primarily on Persian architecture, the mosque also features elements of a number of other Muslim cultures. Incorporating traditional designs and craftsmanship, chengal woodwork counteracts the imposing rose-tinted granite to enhance decorative features on doors and panels. This immense mosque parallels the enormity of the task to resettle an entire army of civil servants and government officials, as well as its supporting businesses, to nurture a vibrant, new community.

Do these monumental mosques reflect the evolution of design in Malaysia as inspired by the glorification of Islam or a departure from both the aesthetic and vernacular qualities of Malaysians as Muslims?

According to Malaysian architect Dr. Tajuddin Rasdi, “clients and architects vie with one another to revive monumental historical precedence at the cost of simple, common Islamic sense.” Rasdi feels that the problem of revivalism is a poor understanding of the historical context of mosques. In the past, mosques functioned as the main medium of communication, thus rulers understood the influential power gained by building grandiose structures to eclipse tribal mosques and control the masses. Therefore, the main purpose of a mosque to serve as a community development center was swept aside by the wave to build bigger mosques for more worshippers. Hence, postmodern architecture in Malaysia “opened a Pandora’s Box of Egyptian, Iranian and Turkish eclectic revivalism.”

Offering a prime Malaysian example to offset the plethora of foreign occupiers is Masjid Negara, the National Mosque. Built in 1965 when a proud nation was in full stride, the National Mosque features few Middle Eastern elements. A pleated, concrete parasol extends over its open courtyard to provide shelter from a sweltering tropical sun and heavy rains. Its blue hue blends with the sky, merging and remaining subdued under the visible horizon. Other responses to local climatic conditions include verandas, air wells and large pools for cooling. As Rasdi explains, its horizontal expression presents a humility characteristic of Islam, while the mosque presents a contemporary model that embodies the idea of Islamic architecture in the Malay world.


Islam’s entry into the Malay world brought not only revelation; it also saw mosques become a dominant fixture in society: a public place to perform prayers, study books and receive council. The early designs of traditional mosques played an important role in maintaining the Islamic philosophy of the Malays while keeping features required in a tropical environment.

A prominent Malaysian architect, Dr. Ghafar Ahmad, explains that five main factors govern the architectural style, size and placement of mosques in Malaysia: ethnic culture, climatic conditions, colonialism, technology and political environment. He adds that traditional mosques and those from the colonial period should be considered part of the national heritage, since these styles portray unique characteristics of local architecture.

With an overwhelming number of traditional and contemporary mosques scattered throughout the country, do the religious structures still heed the purpose of convening believers according to the teachings of Islam, regardless of the foreign origins of the buildings’ physical design and symbolism? Is architecture just a functional building, or is it art with an intent to uplift the spirit?

And is the Malaysian situation a paradox that matters?

As a fierce critic of Malaysia’s modern day mosque manifestations, Rasdi argues that a reliance on a revivalism of foreign traditions makes a derogatory statement. He questions whether Malaysian Muslims “have an inferiority complex to that of the Middle East” since the Qur’an and Sunna make no reference to the iconoclastic stature of domes, arches and minarets.

Do Muslims outside the Middle East yearn for such a pan-Islamic identity – instead of a national one – as defined by the symbols and structures of authentic holy sites? Does Islam insist on such a unifying imagery or is it necessary to promote this? Some may dispute that history restricts us from finding new symbolism that reflects the spread of Islam in the span of its geographical grasp. Others may see the strength in tying Islamic threads to its birthplace by maintaining its fundamental symbols.

On an aesthetic level, modern Malaysia boasts a strong Islamic architectural influence with striking styles built on a grand scale. As the country moves toward its own goal of achieving “developed nation” status by the year 2020, it may have its sights set on a new image: One provided by the symbolism of monuments that exalts the country’s progress and place in the world.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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