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Home / Featured / Unusual beginnings of Penang’s oldest mosque

Unusual beginnings of Penang’s oldest mosque

By Alan Teh Leam Seng

The ageing piece of newspaper cutting slips out from between the pages of a book I just acquired from the Penang flea market. Not daring to grab it in mid air out of fear of crumpling the fragile parchment, I patiently allow it to come to rest on the carpet in my Magazine Road hotel room before picking it up for a closer look.

My heart skips a beat when it turns out to be part of the Penang Shimbun, an English language daily published during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. Dated Aug 27, 2603, it announced, among other things, the date for local Muslims to commence fasting during that particular year, which coincided with 1943 in the English calendar.

The declaration, made at the Penang Muslim Association by Syed Hashim Idrus who represented the state’s Board of Kathis, stated that Muslims in Penang and Province Wellesley would begin their fast on Sept 1 or a night earlier, depending on the sighting of the moon on the evening of Aug 31.

The paper went on to explain that Muslims the world over began their annual fasting on the first of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. The fast, which lasts for a full month, begins each day before the sun rises and ends with its setting below the horizon.

A prominent community leader, A.M. Yusuf Izzudin, was quoted in the text asking Muslims in Penang and Province Wellesley to offer special prayers in mosques during the fasting period to seek divine intervention to help the Japanese Imperial Army win an immediate victory in the war.

Humble Beginnings

This immediately brings to mind the oldest mosque in Penang, Masjid Kapitan Keling. This19th century place of worship, built by early Indian Muslim traders in George Town, must have surely been one of those places where these sanctioned prayers were held during World War II.

Malaysia-Penang Mosque1Located strategically at the corner of Lebuh Buckingham and another road that bears its name, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, this prominent Islamic centre originated from humble beginnings. Back in the 1800s, it became the first permanent Muslim institution to be established within a neighbourhood that was home to the Chulias, a significant sized Indian Muslim community which wielded considerable influence on the island.

At that time, George Town was growing at an exponential pace and there was a great need for residential homes, shops and godowns. In order to meet the demand for builders, Captain Francis Light requested for a large number of work force from the British East India Company (BEIC) in Calcutta. This request, and subsequent arrivals after 1787, led to the growth of the Chulia settlement.

On Jan 25, 1794, Light wrote that the Chulias who hailed from the ports along the Coromandel coast as well as from nearby Kedah were second only to the Chinese in terms of numbers. While most of them were shopkeepers, other members of this community earned their keep by working as traders, boatmen and labourers.

One prominent Chulia even became part of Penang’s six member civil administration. Long Fakir Kandu, who hailed from Kedah, held the prestigious position of writer and earned an annual salary of 360 Spanish Dollars.

Growth in Penang was spurred further when the colony received additional funding after becoming the fourth Presidency of India in 1805. A census ordered by the acting governor, Colonel Macalister five year later showed a total population of 24,422 with the Chulias numbering more than 5,600.

This relatively large number of Indian Muslims already had their own places of worship since the earliest years of the colony. A 1791 town map indicated the presence of two mosques south of, what was then known as, Chulier Street. One was on the present site of Masjid Kapitan Keling, while the other was located at the end of Queen Street.

The former catered primarily to the BEIC troops while the latter, known simply as Chuliar Mosque, was a prayer house erected by the Chulias who relocated from Kedah. At that time, both probably consisted of temporary wooden structures with attap roofs.

As the congregation size grew in tandem with the colony’s expansion, it became necessary to erect a more permanent place of worship. In 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Penang, Sir George Leith, appointed Cauder Mohudeen as Captain of the South Indian Keling community or Kapitan Keling in short.

Mohudeen was a ship’s foreman who hailed from Porto Novo, about 50 kilometres south of Pondicherry in India. On Nov 21, 1801 Leith executed Land Grant No. 367 which granted an a 7.2ha piece of land for Mohudeen to build a mosque on the south side of Malabar Street (today Lebuh Chulia). The grant clearly stated that the land could not be sold or transferred and ownership would immediately revert back to the BEIC once it ceased to be used for the religious purpose intended.

Over a period of two years, Mohudeen demonstrated leadership by bringing in builders, stones and bricks from South India to build the mosque. He turned to Tamil Nadu when seeking architectural inspirations for what was to become the original version of the present Masjid Kapitan Keling. Mohudeen had the artisans embellish the building with intricate details like miniature stepped minarets, oil lamp niches, heavy stucco mouldings, lattices and fine dentilation.

In 1803, a squarish building complete with a circular well on the southern section and main entrance along Lebuh Chulia was ready to receive its first congregation. Also, at around this time, the other mosque near Queen Street fell into disuse and its followers were believed to have moved to join the congregation at Masjid Kapitan Keling.

Masjid Melayu

This period of prosperity in Penang also saw the arrival of a significant number of Acehnese traders, who brought with them much sought after commodities like pepper and betel nut which the Chulia merchants exported to India in large quantities.

Like the Chulias, the Acehnese also saw the need to set up a place of worship of their own. By 1808, Masjid Melayu was established in Lebuh Acheen by Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Idid, a Hadhrami Arab merchant prince hailing from Aceh.

Malaysia-Penang Mosque3Masjid Melayu, a mere 300 metres from Masjid Kapitan Keling, was frequented by the Acehnese, Arabs, Malays, Bugis and other people of the Muslim faith from the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia).

The fate of both these places of worship became intertwined thanks to a dispute between the Masjid Melayu and Masjid Kapitan Keling followers during the early part of the 19th century. This disagreement eventually led to the birth of a unique Penang custom called masjid bergilir (alternating mosques) where the combined congregation had to alternate between the two places of worship each Friday.

Historical records are unclear as to when this incident took place exactly.

It’s only known that towards the end of the fasting month on one particular year, Sheikh Omar Basheer from Masjid Melayu announced the date of Hari Raya Puasa but his calculations were disputed by the congregation at Masjid Kapitan Keling. As a result, Basheer brought the Masjid Melayu cannon to Masjid Kapitan Keling and promptly fired it to declare the end of Ramadan. His provocative act didn’t go unnoticed by the mosque goers.

The next day, the community living around Masjid Melayu celebrated Hari Raya while those at Masjid Kapitan Keling continued their fast. One thing led to another and eventually a fight broke out between the two communities. During the ensuing melee, a youth from Armenian Street was badly beaten up and left to die in a nearby ditch.

The British authorities acted swiftly to prevent the chaos from escalating further. Three suspects were eventually arrested while another managed to escape by stowing away on a ship destined for Jeddah.

In order to mend ties, the two rival groups were ordered to alternate between the two mosques for Friday prayers. So, on each Friday, worshippers would all go to the appointed mosque and leave the other empty. This practice came to an end by the early 20th century when congregation size had grown considerably and both mosques had to be used at the same time.

The onset of the Indonesian Confrontation in the 1960s, however, saw a revival of this tradition. The armed insurgency by the Indonesian Army had put the Sumatran community living around Masjid Melayu in a bad light and their numbers began to dwindle. The lack of quorum to sustain the Friday prayers at Masjid Melayu led the authorities to reinstate the alternating mosque practice.

Japanese Presence

As I continue reading the rest of the newspaper cutting, it becomes clear that the Japanese Army only started having a clear policy towards Islam just a year before the parchment in my hand was printed. It reported that Friday prayers only resumed at Masjid Kapitan Keling during the onset of Ramadan which fell on Sept 4, 1942.

That period also saw the establishment of the Penang Islamic Advisory Council headed by Abdul Manan Nordin. Masjid Kapitan Keling was represented in this council by its head imam, Mohamed Abdullah while R. Kutaluddin and H. Sadar Ali stood in for the Indian Muslim community.

Apart from attending to the needs of the Muslim community and helping to strengthen ties with the Japanese Imperial Army, this newly-formed council was handed the responsibility of determining the accurate dates for subsequent Ramadan and Hari Raya Puasa celebrations.

The article continues with a rather vivid description of the previous year’s Hari Raya Puasa celebrations which fell on Oct 12, 1942. It said that about 5,000 Muslims assembled at the Chinese Recreation Club field at around 9.30 am to perform their traditional Aidil Fitri prayers. The ceremony started in earnest half an hour later with the arrival of General S. Katayama, the Lieutenant Governor of Penang.

I rub my eyes in disbelief when I reach the final part of the text. Once the prayers and sermon were over, the entire congregation got on their feet and changed their position from the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and began facing the direction of the Tenno Heika or Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

After the people had finished paying their respects to the Japanese Emperor, the ceremony ended with representatives from the various Muslim communities swearing allegiance and loyalty to the Imperial Japanese Army. They promised to uphold the peace and obey the laws in Penang.

Raya Banzai

The people were so taken aback by the bizarre compulsory salutations in the direction of the Land of the Rising Sun that they began referring to Hari Raya Puasa celebrations during the Japanese Occupation as Raya Banzai.

The last Hari Raya celebrations held in Japanese-occupied Penang was on Sept 19, 1944. A grand affair was planned at Masjid Kapitan Keling but, by then, the long suffering people had become cynical of the Japanese and their increasingly obvious attempts to capitalise on religious occasions to gain political mileage.

Their anger were further stoked when the important Takbir Raya had to be interrupted half way due to the arrival of the Japanese Governor. They were forced to stand up and face east to pay respects to the Japanese Emperor. Their ire must have been quite visible for the imam had to appeal to everyone to remain calm during the close of his sermon.

As I put the precious piece of paper into a protective folder, my thoughts return to the time when the Japanese finally raised the white flag in Penang on Sept 3, 1945. Apart from the joys of liberation, I’m sure that the Muslim community was also equally happy to celebrate the impending Hari Raya Puasa, which was just six days away, free from any encumbrances. They were finally able to say good riddance to Raya Banzai!

(Courtesy: New Strait Times)

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