30 June 2009

Islamic Arts Museum & National Mosque

When I was watching “Ayat-ayat cinta” the other day (and was mesmerised by a three-hour romantic tale in an Islamic context), I had no idea I would be going to the Islamic Arts Museum and National Mosque yet two days later. The movie did however put me in the mood.

First of all, the Museum of Islamic Arts is in a beautifully designed building whose modern and open transparent architecture bridges the gap between the perceptions of some Western non-Muslim visitors as well as creating an image of transparency and dialogue while retaining an appeal for Muslims visitors from abroad (or so I assume at least).

There were a lot of very interesting artefacts and I do want to come back again, perhaps to see the second floor which under time pressure, I reserved for another time as it was of secondary significance to me (ceramics, arms & armour, coin & seal, metal work, textile and wood), visit the great shop again and try the Arabic restaurant which is supposed to serve really yummy food (but looks a bit expensive from the outside).

Arriving with a lift on the first floor, the first section takes you on an architectural journey to Mosques around the Islamic world, explaining different ground plans prevailing in different regions, intricately illustrated by miniature models of mosques from Uzbekistan, over Iran, India, Mecca, Turkey and even Africa and China. My favourites were the famous one from Uzbekistan (hard to find pictures, try this one or the pic of the beautiful gate) and the Chinese ones which would absolutely pass for a Chinese temple (so unconventionally typically Chinese roof, no minarets and no Arabic elements whatsoever that I recall) except for the tiny gold crescent on a roof (in some countries they call to prayer by using drums; China might be one of them).

Then follows a section on the Qur'an. You see differently ornamented and painted versions and can even guess as an amateur what regions of the world they are from, depending on the preference of colours or the use of gold. Qurans in all shapes and sizes from all over the world including Indonesia and even Mindanao in the Southern Philippines (less intricately painted and quite worn). In Africa, kids use little boards on which they write verses of the Quran, then wipe them out when they learn them by heart. Once they memorise the whole book, they get to write their favourite verse on it and keep the board as sort of diploma.

Also shown are the five or so different Arabic calligraphy fonts and the beautiful banners/painintgs where verses in Arabic are so arranged as to look like flowers or resemble other shapes. You can also see typical writing/painting tools, usually ink, except for China where they tended to use brushes. Further, there are also a couple of very finely woven sarongs.

The shop is amazing and sells everything from African-looking basket bags over Islamic jewellry to more elegant and artsy headscarfs, the usual fridge magnets and mugs; greeting cards and children's illustrated moral bed-time stories (and even a boardgame!) as well as the kind of books Arthur Probsthain (who runs the SOAS bookshop) would love to sell. My two fellow interns I was there with came out with a bag of books, including a book called “Hijab or Niqab – an Islamic xyz of the face veil” and “Political participation of Women: Contemporary Perspectives of Gender Feminists and Islamic Revivalists”. I could so be at SOAS right now!

The Masjid Negara next door, we venture on to the impressive building that you practically see or pass every day in KL (or maybe just me as it is visible from Pasar Seni Station in Chinatown where I used to stay and if taking a taxi home from there, it is likely you pass it too), as it is relatively centrally located. Impressive because its roof is not a dome but a blue umbrella-like structure that can hold up to 10 000 worshippers.

I don't know how many of you have been to a mosque before but usually anybody can visit as long as they are appropriately dressed, often visiting hours are confined to between prayers only. After the female ward ties my borrowed scarf with a knot under my chin, more Yugoslavian-rural grandmother style than anything (for the cloth is too small and starched for some reason, apart from being light grey so everybody knows you are a visitor from miles away) and my female friend who looks like a priestess with a purple hooded robe (there's no way we could blend in discreetly among the crowd), we enter the big open-plan mosque which I just like for its spaciousness and the fact that the trees around have a calming effect as well as sound-proofing from the urban landscape stretching out visibly on the side of the entrance.

So, the roof has 18 points on its perimeter, which symbolise the 13 states of Malaysia plus the five pillars of Islam. On the entrance to the roofed praying hall, a volunteer greets us and explains to us the particulars of the Mosque as well as giving some basic insight into Islam, meant for Western visitors who might not have had much prior exposure to Islam before. It is interesting nonetheless. A bit quaint but admirable are the more than 20 differently coloured leaflets on the kind of topics some non-Muslims may find interesting. It could be an interesting study on how Muslims perceive to be perceived but also what kind of FAQ's they might really get from non-Muslim tourists. Examples: “How to become a Muslim”, “Women in Islam”, “Sex and Islam”, “Jihad is not terrorism”, “The five pillars”, “Food”, “Muslim Syariah Law”, perhaps even homosexuality and Islam; some leaflets even printed in Spanish and Chinese (if not other languages)!

At some point, I ask where the women pray (because sometimes there is a separate hall) and it turns out there is a long white cloth lining a border for men and women to pray in the same hall but women at the back, the women can also pray in the gallery upstairs if they want. Our friendly and enthusiastic volunteer host then goes on to explain to us the positions of prayer, running over to a flipchart with a big wall poster in English clipped to it, giving illustrated instructions on how to do the scholat (?) (probably usually meant for children) and he says, “Imagine a woman is doing this [bending over during prayer]! It would be difficult to concentrate!” I couldn't help it but he seemed jovial enough not to be offended and so I remarked jokingly, “But that is not my fault!” He is silent for a minute, wondering if perhaps he is offending me and when I smile, he catches himself again and says, “So this is why you need to help me! This is why women pray at the back and not at the front, otherwise my mind cannot focus on God, you see!”

What an enlightening day! I hope I have given some non-SOAS and/or non-Muslim friends of mine some new insight into Islam from my limited knowledge and wish to write some more features to bring it closer to you. Comments, suggestions, complaints highly welcome!

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