Three mosques in Melbourne

In the aftermath of the recent mammoth anti-ICERD rally in Kuala Lumpur, many non-Muslims would understandably be frightened and perhaps worried about Islam and the country’s future. Let me tell the story of three mosques in Melbourne which I hope will shine a light onto the seemingly dark future of Malaysia with respect to Islam.

Last April, I took nine non-Muslim architecture students to Melbourne to visit three mosques as part of their research method subject assignment. My main purpose was to expose the students to a different side of Islam.

I thought, at first, that in order to teach what a true mosque could be, I would have to find one in a non-Muslim country. Having been trained in architecture in the US and Edinburgh, Scotland, and having written my PhD dissertation on rethinking the idea of what the mosque is in modern, progressive Islam, I thought it was the only way to show the “true” side of Islam that could mix and mingle without fanatical notions bred by political parties or the state-managed conservative Islam in Malaysia.

I heard that the leadership of the Islamic Council of Victoria had announced that they were asking the city to allow the design and building of the first city mosque in Melbourne, to replace the small and adaptive reuse structure that sat on a street in the city centre. I had gotten an agreement from my friend, Dr Jan from RMIT, who was also a practising architect there, for a collaborative studio project.

The first thing I did was to assess the students’ knowledge about Islamic architecture and their understanding of the mosque. My students received a public school education before going on to further their studies at a private university. What did they know of the history, rituals and architecture of the mosque after 15 years of Malaysian education? Next to nothing. They knew Muslims pray and have loud sermons, and that mosques in Malaysia are one of the most expensive buildings from the public purse. That was it. Oh, they also found it most convenient and healthy to steer clear of mosques, Muslims or any other Islamic issue.

I decided to give them a three-day crash course in the teachings of Islam, the basic requirements of the mosque, and the different social issues in the various political ideologies of Islam.

Some may now wonder, what is a professor of architecture doing, talking about political ideologies on the subject of architecture? Well, they have plenty in common. Show me five mosques and I can recite the political ideologies of the users and clientele of the mosques. Political ideologies govern cultural practices in Islam which in turn become rituals and values related to what is considered “proper” in how one acts in society and uses the mosque.

Most architects do not bother with this aspect of politics and prefer to play around with historical forms using modern technology to give their clients the “wow” factor while charging million-ringgit fees.

Should the mosque be iconic, splendid and expensive? Should it even belittle the non-Muslim tourist into subservience to the political grandeur of the religion?

The mosque, to me, should be a small, exciting place where Muslims and non-Muslims can interact in peace and harmony. The mosque is not an isolated centrepiece of iconic culture, which Prophet Muhammad warned of and predicted as the downfall of the Islamic faith. The more expensive and the greater the “wow” factor of the architecture, the further away from Islam the mosque will be.

To me, the mosque should also be a place nice enough for Muslims and non-Muslims to drink teh tarik or eat at the mosque cafe, buy books or other Islamic merchandise, attend public talks, use the toilets or even just rest and nap for a while at the mosque serambi. But these activities would immediately be hailed by conservative Muslims here as “deviant” or “sesat”.

In the Prophet’s history, the mosque, which was also his house, had a multitude of communal and political functions which were not so alien from my ideas. What the Prophet prohibited building – large, expensive mosques for vain purposes, with domes and minarets that are unnecessary and wasteful – we find in great abundance in Malaysia.

Many non-Muslims frequented the mosque to confer with the Prophet, and there were many homeless people who took shelter at the mosque while maintaining its upkeep as “payment”. I am just trying to relive the true spirit of the Prophet’s mosque during his lifetime.

So with this message and research intent for the students, we set out on the study and research trip.

The Melbourne city mosque

The students were all apprehensive about going to the mosque and meeting Muslims to ask about Islamic practices. Where they came from, this was absolutely taboo. Some Muslims scared them and made them consider Islam as a violent faith. But because they trusted me and had confidence in my knowledge of Islam and experience in public relations, they followed me to the three-storey building located in a corner of the Melbourne city centre within the free tram ride area.

The first floor was for the male congregational prayer space, toilet and ablution area for males. There was also a little bookshop selling Islamic books. The second floor was for the women, who had their own toilet and ablution facilities there. The third floor was the office space of the council which had a meeting room and a seminar hall that could seat 100. There, we met a kind and talkative Malay lady wearing a tudung.

During the dialogue session, my students plied her with questions related to the openness of the mosque to non-Muslims. The lady mentioned that they got frequent visitors from non-Muslims who asked about various concerns over Islam that they heard from the media. There were also some who were somewhat hostile, but the council managed these public relation episodes in a friendly and amicable manner. It was helpful that the mayor of Melbourne was a strong supporter of the Muslim community, even though he himself was not a Muslim.

The Melbourne mosque also organised public talks on health issues or specific social concerns, and it was open to the public which thronged to the third floor seminar hall.

Before the lady finished with her answers, another council official came in and spoke jovially to the students about sports, life in Melbourne, and issues like parking during Friday prayers.

At our hotel that night, I asked the students about their take on meeting another world of Islam. They said apart from me, they would never have met Muslims who were friendly, open and intelligent, and who put them at ease in conversations. I told them the next time you think of Islam, think of Melbourne Islam.

The Newport mosque

The next day, the students and I went to visit the newly built mosque in Newport, Melbourne.

As the mosque was running low on funding, many of the workers were volunteer Muslims, including the contractor himself who was a professional builder.

The Newport mosque is a unique building as it was designed by Glen Mercut, the Hijjas Kasturi of Australian architects. It had no fence, in order to encourage the participation of the larger community. The forecourt, which is usually like a fortress enclosed on all four sides, was only enclosed on three sides. Overlooking the court was a serambi or roof-covered porch with ablution areas for the men.

The main prayer space was enclosed by a glass wall, which made it visible from the outside. The mosque had a restaurant in the front area which was also part of the complex. The restaurant was open to all. When my student asked what would happen if someone came with a dog, the builder smiled and said they would put a sign asking for dogs to be kept tied in a designated area.

The mosque had no dome, no minaret and no arches. The architect, I assumed, had done away with these traditional structures because he knew they were not a sacred requirement. Secondly, I assume, he did not want the mosque to stand out in the skyline of the community buildings around the neighbourhood which had no tall structures or church steeples. This is called urban contextualism, which means to be “friendly” to your neighbours by not being obtrusive.

The Coburg mosque

The last mosque we visited was the Coburg mosque a few miles from the city centre.

As I had accompanied the students and prompted them with questions for two days, I decided to leave them to deal with the third mosque on their own.

That night at our hotel, I ordered a briefing on what had happened at the Coburg mosque. The students said near the Zuhr prayers at about 1pm, a few men with long beards wearing traditional Afghan-style robes had come to the mosque. The men immediately asked the students to explain what they were doing there.

When they explained their project, the men refused to allow them in, saying they had nothing to show in their little mosque. They then laughed and said since the students were from Malaysia, they should visit the mosques there which were more beautiful and had more splendid designs. The students could get no further cooperation from them and were forced to leave without entering the mosque.

As part of their research, they then interviewed three non-Muslims who had lived in the neighbourhood for more than three years. None of the interviewees had ever set foot in the mosque or even knew of the Muslims who had been living there for over several decades. The fenced-up, one-storey mosque with its three-storey high minaret stood totally isolated from the rest of the neighbourhood.

We had met Muslims who were open and trying very hard to accommodate their religious life with that of the Melbourne community. But there were also those who appeared more closed-minded, who were given sanctuary via immigration laws by non-Muslims and allowed to make a living but who refused to be part of the community for fear that it would compromise their traditional understanding of the religion.

Later, I found that these Muslims do not even mix with the Muslims in the Islamic Council of Victoria membership.

The purpose of this article is to tell non-Muslims in Malaysia that there is another world of Islam that comes closer to the prophetic Islam. The Umno-PAS Islam is not the one. The Rahmatan-lil-Alamin concept that Muhajid Yusof Rawa keeps spouting does not yet exist in any community in Malaysia.

The seeds for the future of Islam lie in non-Muslim countries like Britain and Australia, not Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei or even Saudi Arabia.

It is the intent of this article to appeal to Malaysians for patience in the midst of the anti-ICERD rally which drew thousands of Malays on a non-issue of Islam. It is also an effort to convey that there is actually another Islam worthy of democracy, worthy of a civil society, worthy of a dignified existence for all, and worthy of a compassionate community humbled by the majesty of God in his mystery, wisdom and love for all.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.