Masjid Negara, the ‘umbrella’ mosque for all Malaysians

Malay Muslims of today should be reminded about the contribution of non-Muslim Malaysians of the past in building the foundations of unity and harmony.

The National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur is testament to this act of kindness and generosity by Malaysians of all faiths. This is where more than half-a-century ago, Malaysians planted the seeds of unity and cultural tolerance.

Masjid Negara is 54 years old now. But there is an important message that has been lost as we battle racial and religious bigotry.

Masjid Negara has a unique place in Malaysian architecture, as well as the design of mosques in general.

An important feature of this mosque is its suitability for the tropical climate. It also dedicates a large courtyard area for water features.

This allows large volumes of air flow for ventilation with the pools of water cooling it for a natural thermal comfort. No other building in post-independence Malaysia can claim a naturally generated thermal comfort strategy that actually works.

Masjid Negara’s dome is not based on Islamic elements and thus the architect’s choice of the folded plate was a breath of fresh air in mosque design not just in Malaysia but in the world.

The “umbrella” roof of the National Mosque was later replicated by other mosques in Malaysia. To those who insist that the dome be critical in a mosque design, Masjid Negara stands in complete opposition to this simplistic fallacy.

The choice of a non-ethnocentric reference or a non-regionalistic, pan-Muslim Malay or Arabian architecture has succeeded in showing Islam as a cross-civilisational faith and not one stuck in one particular ethnic group.

This is in direct contrast to mosques in Malaysia that have opted for either a literal Malay or a literal Ottoman-like or Egyptian-like architectural language which I term as simplistic revivalism.

Another “democratic” aspect of the mosque that is non-existent in many mega mosques in Malaysia is its openness in elevational view, making it welcoming. Most large mosques strut their castle-like features and present an elevation of elitism and exclusivity with imposing gateways and fences.

Some even have a moat to cross like a real sieged castle. All these monumental expressions create the image of exclusivity from the surrounding urban context and could drive people away.

Not so with Masjid Negara. There are no imposing gateways or fences and this allows the mosque to welcome everyone to come and rest or take a short nap in its generous verandah with the image of a calming pool of water and the soothing sound of the water fountain.

Such relaxing, down-to-earth and unpretentious atmosphere cuddles the user into a blissful slumber of peace and meditation. No other mosque evokes such friendliness and relaxed acceptance for all who come.

What is the significance of Masjid Negara to racial unity and religious co-existence in harmony with our sacred constitution?

Masjid Negara was funded by many non-Muslim Malaysians. Our forefathers of other races and faiths showed loyalty and allegiance not only to Malaysia but also their acceptance of the special position of Islam.

In the midst of some Malays calling others “pendatang” and speaking the language of “jihad”, Masjid Negara reminds present-day Muslims of the true meaning of Islam, of living in harmony with those from different cultures and religions.

None other than Tunku Abdul Rahman testified to this.

During his speech at the opening ceremony of Masjid Negara on Aug 27, 1965, the Tunku said:

“I express this building as a symbol of unity for this country. The construction of this mosque was not only with money from the government but a large amount of donations were from people who are not Muslims.

“They either sent in donations directly to the mosque or through states in which they resided. They are willing to give it to charity because they believe that they can give their contribution to build the foundations of national unity in this country.”

The Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and followers of other faiths should honour those words and imprint them in their memory.

For Muslims, it is about the gratitude to the “others” for their generosity and magnanimity for the religion of Islam.

As we await the holy month of Ramadan this month, in which we also mark 50 years since the horrors of May 13, Muslims and Malaysians should heed the Tunku’s words.

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