Webinar on “Introduction to Southeast Asian Forms of Mosque Architecture”

In this webinar session, Dr Imran Bin Tajudeen presented on the topic of Mosque architectural forms in Southeast Asia. These architectural forms are unique cultural inventions and landmarks mostly from Maritime Southeast Asia. 


Wednesday, 5 January 2022 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Introduction to Southeast Asian Forms of Mosque Architecture” by Dr Imran Bin Tajudeen, a Senior Lecturer from the Department of Malay Studies and the Department of Communications and New Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia Programme (AAHP) and was moderated by one of the two programme’s conveners, Dr Helene Njoto.

Dr Imran Bin Tajudeen introduced the historiographical and geographical contexts of mosques. Dr Helene Njoto moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar session kicked off with four poll questions to gauge the audience’s familiarity with historical mosques from four parts of Southeast Asia, namely, Java, Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia up to the Isthmus of Kra, and the eastern part of Indonesia. The poll findings showed greater familiarity with mosques from bigger cities in Java but also landmark mosques from other areas such as the Great Mosques of Palembang, Johor Bahru and Ternate. 

The lecture was divided into three sections. The first addressed historiographical categories. The second section addressed the cultural and geographical context in which mosques were invented, and the third addressed the question of reinterpretation and revivals, localised Muslim cosmopolitanism and the limits of translation. 

By introducing the historiographical and geographical contexts of mosques, Dr Imran bin Tajudeen showed that this built heritage primarily developed in maritime Southeast Asia, a region often excluded from Islamic art and architecture surveys, together with Southern Arabia, Southern India and Southern China. He also demonstrated that the categories used to define Southeast Asian mosques are often irrelevant. One of these irrelevant categories is vernacular architecture, architecture by and large in wood as opposed to classical or canonical stone or brick architecture. As he further showed in this lecture architectural variations of mosques in Southeast Asia are greater than usually thought, and wood is not the only material used to build mosques.

In Java, Sumatra and Southern Palembang alone, this great diversity is seen from the various forms, numbers, and functions of roofs, walls and platforms. In the mosque of Jepara, for example, the multiple roofs are used as true floors, unlike other mosques where multi-tiered roofs are superimposed primarily for ventilation, esthetical and religious purposes. Dr Imran further described the main types of roofs, within which even greater variability can be observed, such as the Tajug or pyramidal type, found in places from Champa to South Borneo (Banjar Mosque), Palembang (Masjid Agung), Melaka (Tanjung Keling) or Banten with its miniature tiers and Minangkabau mosques with their landmark gable on hip roofs. Dr Imran then explained how, despite these variations, some permanent architectural features, possibly inherited from the Hindu-Buddhist period, could be found throughout the region such as the finial (mustaka or momolo) used to decorate the summit of many of these Tajug mosques. 

Dr Imran also showed other types of pre-Islamic forms of survival, such as the gable on hip, found in Kelantan, Teluk Manuk, Kota Bahru but also in Champa, also present in old temple reliefs such as Prambanan in Central Java. Another type is the hipped roof, found for example in Cirebon, Buton and Singapore (Khadijah and Hj Muhammad Saleh mosques), and finally, the gable type, seen in Patani’s Surau Aur and Melaka suraus or small mosques (such as at Tengkera and Banda Hilir). 

In this introductory lecture, Dr Imran addressed the rich typology of mosques in Southeast Asia, a witness to trans-local circulations and recombination. He insisted on the fact that more research needed to be done since, besides the Java types, other regions of Southeast Asia have not yet been well studied. Each mosque has its own history of how it was created. Some mosques, such as in Aceh, built on top of stone bases, for example, carry much information on the way Aceh was trying to connect to other pre-Islamic Malay polities by emulating their built culture. Similarly, in Banten, gravestones were of the Acehnese type, and not that of its neighbouring Javanese polities. 

This lecture was attended by 167 participants from all over Asia, Australia, Southeast Asia and Singapore. Many questions were asked such as the relationship between the mosque and the ruler’s palace and the meaning behind the layers of roof on the mosque. This final lecture marked the end of the AAHP series. 

About 170 participants attended the final webinar of the series. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)