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Mosque Architecture in the Malay World

ABDUL HALIM NASIR (1938-1999) was a writer in residence with the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. His twenty three years of experience in the National Museum have made him a critical observer, a renowned researcher and Writer on architecture of buildings, particularly that covering the tradition and aesthetics. His autobiography, Memoir Abdul Halim Nasir: Dari Kampung Sekolah Ke Menara Gading was published by Penerbit UKM (1997).

UKM Press (First Printing, 2004)
185 pages


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Mosque Architecture in the Malay World is originally published in Malay edition entitled Seni Bina Masjid di Dunia Melayu-Nusantara pada tahun 1995. The mark of the existence of Islam in the Malay Archipelago is the mosque. The shape of earlier mosques constructed after the spread of Islam in this region is not clearly known. Only after the 15th A century were the architectural trends and influences clearly defined and it distinctly shows the influence of architectural elements present before the arrival of Islam in the region. These may be attributed to either the Hindu architecture or established local architecture. It is now clear that the architecture of the earliest mosques in the Malay archipelago featured elements such as the Mew roof, or layered roof and this style is known as the Nusantara Malay design.

In the course of this Mosque Architecture in the Malay World book, it became apparent that the Demak mosque in Java is the earliest mosque to be built in the Malay Archipelago, that is in the late 15th century. Such mosque design spread throughout the Malay World especially in the area occupied by Muslims. The expansion of Islam throughout the archipelago in the 15th and 16th centuries was accompanied by the building of mosques. During that period, there already existed Islamic administrative centres in the region such as the Islamic governments of Java, Brunei, the Philippines, Pattani, Sumatera and Melaka.

The establishment of these governments made it possible for the most highly skilled craftsmen to display their creativity. They built mosques in a fashion suitable with the climate and local surroundings, especially the hot climate and the rain that fell throughout the year. Furthermore, the ease and accessibility of timber as a building material did not detract the function of the mosque itself. Architecture knows no boundaries or limitations to hinder its progress. The same can be said of the mosque, the symbol of Islam which encourages Muslims in the region to think and aspire so that mosque architecture does not remain static.

Architecture knows no boundaries or limitations to hinder its progress. The same can be said of the mosque, the symbol of Islam which encourages Muslims in the region to think and aspire so that mosque architecture did not remain static. Apart from the new roof design, with its layered roof that was introduced and clearly influenced by existing architecture, there were very early mosques which combined the structural elements of basic house design with overhanging gable-end roof which incorporated the Tebar layar. The Tebar layar served to obstruct strong winds while, at the same time, allowing the free passage of cool air to replace warm air. This concept demonstrates an understanding of hot and cool air movement and ventilation.

A change occurred in the architecture of mosques; the tebar layar roof design of the Malay World gradually became pyramidal in shape known as the limas or the five layered roof, or the ‘silver shaped roof’ (Potong Perak). The limas design replaced the tebar layar roof which had long survived as the most popular design since the acceptance of Islam in the region. The limas roof featured prominently especially in Java and has been connected to the architectural design of the traditional Javanese house.

Mosques with the five-layered roof became very popular after the Dutch and the British colonised the region. From the early seventeenth and the eighteenth century, five layered and ‘silver shaped roofs’ were widely used in mosque design and construction throughout the region.

In the early 20th century, changes were not only made to the design, but also to the materials used in mosque construction. Formerly the whole mosque was made of timber but since the colonial period, mosques began to be built using concrete.

At the turn of the twentieth century too, a new mosque architecture came into being. The design was called the ‘onion’ shaped dome, because the shape of the dome resembled a segmented onion.

Mosque architecture featuring the onion shaped dome was very much influenced by house shaped mosque architecture throughout the Malay World, but mosque architecture generally had started to depart from its dependence on traditional features and modes of fabrication. Gradually, the new trends began to replace the old designs throughout the region and the wooden mosques, with layered roofs and discernable house features, became less favoured and is no longer explored by architects and builders. Most of the old mosques were replaced and demolished or just left unattended. Others were refurbished and renovated. with roof ridges given an ornamental onion shaped dome or a larger dome to replace the crown of the layered roof.

Weight0.77 kg
Dimensions26.5 × 18.5 × 1.9 cm




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