STREET DOCUMENTARY: A LOOK AT THE SULTAN MOSQUE

August 2011 – This happen to be the month of the Ramadan this year (the Islamic month of fasting – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar which lasts for 29 or 30 days). I though that doing a photo essay on an iconic Muslim monument will be very appropriate to coincide with the Ramadan. I also hope to share and bring greater awareness to everyone through a series of pictures about the Muslim faith, so that we can all better understand each other in our multi racial and religious society in Singapore.

I happened to be in the area of Arab Street some time back and the beautiful structure of the Sultan Mosque caught my attention. The area is always packed with people and I saw many worshippers going in and out of the mosque throughout the day. I decided to venture further into the mosque and document the Muslim faith and also to take a closer look at the significance of the mosque. Here is a short photo essay on the Sultan Mosque – one of the national monuments considered to be the national mosque of Singapore.

Located along Muscat Street (more easily known if you mention Arab Street), the Sultan Mosque is considered to be the focal point of the historic Kampong Glam area. Also known as Masjid Sultan, it was named for Sultan Hussein Shah. The mosque was first built between 1824 and 1826, and was replaced by the current building between 1924 and 1928. The mosque has remained essentially unchanged since then, with only repairs carried out to the main hall in the 1960s. In 1993, an annex adjacent to the main building was added, giving a total site area of 4,109 square meters. The mosque’s main building is orientated at an angle instead of aligning to the grid of the roads in the vicinity. This is to allow worshippers to orientate to the direction of Mecca when they enter to the main prayer hall. A boundary wall of cast-iron railings encloses the compound. The most striking element of the architecture that caught my attention is definitely the golden onion-shaped dome at the top of the mosque. The dome sits on a ringed structure made up entirely of glass bottles that the sultan had collected as donations from poor Muslims.

I visited and documented the Sultan Mosque over a couple of days. It was never easy to shoot in a religious building, where there are restrictions and rules to observe. Lighting condition is usually also a challenge in such places. Much like any other religious institution, there are many policies and procedures concerning behavior and etiquette in mosques. The main purpose of these rules is to keep the interior of the mosque distraction free so that Muslims can remain focused on worship. Like everyone else, I had to remove my footwear before entering into the mosque. For the Muslims, they are required to clean themselves thoroughly, especially their feet. At both sides of the mosque, there are dedicated washing areas provided for worshippers to clean up before entering into the prayer hall. For visitors, short skirts or sleeveless T-shirts are not permissible attire, but the counter at the entrance do provide blue colored cloaks for temporary usage.

There is very limited area within the mosque for me to shoot. Visitors are not allowed to enter into the main prayer hall, leaving only the side corridors to explore. Only the men use the main prayer hall. I noticed a separate area provided for women at the rear of the hall (on the left), enclosed by tall maroon curtains. However, female worshippers are only a handful. Muslim women pray at home, as they are not obligated to attend the mosque for prayer in congregation and therefore do not frequently attend the mosque.

The mosque is also open to visitors for only two hours a day (from 2pm to 4pm where there are no mass prayers). With only such a short window available everyday, I had to revisit the mosque over several occasions to gain a deeper understanding of the faith and activities. On most occasions when I entered the mosque, a staff member from a foreign country greeted me. Usually to explain about the Muslim faith to overseas visitors, these “guides” will introduce the mosque and features as well as the religion. It was a very nice gesture but left me with very little time to shoot.

As all my visits coincide with the Ramadan period, the area in and around the mosque became very lively. Many temporary stalls were set up, selling delicacies to Muslims who come here to break fast. Family and friends also get together to pray and share a meal. Besides that, temporary shelters were also erected within the mosque compound (the open courtyard next to the new Annex) to distribute food to the needy to help them break fast.

It was a great experience documenting one of the national monuments of Singapore. Whether it is shooting inside the Sultan Mosque or exploring the many shophouses and cafes that filled the streets around it, there is a certain charm about this area that keeps me coming back again and again. Here are some selected shots taken during my time spent in and around the Sultan Mosque of Singapore.

All photographs taken with Leica M9 (50mm Summicron-M and 28mm Elmarit ASPH).

While some policies are universal, like not allowing shoes in the prayer hall, many mosque rules vary from place to place. Keeping footwear out from the prayer hall will help to keep the prayer rugs and carpets clean and tidy.

The Qur'an is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God (Allah) and the Final Testament, following the Old and New Testaments. It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language (Source: Wikipedia). Here is a elderly worshipper with a Qur'an in his hands. I spotted him every time I visited the mosque, sitting alone behind the main prayer hall with a Qur'an.

I spotted this young worshipper with an Apple iPad at the rear of the prayer hall. With the advancement of modern technology today, I will not be surprise if the Qur'an comes in an e-book format.

The central area for prayer is called a musalla (literally, "place for prayer"). It is deliberately quite bare. No furniture is needed, as worshippers sit, kneel, and bow directly on the floor. There may be a few chairs or benches to assist elderly or disabled worshippers who have difficulty with mobility. The prayer hall has high ceilings too, approximately two storey high and large enough to hold 5,000 worshippers.

Rugs and carpets have become a traditional way to ensure the cleanliness of the place of prayer, and to provide some cushioning on the floor. In the Sultan Mosque, the prayer area is covered with large prayer carpets. Smaller prayer rugs are stacked on a nearby shelf for individual use if required.

During Islamic prayers, worshippers bow, kneel, and prostrate on the ground in humility before God. The only requirement in Islam is that prayers be performed in an area that is clean. This is one of the reasons why footwear is not allowed.

Along the walls and pillars of the prayer hall, there are usually bookshelves to hold copies of the Qur'an, wooden book stands (rihal), other religious reading material, and individual prayer rugs. Beyond this, the prayer hall is otherwise a large, open space. Here, a worshipper spending a quiet moment reading religious materials in the main prayer hall.

There is very limited area within the mosque for me to shoot. Visitors are not allowed to enter into the main prayer hall, leaving only the side corridors to explore. When there are no mass prayers going on, some worshippers will just enjoy a moment of peace along the corridor of the prayer hall. Some will even take a nap or just read religious materials.

The central atrium of the main prayer hall is enclosed by a second-storey gallery. It is accessible at both sides along the corridor by wooden staircase leading up to the second-level. The railing of the staircase has the Islamic symbol of crescent moon and star on it. Visitors are not allowed to the second-level.

Only the men use the main prayer hall. I noticed a separate area provided for women at the rear of the hall enclosed by tall maroon curtains. However, female worshippers are only a handful in the mosque. Muslim women pray at home, as they are not obligated to attend the mosque for prayer in congregation and therefore do not frequently attend the mosque.

Like everyone else, I had to remove my footwear before entering into the mosque. For the Muslims, they are required to clean themselves thoroughly (especially their feet) before commencement of regular prayers. At both the courtyards at the side of the mosque, there are dedicated washing areas provided for worshippers to clean up before entering into the prayer hall.

A boundary wall of cast-iron railings encloses the Sultan Mosque. The beautiful features of the railings add on to the uniqueness of the architecture.

Outside the Sultan Mosque, it is usually crowded with visitors, worshippers and local people looking for a bite. Rows of motorcycles parked all over the walkway as mass prayers approaches everyday.

Students from Islamic schools are a common sight in and around the Sultan Mosque. They usually drop by the mosque in the afternoon (probably after classes).

During the Ramadan period, the area in and around the mosque became very lively. Many temporary stalls were set up, selling delicacies to Muslims who come here to break fast. Family and friends also get together to pray and share a meal. Here, a Muslim lady walking away after getting food from one of the temporary stalls outside the mosque.

The area around the Sultan Mosque is more commonly known to locals as Arab Street. It is filled with lanes and alleys occupied by eateries and shops. Whether it’s shooting inside the Sultan Mosque or exploring the many shophouses and cafes that filled the streets around it, there is a certain charm about this area that keeps me coming back again and again.

The open courtyard of the Sultan Mosque by the side of the main prayer hall. Next to it is the new Annex.

The Sultan Mosque (also known as Masjid Sultan) - one of the national monuments considered to be the national mosque of Singapore. It is indeed a great historic monument and architecture in Singapore to document.

~Photography & Edited by Chia Loy Chuan (August, 2011)~

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Grand Palace - 17 September, 2011 - 9:33 AM

You have really interesting blog, keep up posting such informative posts!

Joe Radzif - 17 January, 2014 - 10:25 AM

Very nice Photo!

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