Prominent Mosques of Penang: The Enclave of George Town

loading Masjid Kapitan Keling.

We begin a series where we take a quick look at these religious centres that are so central to Muslim daily life in the state.

Apart from being important places of worship, mosques function as points of orientation in time and space for Muslims. They are places where social ties, religious learning and akad nikah take place. They are also where Muslims gather during festivals like Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Aidiladha.

Penang has more old, historic mosques than may be immediately obvious to people. Most of them were built by visionary Muslim merchants who were also influential figures in their community. The uniqueness of each of these mosques can be gathered from the diverse ethnicities that frequent them, and from the names each carries, such as Masjid Pakistan, Masjid Benggali and many others. They continue to be especially relevant to the communities they serve.

Masjid Pakistan

The uniqueness of each of these mosques can be gathered from the diverse ethnicities that frequent them, and from the names each carries, such as Masjid Pakistan, Masjid Benggali and many others. They continue to be especially relevant to the communities they serve.

Masjid Pakistan has been at the heart of the Pakistani community of Penang for over three generations. Situated on Jalan Macalister alongside government and private offices, it remains popularly frequented by employees from the surrounding offices for afternoon (Zuhr) and evening (Asr) prayers, especially on Fridays.

According to Datuk Abdul Rafique, the chairman of Masjid Pakistan, the mosque was established in the 1950s by Pakistani migrants, and quickly became a centre overseeing the welfare of the Pakistani community in Penang, and functioned as a transit point as well for newly arrived Pakistanis. It still plays that role today, welcoming Pakistani travellers and migrants by providing a transit room for those who require it and who fulfil certain conditions, before they find a new home.

Masjid Pakistan is fully managed by Pakistanis. Abdul Rafique says: “Most of the committee members came from Pakistan, and we have our own organisation, Persatuan Liga Muslim Pakistan, which is actively involved in da’wah activities as well as managing the welfare of the Pakistani community in Penang.” Abdul Rafique has served as chairman of the mosque for 20 years, and also wears the cap of Consulate General for Pakistan in Penang.

A variety of annual gatherings are hosted there, such as Ihya’ Ramadhan, which consists of a grand iftar provided throughout the month of Ramadhan; terawih prayers; and also qiamullail for the last ten days of Ramadhan. Aidilfitri and Aidiladha feasts, which are open to the public, are also held at Masjid Pakistan. “We have plans for an information and Islamic propagation centre so that da’wah and intellectual discourse about Islam can be publicly done,” says Abdul Rafique.

Worshippers at Masjid Pakistan.

Masjid Kapitan Keling

Located in the heart of George Town, Masjid Kapitan Keling has served the Indian Muslim community since the eighteenth century. According to Prof. Dr Mahani Musa, the mosque had humble beginnings, and was founded by Major Nador Khan, a.k.a. To’ Nadok Berkajang Kain. In the very beginning, it was but an attap building. “After a while, the Indian Muslim community requested for their leader, Keling Kapitan (real name Cauder Mohideen), to build a new mosque with a larger space to accommodate the increased amount of worshippers.”1

Chairman of the mosque, Datuk Meera Mydin Mastan, explains: “Given the collective vision and spirit to strengthen Islamic values among Indian Muslims, Kapitan Cauder Mohideen was inspired to buy land from the British to enlarge the mosque, set up residence for his family and establish a centre of trade especially for the Indian Muslim community.

“The architecture of the mosque was influenced by Moorish, Mughal and Indian traditions. The sculptures and designs have Mughal influences, and are reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. The builders of the mosque came from India, and were brought in by Kapitan Cauder Mohideen.” The magnificent architecture of Masjid Kapitan Keling was developed by the famous architect, H. A. Neubronner, in 1916.

The inside of Masjid Kapitan Keling.

“Another interesting fact is the significance behind the name ‘Kapitan Keling Mosque’: the word ‘Keling’ refers to the Kalinga Empire in South India, whose inhabitants came to Penang for commerce and then stayed on alongside other members of the Indian community. Together they formed Little India.”

Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh

With its unique Chinese-Moorish architecture, Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh in George Town is one of the oldest mosques in Penang. It was founded by Tuanku Syed Hussein Aidid, a member of the Acehnese royalty. “Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh is still known to many Indonesians, especially the Acehnese. Until today, the seventh-generation descendants of Syed Hussein are still living at Lebuh Aceh,” says Widad Rawa, former secretary of the Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh Heritage Body.

According to Widad, the 1920s through to the 1960s may very well have been the mosque’s golden era – minus the Japanese Occupation years, that is.

The minaret of Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh rises above the shophouses of George Town.

During those decades, Lebuh Aceh was a busy place for pilgrims transiting via Penang on their way to Mecca. “Many people, especially Malays from other states in Malaya – including South Thailand as well – visited Lebuh Aceh before going on to perform the hajj in Mecca. They were often accompanied by large groups of family members.

“It was absolutely crowded – people from various places came to trade, build kinship, work and learn about Islam with Syeikh Haji, an agent from Mecca who was responsible for bringing pilgrims to perform the hajj. It was a good time – my late father was one of the traders involved in printing and distributing Arabic literature and Islamic books to people who came from various madrasahs and ‘sekolah pondok’. They gathered here with my father to discuss and exchange views about the development of Islam,” says Widad. Her father, Yusof Ar-Rawi, was also the former chairman of Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh.

With the rise of commercial flight and the establishment of the Malaysian hajj pilgrims fund board, Lebuh Aceh and its mosque suffered a dip in popularity from the 1970s onwards. Today, it is seeing a healthy revival – much thanks to George Town’s Unesco world heritage site listing. “With the combined efforts of the local community, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Think City and George Town World Heritage Incorporation, many conservation initiatives have been carried out, including compiling historical facts for the future generations. One must not forget the Penang Islamic Council either, which developed the houses around Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh,” says Widad.

Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh Pulpit for Friday sermon.

Masjid Benggali.

Masjid Benggali

According to Prof. Dr Mahani Musa, Masjid Benggali was built in 1804 at Lebuh Leith at the request of Bengalis who were working with the East India Company. It was originally built from wood until its refurbishment in 1958, and was officially inaugurated by Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, that same year. The mosque was gazetted under the Penang Islamic Council and is open to the public.2

Haji Abdullah, Masjid Benggali’s secretary, reveals that the mosque was the centre of the da’wah movement known as tabligh, which originated from Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to Mahani, “In the early twentieth century, Masjid Benggali was busy with the activities of a small missionary group, known as tabligh, which strived to spread and convey Islamic teachings. The group was accepted among the Indian Muslims, but was unpopular with the Malay community because of the language barrier.”3

Masjid Benggali is unique in many ways – one of them being its prayer times. “The Asr prayer time is different from other mosques because it follows the Hanafi madzhab of teaching. On top of that, there is a gathering for the tabligh group, whose members come from various parts of Malaysia and from overseas, on Mondays and Thursdays; sermons and Yaasin and do’a recitations are conducted, ending with a feast that is open to the public,” says Abdullah.

11 Mahani Musa. Sejarah Masjid & Keramat di Pulau Pinang, 1730am-2012. George Town: Think City, 2012.
2Mahani Musa. Sejarah Masjid & Keramat di Pulau Pinang, 1730am-2012. George Town: Think City, 2012.
Nidhal Mujahid is a sociopolitical analyst at Penang Institute. He loves art and music and used to play the angklung. He graduated from the International Islamic University of Malaysia with a degree in Political Science (Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Science).

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