Saturday, December 20, 2014

History of Mosques & Mausoleum in Penang | Masjid Kapitan Keling & Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh


Alhamdulillah wa shukrulillah.

I am very excited and happy to have received this wonderful gift from a perpetual musafir. It's about mosques and mausoleum in Penang from 1730s to 2012. Indeed, the book is a must-have/must-read for Penangites. The publication was part of an initiative called Penang Story. It is a collaboration between Think City, Penang Heritage Trust and Universiti Sains Malaysia - one of Malaysia's top universities based in Penang.

History of Mosques and Mausoleum in Penang
1730s - 2012

The book which was funded by Think City, is based on a research carried out in 1974 by a group of students at the Malayan Teachers College in Gelugor, Penang. The six-member research team, led by Mr. W. Williams, named their work 'Historical Survey of the Mosques and Kramats on Penang Island'.

Out of the 75 mosques and 24 kramats/maqam/mausoleum listed in the book, in my opinion, 3 mosques and 2 maqams are a must-visit if you only have two days to spend in Penang Island. One of them is Masjid Batu Uban in Gelugor which we talked about several postings back. Click here for related links.

The other two mosques -  Masjid Kapitan Keling and Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh - are two very beautiful and prominent mosques in the smack of George Town. Both are on the tourist/heritage trail. While you marvel at their outward beauty, you should know that there are two great personalities behind them. Cauder Mohudeen or Kapitan Keling and Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid were two remarkable community leaders who left a splendid legacy through the simple and mighty noble act of waqaf.

Cauder Mohudeen (1759 - 1834) was an active trader from Pondicherry, South India who already had business dealings with Nagore [a town along the Bay of Bengal in south east India], Kedah [a state in north Peninsula Malaysia] and Sumatera/Indonesia even before he joined Captain Francis Light's entourage to Penang in 1786. Cauder Mohudeen first served Captain Light [founder of the British colony in Penang], as crew leader. Within the first few years in Penang, after having reaped business opportunities on account of his good relationship with Captain Light, Cauder Mohudeen became the richest and most influential Chulia  [a name used by the British in reference to Muslims from South India]. In 1801, Cauder Mohudeen got elected as Kapitan [chief] of the Chulias and became known as Kapitan Keling. As the first and charismatic leader of the Chulias, Kapitan Keling submitted an application to the British government for a plot of land for the purpose of building a mosque. On 2nd November 1801, Sir George Leith, the British first Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales' Island [Penang Island] granted 18 acres of land solely for building a mosque and as compound for a Muslim cemetery. In 1802, with funding assistance from the East India Company and contributions from Muslim traders in George Town, a mosque was built and named Masjid Kapitan Keling.

Sixty five years later as George Town grew in population and trading activities, and more so after London began overseeing the management of the Straits Settlements [i.e. Penang, Malacca and Singapore] the 18 acre land meant for the mosque and Muslim cemetery had to be given up to make way for a market and a police station. In 1903, there were only 8 acres left. In 1905, the mosque's affairs were put under the purview of the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Ordinance. The ordinance was set up to supervise waqaf properties in the Straits Settlements. Cauder Mohudeen or Kapitan Keling, as a wealthy trader, owned some 50,000 square feet of waqaf land. He, his three wives and their seven children were all buried on this piece of waqaf property. He also had 18 houses built in situ.          

Masjid Kapitan Keling
underwent a major refurbishment in 1916
(funded by the Mohamedan and Hindu Endowments Board)
and several times more between 1928-1935, 2002 and 2011.
The mosque served as Penang's State Mosque until 1980. 

Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh [a.k.a. Acheen Street Mosque] is the other prominent mosque in George Town which you must visit. It is about 5-minute walk from Masjid Kapitan Keling. It was built in 1808, just six years after the completion of Masjid Kapitan Keling. Its founder Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid as a reputable and influential leader of the Malay community felt there was a need to have a mosque for the Malays [Melayu] because the Friday sermons at Masjid Kapitan were delivered in Tamil.

Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid (d 1840) was a member of the Aceh [Indonesia] royal family who owned a flourishing spice trading business. In 1791, he signed a pact with Captain Francis Light claiming independent authority over his followers and rights to free trade including tin business. On top of the enterprises in Penang, Tunku Sayyid Hussain was also agent for Palmer & Co based in Calcutta, India. He owned at least three trading vessels and George Town's first high-rise building i.e a four-storey building where his office was located. The building also functioned as godown for spices. The godown, known as Rumah Tinggi [Tall House] was valued at $6,000 Spanish dollar and with that Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid qualified as the third richest man in George Town, after Captain Francis Light and his friend James Scott.

Tunku Sayyid Hussain was so rich that he afforded a loan amounting to $50,000 Spanish dollar to East India Company who got into financial difficulties in 1815. In 1820 Tunku Sayyid Hussain offered some 66,000 square feet of waqaf land for religious purposes. Rental collections from about 14 properties were channeled to the mosque's trust fund meant for charitable causes, such as education. A house dedicated for Malay children was built on the waqaf land.

Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh/Acheen Street Mosque
[The small structure on the far right is where
Maqam of Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid is housed]

After his demise in 1840, Lebuh Aceh/Acheen Street continued to prosper and evolved as a center for hajj pre-departure activities. This took place in the mid-19th century when Penang Port became the region's one and only point of disembarkation for hajj. Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh became a pivotal center for religious studies for would-be pilgrims and others. It was where high calibre spiritual leaders like Shaykh Omar Basheer al-Khalidi came to the fore. Shaykh Omar was then serving as imam of the mosque from whom the British had sought for help in resolving community conflicts and riots in Penang.      

Shaykh Omar Basheer (1811 - 1881) descended from an Arab family from Hadramaut. He was born in 1811 in an area within the vicinity of Masjid Kapitan Keling. He was well educated and received plenty of training in Mecca from several outstanding scholars. His maqam is located in Kampung Melayu, Ayer Itam [northwest of George Town] near his family home which also served as a center for Naqshbandi Tariqa activities. His maqam is a must-visit destination.

Shaykh Omar's grandfather, Hamid bin Bahman was a reputable Sufi leader in Hadramaut. He first brought/introduced the Naqshbandi Tariqa in Penang in 1806 and set up a 'House of Seclusion' known as Madrasatul Suluk Kampung Melayu. In 1840, Shaykh Omar was gifted with a house in Kampung Melayu which originally belonged to Captain Francis Light's Secretary.

Link to an old posting on Shaykh Omar Basheer:
Maqam Shaykh Omar Basheer in Kampung Melayu, Ayer Itam, Penang
[pic taken in 2009]

To recap, if you only have two days to spend in Penang, the three mosques and two maqams you should visit are:
  • Masjid Batu Uban in Gelugor
  • Masjid Kapitan Keling in George Town
  • Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh in George Town
  • Maqam Tunku Sayyid Hussain Al-Aidid at Masjid Melayu Lebuh Aceh
  • Maqam Shaykh Omar Basheer in Kampung Melayu, Ayer Itam
The great personalities behind these mosques should in fact be our role models. They were all high achievers who contributed significantly to society.

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