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By Azfar Anwar
“We have no issues with Muslims celebrating Chinese New Year (CNY). It is a cultural event, and we have many Chinese Muslims who celebrate their CNY with their families. But do we have to go to the extend[t] of organising a song and dance in a mosque, a sacred religious space for worship, the house of God?”, asks a netizen in a viral blog post about the Chinese New Year celebration held in the Yusof Ishak mosque here in multi-religious and multi-racial Singapore.
A day after the national Malay-Muslim news programme reported the event, with a video coverage depicting a band playing music, people dancing (both Muslims and non-Muslims), ‘hong bao’ (money packets) being handed out to attendees, the online Singaporean Muslim community erupted in blog and Facebooks posts. The coverage even shows the Minister of Education and a member of parliament (both non-Malays and non-Muslims–an emphasized fact by some netizens) participating in the event. Some claimed that this is “very disrespectful to Islam”, while others blamed the failure of local religious leaders, like the Mufti of Singapore and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore for failing to prevent the event from happening in a sacred place “strictly for religious activities related to the Muslim faith” (the event was held in the basement parking lot of the mosque). The rest viewed that while mosques are “shared spaces” and “open to all races and religions”, this event is seen to be “a bit too much” and “unnecessary”. The Mosque responded that the news coverage was taken out of context and that the song and dance were only for a few minutes. After being criticised for being silent on the issue, the Mufti posted on Facebook stating that while he agrees that the event should not have been organised in the mosque, that the online reaction (particularly the slurs) are impulsive, mere conjectures and are uncalled for.
But is the online reaction simply a result of the desacralisation of a mosque? And is it true that the event should not have happened in the mosque at all?
Mosques have always served in history as a multipurpose space. The mosque that the Prophet Muhammad built in Medina, for instance, was more of a community centre for both Muslims and non-Muslims than a simple place of worship; he held court in the mosque, organised council meetings, utilised it as a military headquarters, and even used it as boarding for travellers. Then we have the great mosque in Mecca, which had an open central round space around the Kaaba where the residents of Mecca performed most of their religious, social, cultural and intellectual activities, and remained so for centuries on. The mosques that were built by the early Caliphs in garrison cities, on the other hand, were simple enclosures which were usually roofed over at one end, but were still used for mass assemblies.
As the Arabs conquered more lands, and the urban way of life was introduced, mosques in urban Islamic cities gained a formal architecture with the creation of the masjid jami’ (literally, a ‘gathering mosque’ or ‘collecting mosque’), and it became the most lively and cosmopolitan centre of all activities. And as the Muslim social order and identity continue to develop, large oriented courtyard mosques became hypostyle – the big mosques subdivided, by minor architectural elaborations, into sections each identified by the now more diverse society. Perhaps being the only large formal venue in the city, mosques were still being used as a place for the inhabitants of the city to gather, socialise and celebrate festivities.
The famous 12th-century Muslim geographer Ibn Jubayr, for example, reports during his visit in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that the open space of the mosque was utilised by the “whole city of Damascus” as a gathering space of “festivity and recreation”. And when the sun is out during the day, the shaded spaces provided by the colonnade on the sides of the mosque were utilised instead. The famous traveller Ibn Battutah also reports something similar about the red pebbled open space of the mosque of Ali during his visit to the city of Basrah.
In the old Cairo (Fustat) city of Egypt, the 14th-century historian Al-Maqrizi, paints a fuller quotidian picture of the mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-’As, where the open courtyard has been made into a thoroughfare, with “nuts and desserts” being sold to picnickers, who have set up “all over the place”, and their “children circling them and playing around the water tanks (for ablution)”. Amidst all of this, there were learning circles in “several places” of the mosque where the Qur’an, Islamic law, and Arabic grammar were being taught. Al-Maqrizi was more concerned about the wall decorations of the mosque which have been graffitied over with “ugly writings done by the common poor people” and did not mention about how the mosque was being desacralised. In fact, despite this chaotic picture, he reports that there was still a sense of ease and warmth in the air which he credited to the fact that Companions of the Prophet had stood in the premise when the mosque was being built.
So when did mosques turn from being an open space for all to a contested one for some? It seems that the open door policy caused the austere and ascetic section of society to fear that rising cosmopolitanism and foreign influences had spread wickedness and innovations into the Muslim culture and religion. Legal writings thus began to emerge on the prohibition of the ‘Other’, which sometimes even include Muslim women, to step onto mosque grounds. As Professor Christopher Melchert of Oxford points out, in his ‘Whether to Keep Women out of the Mosques: A Survey of Medieval Islamic Law’, the majoritarian schools of law, for example, would prohibit even women from going to mosques, on the basis of “public order”, but would instead permit non-Muslim males to enter mosques. On the other hand, the minoritarian schools of law (like the Hanbalites and Twelver Shi’ism) would be more concerned about “boundary maintenance” rather than the hierarchy of gender and would thus allow women to enter the mosques but outlaw all non-Muslim males or females.
This fear, however, was not totally unwarranted and would magnify during times of turmoil, like the fall of Andalusia, where many elaborately constructed mosques were converted to churches, and during the Crusades when the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was given to the Knights Templar (although Muslims reciprocated by doing the opposite to churches). Mosques then became a political statement, and the Ottomans made the biggest one with effects lasting up till today.
After the fall of Constantinople and the expansion of the Ottomans, some churches were converted to mosques to primarily indicate that the space was Ottoman, although interestingly, the Hagia Sophia still bears Christian iconography alongside Islamic motifs. This ‘tolerance’, however, were antagonistic at best, according to anthropologists like F.W. Hasluck, and only endured so long as the existing Muslim dominance is not threatened (the same model can be applied to non-Ottoman powers at the time). A dominance partly indicated by controlling the identity of key religious sites. When political (and by extension, religious) dominance is threatened, the religious spaces would be contested often to violent results.
But the threat was not just posed by the non-Muslim Other. The huge Suleymaniye multipurpose mosque-complex (kulliye), with its dependencies consisting of several colleges, a Qur’an school for children, a hostel, a hospital, a public kitchen, a bathhouse (hammam), caravanserai and rows of small shops, was built more as a symbol of political and religious legitimacy against the Safavid Shi’i power, and the “heterodox” Qizilbash and Sufis respectively. The new broken up multi-domed nuclear spaces, a different mosque structure from earlier Islamic periods, for instance, was a reflection of the fatwas issued by Ottoman scholars against the Shi’i Safavids who they accused of using mosques for other purposes than prayers. That the mosque was strictly a sacred place was also inscribed on ceramic tiles over the window next to the pulpit and apparently adhered to until today.
Visitors to mosques built by the Ottomans would observe Sunni Islamic motifs inflated in the decorations of the mosques. The names of God, Muhammad and the four caliphs would be everywhere; even on the stained-glass windows. The shahada (profession of faith) would be inscribed in the arches that serve as main entrances, and instead of hadiths (Prophetic quotes) bearing the name of Ali, and Persian poetry, like in the earlier mosques, Qur’anic verses were used for mosques inscriptions almost always emphasising the straight path of the Shari’ah to be followed by the Orthodox Sunni believer, unlike the heterodox Shi’i Other.
Given the nature of mosques throughout history, I am of the opinion that the said cultural celebration was not inappropriate, especially when it was not held in the actual prayer space (a specific premise delimited only in the Ottoman period), but in the basement parking lot of the Yusof Ishak mosque. It is worth noting too, that the premise of criticism was problematic to begin with; some Mosques in Singapore have been organising activities where dancing and the playing of music are involved (though only for Muslims) like Zumba and Kebayarobik. One then wonder why these activities did not receive the same backlash from the online Singaporean Muslim community. This, and given the historical pattern of when mosques became contested spaces, some crucial questions arise.
What does the reaction to the Chinese New Year celebration reflect? Would it be simplistic to say that it is merely a matter of demarcating the sacred from the profane? Does it echo the rising vocal strand of conservatism among an already scrutinised (Muslim) minority? Or is it indicative of a specific type of tolerance (read: antagonistic tolerance) sustained by the Malay Muslim community of Singapore, which is being put to the test yet again? Subsequently, how will this ‘antagonistic tolerance’, if it is truly antagonistic, contribute to the construction of the ‘Singapore identity’?
Singapore prides itself to be the most religiously diverse country in the world, but what comes after this fact? In an increasingly diverse era, harmony and an all-encompassing national identity cannot be truly sought if tolerance does not make the leap towards the celebration of diversity.
Majdi Almansouri, The Role of the Friday Mosque (Al-Jami) in Islamic Cities, ed. Robert Riley, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1991, p.114.
Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, v. 1, p. 208-9.
Ibid. p. 305.
Ibid. v. 2, p. 328.
Almansouri, p. 114.
Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī Maqrīzī, Kitāb Al-Mawāʿiẓ Wa-Al-Iʿtibār Bi-Zikr Al-Khiṭaṭ Wa-Al-Āthār: Al-Maʿrūf Bi-Al-Khiṭaṭ Al-Maqrīzīyah, Ṭabʿah jadīdah bi-al-ūfst. ed. Bayrūt: Dār Ṣādir, 1970, p. 341.
C. Melchert, Whether to Keep Women Out of the Mosque: A Survey of Medieval Islamic Law, 2006.
 For his theory of ‘antagonistic tolerance’, see Robert M. Hayden, “Intersecting Religioscapes and Antagonistic Tolerance: Trajectories of Competition and Sharing of Religious Spaces in the Balkans,” Space and Polity 17, no. 3 (2013), 320-334. p. 67-8.
Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, “The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation,” Muqarnas 3, 1985, 92-117. doi:10.2307/1523086. 3-6.
This, unfortunately, was mere ‘fake news’ of the period. Mosques built during the Safavid period were specifically designed to hold congregants for the Friday prayers. Cf. Fuchsia Hart, “The Congregational Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah”, Symposia Iranica, 2017.
Gülru Neci̇poğlu-Kafadar, p. 110-1.
Raden Zainal Mustafa, “Masjid Kita: Peningkatan Demi Kemudahan Jemaah”, Berita Harian, 12 Februari 2016, di http://specials.beritaharian.sg/sgbagus/iman/peningkatan-demi-kemudahan-jemaah (14 Mei 2018).