Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Islamic Touch in Singapore

The Sultan Mosque on Arab Street
The Singapore National Library is holding an exhibition called "Rihlah: Arabs in Southeast Asia" until December 31. It's a small show, but presents a lot of interesting material.
Many of these Arabs came from Hadramaut in Yemen, trading frankincense and myrrh with other countries like India, east Africa and China. These valuable resins were used for religious rites, medicines and mummification.
These traders became very wealthy and some settled in southeast Asia. Their family names include Al Qu'aiti, Al Kathiri and Al Walaqi. Other names like Alsagoff became famous as Syed Mohammed Alsagoff owned the Raffles Hotel which was opened December 1, 1887. Another family, Al Junied has a subway stop named after it.
The exhibition also shows items from these families, from letters and passports, to clothing and even chinaware. The aforementioned Alsagoff had specially commissioned dining ware with the logo "SM" on it, and "SHA" for Syed Hussain Alkaff. The chinaware was used for lavish tea parties, as shown in black and white photographs of men sitting around small tables outside.
While a few of these families are still around in Singapore, their numbers have dwindled as well as their wealth. Nevertheless, they still have made a strong mark in Singapore, adding another cultural layer to the city.
Afterwards we headed to Arab Street and checked out the Sultan Mosque. The first one was built in 1824, but it was already considered too small a few years later and four years later a bigger one was built where it still stands. Sir Stamford Raffles even contributed S$3,000 to the construction of the mosque. At the base of the dome is a black black ring and apparently they are from all from the crushed empty soy sauce bottles collected from the poor.
That story came from Jason, a docent at the mosque. What surprised us was that he was a Caucasian Muslim, eager to tell us all about Islam.

He explained the mosque has a capacity of 5,000 people and is especially busy on Fridays and during Ramadan. He pointed out there were no pictures or idols in the mosque and that Allah means "creator".

The men prayed in the main hall, while women had to either pray at the back or upstairs. This was to avoid people having sexual desires when they should be focusing on their spiritual development.

As for the mosque and everyone having to face Mecca when they prayed, Jason said in the Koran, Allah says people must be given direction otherwise they will not be sure of what to do or where to go. Islam, Jason said, is about surrender, safety, peace and submission.

He also explained Muslims pray five times a day, and each day the times are different depending on when the sun rises and sets. "We all spend a lot of time watching TV and resting, so why can't we at least spend 25 minutes of our day praying to Allah?" he asked. "Most people only pray when they are in the plane, hoping for a safe landing or trip."

Jason also said Muslims donate 2.5 percent of their annual income to the poor, widows, divorcees, recent converts and veterans. He says it is important for Muslims to first help their community, then their city, country, then the world. This is not dissimilar to tithes that some Christians and Catholics still follow.

As for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj which means planting a seed in the ground, Jason said for a Muslim not to perform the hajj does not make them a lesser Muslim, but it is encouraged, as it is considered a spiritual journey.

And the fasting that goes on during Ramadan brings humbleness to Muslims, be they the CEO of a company to an ordinary person, Jason said. From sunset to sundown, Muslims are not to drink any water or eat food -- but there are exceptions for those who are traveling, pregnant or going through their menstrual cycle. He says while Muslims can break fast at sundown, there are still millions of people still starving and so Ramadan gives them an opportunity to be thankful for what they have.

Polygamy is encouraged in Islam, according to Jason. However, it's not practiced widely in countries where the state only recognizes marriage only between one man and one woman. However, he hinted that a man could spiritually take another woman to be his "wife", but whether the two wives would get along as sisters or become competitors was another issue.

This last point didn't sit well with the predominantly female members of our group -- that and having to pray five times a day.

So much for his attempt to convert us to Islam.

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