Islamic Architecture in Malaysia: a Case of Middle Eastern Inferiority Complex


To the well informed, architecture speaks volumes about society. Unlike any other kind of ‘language’, architecture never lies. In whatever manner a building is composed, it will always contain the intention or ignorance of the patron, user and architect. The design of mosques in Malaysia is no exception. We can actually read the state of the Muslim society from the myriad of domes, minarets, polished tiles, ornamentation, muqarnas, mashrabiyya, maqsura, mimbars, mihrabs, courtyards, sahn and the various kinds of compositional syntax introduced by the architect or ordered by the client. In this short article I wish to draw attention to the curious reason why we went from the architecture of the National Mosque or Masjid Negara to the architecture of middle eastern eclecticism exemplified by such mega projects as in the Shah Alam Mosque, the Wilayah Persekutuan Mosque and the ‘jewel’ of them all, the Putra Mosque in Putrajaya. The common message of the middle eastern clad mosques seem to be that Islam has finally found its roots and true universal identity as opposed to its ‘lost’ years of international architecture. I seek to disagree with this common understanding and will present only three arguments in the form of criticism to support my contention that Masjid Negara possessed much that can be qualified as integrity in Islamic Architecture in Malaysia rather than the present mosques that have been hailed as the epitome of Muslim civilization. 

Architectural Ethnicity

            My first argument or criticism of the malaise in mosque architectural language in this country is that the present mosques show a serious case of Middle Eastern inferiority complex. No where can this be said to be superbly exemplified than a trip down south to the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Johor Bahru. Amidst the congregation of pseudo-Malay traditional architecture of serambis, pemeleh, tiang seris, bumbung panjang, limas potong Belanda and tebar layar that form the faculties, administration, dormitories, sports complex and lecture halls, one can discern clearly the crown of the campus which is sited at the highest point…a blue tiled eclectic composition of six Ottoman minarets, Iranian iwans or gateways, Arabic hypostyled halls and topped with a huge Egyptian dome. Not a day that goes by that I ask myself the question, why couldn’t the architects and clients complete the traditional revivalism with a Nusantara type mosque? I am sure the academics, professionals and university leadership is aware of the two tiered and three tiered pyramidal roofs of Kampung Laut Mosque, the Kampung Tuan Mosque or the Papan Mosque in Perak. Why should we resort to s foreign architectural tradition when we have our own? I was told by a veteran politician from Melaka that he had to fight against the team of architect in order to force the choice of the present architectural language of the Melaka State Mosque. I have also read statements by architects and religious scholars that a mosque is not a mosque if it does not have domes, minarets and mihrab. Well I guess that certainly rules out most of the traditional timber mosques in the Malay World because they never had any one of the ‘required’ elements! The attitude thus prevailing seems to indicate that Muslims in Malaysia have an inferiority complex against the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam. I have no reservation for saying so because neither the Qur’an nor the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) make any mention as to the required expression of the mosque to be from its birth place. Islam is a religion that crosses geographic and cultural boundaries. It does not put racist or ethnic preference as the measure of a true mukmin. Thus, we can see why the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur does not have this problem of inferiority complex. Its whole architectural expression does not suggest any other foreign influence but is uniquely suited within our socio-cultural context.

Spirit of Times

            My second criticism of the present approach in mosque architectural expression concerns the idea of spirit of the times. I will show that the Masjid Negara possess this idea well and thus show Islam as a progressive and dynamic religion. The present mosque vocabulary of Middle Eastern eclecticism presents the idea of Islam as a regressive and dogmatic belief system. However, before commencing on a critic of present mosques in this regard, an explanation of the philosophy of the spirit of the times is necessary. The expression was given prominence in the intellectual architectural discourse concerning the true form of a modern architecture in Germany, France and England. The true style of a building is said to be one that respect the spirit of the age in relation to its technology, availability of materials and the new political systems. For instance, the traditional timber mosques of Malaysia were built according to their spirit of the times in relation to the construction and structural technology of that period. The Malays knew only the column and beam system of timber and that explains the domestic scale and short spans of the structural bays. In the middle east, the construction of traditional mosques were of mud or stone which gave rise to massive load bearing walls with small openings spanned by arches and domes. Many people do not understand that arches and domes are necessary structural elements to span long distances if one was using stone or mud construction. Thus it can be said the mosques of the past respected their spirit of the times. Masjid Negara or the National Mosque in Malaysia was built in the modern era of reinforced concrete construction. Its wide span of beams, use of hyper roofs and the huge folded plate roof covering the prayer hall expresses the spirit of the structural material. However, the present mosque designs of arches, domes and small fenestration ‘pretend’ to imitate the traditional masonry construction of the past! In order to span a huge space, we have a whole plethora of structural system from steel space frames, rigid frames, trusses, tensile structures, folded plates and hyperbolic shells. Horse shoe arches and onion domes are of bygone days except if one was building for the poor like what Hassan Fathy had done in the adobe construction of Africa and the middle east. Thus, we can see that Masjid Negara expresses the idea of Islam as a religion that is dynamic and progressive of the times rather than one that is static and even dogmatic as exemplified by the 1001 nights architectural vocabulary.

Spirit of Place

            The third criticism on present mosque design language concerns the idea of the spirit of the place. This philosophy states that the true essence of a building lie in its response to the specific climatic, geographic and culture of the place. I will speak only of one of the elements that make up the spirit of the place and that is climate. Now if we were to leave our air-conditioned office, houses and cars, we might be able to notice that we live in a hot and humid tropical climate. This fact seems to escape ordinary Malaysians who include architects but it is something, which the foreign tourist understands fully well! The climate, it seems is Malaysia’s best tourism commodity. In relation to architecture, the language of tropical design is always pitched roofs, long overhangs, louvered windows, wide verandahs, air-wells, light court, cool ponds of water and lots of fenestration. If we were to glance briefly at the Putra Mosque, the Sarawak State Mosque and the Shah Alam Mosque, we would be able to see that, in contrast to the Masjid Negara, those mosques do not show much of what tropical architecture should be. Small openings and massive enclosed fortress-like walls are the architecture of a temperate region where the little fenestration is to keep the cold out and the heat in. The use of massive walls as heat storage ‘tanks’ during the day so that it could reradiate heat during the frigid nighttime is definitely not a tropical feature. The designers of Masjid Negara understands this well when they put a wide open serambi area, high ceilings, large fenestration, air wells cool ponds of water at the interior and a raised platform on pilotti. It saddens me that in one of my public seminars, an architect observed that he prefers air conditioned mosques and saw no reason why we should build tropical ones when we are capable of using mechanical means of comfort. This argument reminds me of a local politician’s view of the meaning of ‘extravagant spending’. According to the new ‘morality’ of this politician, one is not being extravagant if one has a million ringgit and spends it all because extravagance is only when one spends a million ringgit when one does not have that much! Now I was always taught that if one has a million ringgit and spends even ten cents on something, which we can do without, that is actually the idea of extravagance! The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once remarked “Waste not water for ablution even if you’re performing it over a gently flowing river”. I have always taught my architectural students that they should never forget the tropical response to architecture even if one is designing a tall air-conditioned tower. The architects of mosques in Malaysia seem to be too concerned at honest imitation of foreign traditional heritage at the expense of the idea of Islam as a simple and moderate religion.


            There are many more criticisms that can be leveled at present mosque designs in Malaysia. I have merely grazed the tip of an iceberg in expounding the three criticism above. Amidst the euphoria of Malaysia having the biggest, the tallest and the most exotic, these criteria have never been accepted as necessarily exemplifying a thinking culture. It only shows our inferior mentality and diminutive aspiration when we have to proclaim to others about our so-called ‘greatness’.

shah alam mosque

Post-Modern Revivalism in Malaysia:

The Shah Alam Mosque

putra mosque

Post-Modern Revivalism in Malaysia:

The Putra Mosque in Putrajaya

masjid negara sembilan

Modernistic Expressionism in Malaysia:

The Negeri Sembilan State Mosque

masjid negara

Modewrnistic Expressionism in Malaysia:

Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur

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