Islam came peacefully to the people of the Malay Peninsula through the trading port of Malacca, now a minor city but, in the early 15th century, a thriving commercial entrepot.
The first mosques there were probably built on a modest scale, using whatever materials were easily available to small traders, subsistence fisherfolk and farmers. None of those early structures remain, but in the remote fishing villages on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, and in places like the logging camps of East Malaysia, we can find structures not unlike the first mosques. These buildings represent a universal style of village architecture, and they are often built using a Malaysian cooperative work ethic known as gotong royong.
Distinguished by ingenuity amid limited resources, they differ from the mosques in Malaysian cities, which may be built with Carrara marble in sophisticated architectural designs. In the countryside, however, design is dictated mostly by what materials are available and affordable, and "by the level of local ingenuity. Often this means coral blocks, rough-sawn boards and corrugated metal roofing.
When Islam arrived, Malay villagers were already following a highly developed social code and system of customary law known as adat, which means "custom" or "tradition." This aspect of Malay culture worked remarkably well with Islam, and it is still much a part of everyday Malaysian life, particularly in rural areas.
Among adat's principles, gotong royong is one of the most important. It means "mutual assistance" and is related to the verb menggotong, "to carry [a heavy burden] together. The purpose of gotong royong is to bring people together to work on projects that benefit the community. Footpaths, roads, bridges, irrigation systems—and mosques—are still built and maintained using gotong royong, which in practice corresponds roughly to the traditions of community barn-raisings in Amish, Mennonite and other rural communities in the United States.
On a recent morning I found myself seated in a roadside coffee shop on the northern edge of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The place was called Kedai Menanti, or "the shop where people wait." Across the table from me sat Wan Haji Ali bin Tunku Abdul, who, on hearing of my interest in rural mosques, told me that he was something of an expert on the subject.
As we sipped black coffee and shared a plate of crispy, deep-fried bananas, I explained that I was looking for mosques that typified the gotong royong tradition. Pausing briefly to reflect on my plan, Wan Ali suggested that I drive to the east coast of Malaysia and visit the fishing villages in the state of Kelantan. This sounded smart enough: From a visit to the area 20 years earlier, I remembered that traditional culture is strong in Kelantan because the state government adheres to Islamic shari'a law.
With Wan Ali's suggestion in mind, I got up before first light the next morning and drove northeast along winding country roads that led through an expanse of gentle hills. The slopes were planted in magnificent green corridors of rubber trees. Rubber tappers' headlamps flickered like fireflies in this leafy underworld and illuminated delicate knife cuts and thin rivulets of white latex flowing into coconut-shell cups. The road climbed into the cool mountain air where a tropical forest was cloaked in predawn mist.
The sun came up as I crossed the watershed and, as the road began its long descent, the air warmed and birds began their morning chorus. Flights of butterflies took to the air and became so thick that I had to use my windshield wipers. Spectacular blooms of red hibiscus dotted the roadside villages, and kapok trees were hung with giant seed pods bursting with tufts of what looked like—and once was—mattress stuffing.
I soon crossed the Lebir River and entered the emerald-green ricelands of Kelantan State. Here, groups of women walked along the shaded road dressed in head scarves and bright satin. The men wore checked sarongs with a length of kain songket, a locally produced brocade woven with fine metallic thread, tied around their waists. Their heads were covered with the white skullcaps called kopiah.
Stopping my car in the shade of a coconut palm, I could hear the sound of drumming. I got out and followed the sound on foot. There must be some sort of local ceremony in progress, I thought, as I joined a stream of pedestrians, bicyclists and motor-scooter riders. So there was, but it was a ceremony both less unusual and more important than I expected: These people were on their way to the mosque for prayers. I fell into step with Mohammed bin Ismail, who kindly offered to show me the mosque. On our way through the rice fields he told me about the local custom of calling the people to prayer by beating on a drum—in this case one made from an old oil barrel.
At the entrance, I left the crowd and sat down to admire the metal drum that had originally caught my ear. It was suspended from the eaves with loops of rattan and an old bicycle tire. Its head was covered with leather, and the drumstick was made from a length of wood that had an old fishing float fastened to one end.
The wooden mosque was finely made, with a tall ceiling supported by green-painted columns. It had been built, I was told, just prior to World War II, and it was beautiful, full of light and air. But I was looking for something less refined, less established and perhaps more improvised. I was looking for a mosque that could embody the hope, vitality, cooperative spirit and rough edges of a new community—like those that may have arisen near 15th-century Malacca. I was looking for a building that was visually unsophisticated, that might in time be replaced by something "better," yet that still provided the architectural and spiritual focus of the community.
I continued to the east coast, and then turned south. At dawn the next day, the seaside coconut palms and the village signs rolled by, and as I read the names I realized that I had finally entered a more isolated, entirely rural Malaysia—or so it seemed. There was Kampong Semut Api, "Fire Ant Village," Kampong Kayu Besar, "Big Wood Village" and Kampong Durian Tikus, "The Village of the Durian-Fruit Mouse." Before long, the road was flanked with illustrated signs that showed the way to nearby mosques—one every few kilometers, it seemed.
But after stopping to investigate half a dozen modern mosques built of poured concrete, I realized that the recent discovery of offshore oil had brought new prosperity to these once-remote communities, and had led to mosque-renovation projects on a grander scale than what I was seeking. The labor of erecting the mosques may have been provided using gotong royong, but the building materials, design, and craftsmanship all appeared to be the products of skilled workers from outside Kelantan State, probably supported by the contributions of wealthy local patrons.
In a grassy field, next to a roadside wedding ceremony, I spotted a handmade metal dome, topped with a crescent moon and a star—symbols of enlightenment. The blue dome turned out to be the top of a small, portable pavilion no larger than a small living room.
Mohammed bin Ali, the father of the bride, poured me a glass of fresh starfruit juice and explained that the villagers had built the tiny structure for evening Qur'an readings during the recent feast that marked the end of Ramadan.
Yes, he said, the pavilion was the result of a gotong royong village project. Mohammed himself had supplied the materials, and his friends and neighbors had provided the labor. Recently, the pavilion been moved to the field—it could not have taken more than a few men to carry it—where it now provided a shady spot to park bicycles and motorcycles and served as a convenient place to dry freshly laundered sarongs.
The blue dome was a good example of the sort of homespun village craftsmanship I was searching for, but it was not itself a mosque. When I inquired about mosques in the area, Mohammed bin Ali told me that they had mostly been rebuilt and modernized with concrete.
At Kampong Kelulut, "Wasp Village," I pulled over again. Here, the dome of the mosque had been fashioned from squares of hammered sheet metal, and four loudspeakers were set into the curved surface. Beneath the eaves, a row of onion-shaped windows provided ventilation and a soft overhead light that illuminated the simple interior. Seated comfortably in the shade of the minaret, I came upon Mohammed Ariffin Hussein, who took a moment from his discussion with two friends to offer his unexpected guest a tour of the building.
He explained how the mosque had been constructed in the early 1960's using gotong royong. The yearly maintenance and repairs were taken care of by the local men and women, and, as we spoke, children walked about us carefully picking up wind-blown bits of paper and leaves that had accumulated at the base of the mosque's perimeter fence. The coconut palms swayed in the breeze from the South China Sea less than a kilometer away. In the distance I could see the silhouettes of men with conical hats, standing on the decks of fishing boats that bobbed in the gentle ocean swell.
"It is not much to look at," admitted Mohammed as we looked about the weathered building. "We do not have the resources or the skills to build something more elaborate, but that is not important. The outside of a building is no more important than the type of clothes we wear. Our mosque serves its primary purpose—to provide a place of worship. We built it to help plant seeds in the minds of our small community, and God will judge our success by our ability to nurture those seeds."
The mosque's interior was painted a light blue, and as we removed our shoes and stepped inside we were bathed in a cool breeze that was gently circulated by overhead fans. Despite the building's rough exterior, I found the prayer hall soothing and peaceful. It was an ideal setting in which to let one's thoughts turn inward.
The mosque of Kampong Kelulut was one example of a well-established gotong royong mosque. But I also sought more recent construction. For this, it took a trip across the South China Sea to the East Malaysian State of Sabah, on the island of Borneo.
There, at the end of a dusty road in the remote interior of the state, surrounded by a community of migrant workers, I found Kampong Minsupala, which most people simply call Kampong Papan Besar, or "The Village of the Big Boards." There, I found a little mosque known as Masjid Alhamdi.
This mosque had been built over the course of six months in 1992. It sits on a low hill between a log-loading station and a sawmill, which runs 24 hours a day. Like migrant workers' camps anywhere in the world, Kampong Papan Besar was a lean place where people labored hard. The houses and small shops that made up the community had all been built by the inhabitants themselves. All the wooden beams and planks had been provided by the town sawmill. It was the beginning of a new village, and a sense of pride was evident in the painted balustrades and the window planters that overflowed with blooms of bougainvillea. Families had planted small vegetable plots and fruit trees—evidence that this was no longer entirely a transient community.
But the Masjid Alhamdi was the most interesting structure in the village. There was something about the humble quality of its construction that immediately attracted me. As I wandered down the only pathway through the village, I met Tuan Tabib Haji Rashid bin Kadim. He introduced himself and asked what had brought me to the village. Once he understood my interest in the mosque, he called out to the neighborhood children, who escorted us the rest of the way.
When we arrived, two workmen were finishing a new extension to the mosque that would double its original floor space. Haji Rashid explained that the 20 men who took turns working on the building shared 10 handsaws and five tape measures. Here, I found, was gotong royong in practice.
Red, white and blue ribbons fluttered from the main entrance. Inside, I saw high ceilings and soft light, heard the corrugated metal roofing stretching and groaning in the afternoon heat, and smelled the sweet, fresh scent of new-sawn hardwood flooring.
Haji Rashid explained that the loggers and mill workers and their families had come from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and the southern islands of the Philippines to work as contract laborers. But now they were staying: The workers and their families were the nucleus of a new, permanent community. Looking at the mosque of Kampong Papan Besar, I realized that many of the great mosques of Malaysia must have had similarly humble beginnings.
More than any of the dozens of mosques I had visited in Malaysia, Masjid Alhamdi captured the"essence of gotong royong. Clearly, it was only a temporary structure, destined to be rebuilt and improved as the community grew and prospered. At the time of my visit, its only source of income was a small wooden box where people left donations that rarely exceeded the equivalent of half a dollar.
The formerly migrant workers took pride in having joined in this gotong royong effort. As Haji Rashid described the recent work, I found myself trying to visualize what the mosque would look like in 20 years.
Would it, too, soon be rebuilt in concrete? What process of development, or what economic windfall, might eventually transform Masjid Alhamdi? In time, would the owners of the sawmill become the patrons of the mosque? Would the whimsical gold-painted dome, fashioned from sheet metal and capped with half of an oil drum and the crescent and star, eventually be replaced by something more refined, perhaps something made by city craftsmen? Might the ablution area—now no more than a downspout leading to an oil drum where a plastic dipper dangled from a wooden post—be remodeled into a row of shiny brass faucets protruding from a low wall faced with white tiles?
Or perhaps the building would always be a simple and elegant expression of faith without architectural refinements. I couldn't say for sure, but looking at the people around me, I realized that they had succeeded in their most important task. They had come together in the spirit of gotong royong and built their mosque.
Following a year in Borneo, Eric Hansen wrote his first book,Stranger In the Forest, and after travels to the Middle East later wrote Motoring With Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. He lives in Sacramento, California.