Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque

Malaysia is primarily a Muslim country. We are at the end of Ramadan, the month-long observation of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Many Ramadan buffets are popping up around town, even along the side of the road, for Muslims to eat at after the sun goes down. On the radio, I just heard the DJ revel in Malaysia's multi-racial society and remind non-Muslims to be polite and not flaunt their delicious lunches in front of those who are fasting.

This Sunday is Hari Raya Aidilfitri  when the fasting period comes to an end. It's pretty much the biggest holiday in Malaysia. Most people get Monday and Tuesday off. Many Muslims head to their hometown or go on vacation to spend it with their families. My kids have school on those days, so it's going to be two Date Days, as opposed to Date Nights, for hubby and I. Strings of lights (what we would refer to as "Christmas lights" in America) decorate streets, and crescent moons with stars hang everywhere. Last year, I remember seeing crowds of people decked out in their finest traditional Malay clothing making their way to area mosques for communal prayer.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

The most historic mosque in George Town, Penang is Masjid Kapitan Keling which was built in 1800 for the South Indian Muslim community. "Masjid" means mosque. "Kapitan Keling" refers to Caudeer Mohoodeen, the head of the Indian Muslims at the time of construction.  "Kapitan" is the Malay version of the English word, "Captain." Back then, the Indians were referred to as "Keling" because most of them were convict laborers, and their chains would make a cling-cling noise as they worked. Understandably, modern day Indians in Penang oppose this term and are lobbying to eliminate it from use. However, it's still in the name of this mosque and the street named after it. This street is also called "The Street of Harmony" because, in addition to the mosque, it has a Hindu temple, Chinese temple and Anglican church along it.

Long prayer rugs line the empty prayer hall.

Although we didn't enter the prayer hall, a Muslim guide took us around everywhere else and was open to answering our many questions. Our group had so many! Why are multiple wives permitted? So that every woman can have a protector even if the man:woman ratio isn't equal. Why are women separated from men when praying in mosques? Because a man cannot concentrate on Allah if a women is praying right in front of him, prostrate on her knees with her forehead down on the ground. How many times do Muslims face Mecca and pray every day? Five times - before dawn, around lunch time, afternoon, sunset and nighttime. The exact times are dependent on your city, and yes, there's an app for that. How long do prayers last (because five times a day seems like a lot to us non-Muslims)? Some are as short as five minutes. What exactly does Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, involve? Umm... I didn't take notes, and you can Google it just as easily as I can.

The five prayer times for the day are displayed on the bottom row from right to left.
The box in the upper right shows the current date and time.

He demonstrated the ablutions every Muslim must make before entering the mosque to pray. Let me tell you — It's certainly more involved than dipping your fingers in Holy Water and making the Sign of the Cross as I'm accustomed to doing in Catholic churches. Standing next to something that looks much like a large wading pool, he rolled up his sleeves and pants. Then, he scooped water up with a small, ladle-like bucket and proceeded to wash up. Hands and wrists got attention first . He rinsed out his mouth, rubbed his teeth and blew water out his nostrils.  He cleansed his face and ran his fingers through his beard and hair. The feet were last. I think what really struck me while I observed this is that various religions use water to symbolically purify followers. We're different, but we're the same, too.

Inside the mosque looking out towards the street. According to custom, no pictures decorate the walls.
Instead, a motif of Arabic writing  or a pattern of eight-pointed stars provides adornment.

Our guide is also a muezzin, a person at the mosque who recites the azan, the call to prayer. In olden days, the muezzin would climb to the top of a minaret and sing out the azan so believers could hear the announcement. Now, he stays at the bottom with a microphone and broadcasts from a loudspeaker at the top. This is a chant that emanates throughout the city five times a day. It's become part of the soundtrack of my life in Penang. The guide graciously recited the azan for us and translated every line into English as he went.

Minaret as seen from inside the mosque
And yes, I got teased for thinking the call to prayer was just a recording.

I had been wanting to visit a mosque but was nervous that I'd unintentionally do something highly offensive. I went as part of Spiral Synergy's tour of The Street of Harmony. The mosque also offers free guided tours starting at the base of the minaret. If you would like to understand more about the intersection of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, I recommend reading The Faith Club.

Visiting hours : 1-5 p.m. Saturday to Thursday; 3-5 p.m. Friday
Admission: Free. Guided Tours run by the Islamic Propagation Society International are available at the Islamic Information Centre located at the ground floor of the minaret.

Related Post
The Street of Religious Harmony
Cue the Bollywood Music: Part 1
Strolling down Armenian Street
You Are Invited to Penang, No Reservations Needed

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox and Photo Friday on Delicious Baby. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Great post! I'm actually going to a photography course in the Arab section of town on Friday night. I'm really looking forward to see the festivities of Hari Raya here in Singapore. I've been to that part of town before (mostly fabric shopping) but never entered the mosque. I'll have to see if they have a tour.

    1. That photo course sounds exciting. I can't wait to see your blog post highlighting your favorite pictures.

  2. That mosque is beautiful! I've always thought our Catholic rituals were so painstakingly long but wow, I'm going to appreciate going to mass a bit more now. One of my old roommates was Muslim and I always admired her self-control and dedication during Ramadan. This sounded like a great experience to tour a mosque and learn more about their religion. Thanks for all the interesting information.

  3. Beautiful photos and it sounds like a very informative tour! We spent a couple of days in Istanbul last summer and the call to prayer echoing across the city was what made the deepest impression on me. It was such a beautiful, unusual sound to me but I expect it just becomes part of the background noise of the city for people that live there.

  4. Very interesting and educational post! The photos are great. I thought the call to prayer was taped too :)

  5. That is an incredibly beautiful mosque. I visited my first mosque this year too, in Spain, and found it very interesting. I love the Moorish architecture. I just became your newest blog follower. :) If you want to follow me back I'm at

  6. Lovely photos and explanation of Muslim customs surrounding Ramadan and mosque visits. The Street of Harmony sounds so interesting!


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