Islamic splendour in Asia: 6 beautiful mosques to visit

Islamic houses of worship are famed the world over for their delicate, unique designs. These beautiful structures are not confined to the Middle East, though

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Beautifully built Islamic houses of worship are not confined to the Middle East. From India to China, there are mosques that blend local traditions with traditional Islamic design to stunning effect. From the captivating interiors of Sumatra’s 100-year-old Great Mosque of Medan to the piercing minaret of China’s seventh-century Huaisheng Mosque and boldly patterned facade of Colombo’s Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, we present six of the most eye-catching, historically significant Islamic structures in Asia.

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, China

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, China. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell
Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, China. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

As soon as I lay eyes on Huaisheng Mosque, I understand its alternative name. Rising high above this Islamic complex in downtown Guangzhou is one thin, lofty tower – and this 36m-tall white minaret is the reason Huaisheng is also known as the “lighthouse mosque”.

The minaret is one of this mosque’s few Islamic design features. It is otherwise designed in a traditional Chinese style, with its steep, clay-tiled roofs and multi-tiered pavilions. Not until you look inside its main prayer hall, with its decorative Islamic carpet and prominent Arabic language signage, that it again begins to resemble a typical mosque.

What is most significant about Huaisheng is not its appearance but its history. Dating back to the 7th century, it is not only the oldest mosque in China, but also one of the oldest in the world. It was at this time that Islam was introduced to China by delegates sent from the Middle East to meet the Emperor of China’s Tang Dynasty. The current structure, however, is just the latest in a series of rebuilds over the centuries. To this day it remains the heartbeat of Guangzhou’s sizeable Muslim community.

Great Mosque of Medan, Medan, Indonesia

My neck is starting to hurt. That is how long I have had my head craned upwards to stare at the ceiling of Masjid Raya Al Mashun. That a ceiling could captivate me to this extent is testimony to the sheer intricacy of its design. Spanning out from its central drome, the octagonal lines of this ceiling create a shape similar to a spider-web. It is hypnotising.

The world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia boasts an enormous array of attractive mosques. None, though, are more striking than Masjid Raya Al Mashun. Also known as the Great Mosque of Medan, this is a religious hub of Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia.

Fusing elements of architecture from Spain, the Middle East and India, this mosque was completed 100 years ago. The main structure has five dark grey domes – one central dome and four surrounding it – and a cream-coloured façade inlaid with light-blue and green Islamic mosaics. Inside, stained glass windows colour the light that pours into the mosque’s main prayer hall, creating a spectacle that harnesses the power of both nature and man.

Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

There it is. I’ve been walking through the labyrinthine alleyways of Old Delhi for 10 minutes when, amid this loud tangle of human traffic, I spot something comparatively serene and majestic. It is the enormous, onion-shaped central dome of India’s second largest mosque. Built almost 400 years ago from red sandstone and white marble in the unmistakable style of Mughal architecture, Jama Masjid is an focal point of this historic area of Delhi.

This mosque has a shared lineage with two of India’s most famous buildings, the nearby Red Fort of Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra. All three of these extraordinary structures were commissioned by Shah Jahan, the Emperor of the Mughal Empire, an Islamic dynasty that ruled a swathe of northern India from the early 16th to the mid 18th century.

So enormous is Jama Masjid, and so complex is its stonework, that it took 5,000 workers more than six years to complete. With its three arched gates, four corner towers, three enormous domes and two 40m-tall minarets, Jama Masjid is a truly imposing structure that showcases the best of Mughal architecture. Its central courtyard is capable of accommodating 25,000 worshippers.

Jami ul-Afar Mosque, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Jami ul-Afar Mosque, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell
Jami ul-Afar Mosque, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

I can’t stop taking photos. Some buildings are gorgeous, others are monumental and some are just truly photogenic. Jami ul-Afar Mosque is a photographer’s dream thanks to the bold, simple patterns that embellish its facade, floors and interior walls. These surfaces are covered in mesmerising red and white stripes.

The floor of its main courtyard, meanwhile, is decorated with a grid pattern that embodies the beauty-in-repetition designs of the Arabesque. This mosque looks like no building I have ever seen before. It is whimsical and extraordinary. It makes every other structure here in Colombo’s busy Pettah area look boring and unimaginative, like placing a Picasso next to a stick figure drawing.

It was built in 1908 more than 400 years after Arab traders began to settle in this port city in large numbers. The mosque features the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, which emerged out of British India in the 18th century, blending elements of Mughal and European Gothic designs. Its decorative arches are particularly spectacular and remind me of the grandeur of Delhi’s Red Fort.

Masjid Sultan, Singapore

Little India and Chinatown are well-known, heavily touristic areas of Singapore. Less visited is the charming neighbourhood of Kampong Glam, the city’s main Islamic community. This area was founded in 1822, when Singapore was still a part of the Islamic Johor Sultanate, which from the 16th to the 19th century also controlled parts of what are now Malaysia and Indonesia.

Masjid Sultan, which remains the key mosque in Singapore, was built just two years after this by the first sultan of Singapore, Hussein Shah. The current building was constructed in 1932 in Indo-Saracenic style. Its pointed-arch windows and doorways are reminiscent of Gothic revival architecture, while its glimmering gold dome and four minarets are borrowed from Mughal design.

Masjid Sultan offers 90-minute guided tours to visitors from Monday to Thursday, the first tour starting at 10:30am and the second at 2:00pm.These tours, which are offered in English, Malay and Arabic, detail the history of the mosque and explain the inspirations for its design.

Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang, Malaysia

Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang, Malaysia. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell
Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang, Malaysia. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

Georgetown in Penang is one of the most architecturally diverse cities in South-East Asia. And while this Unesco World Heritage-listed city is renowned for its British colonial architecture, it also boasts a wonderful array of historic Chinese, Malay, Indian and Islamic architecture.

Islam was introduced to Malaysia in the 13th century by Indian and Arab merchants, and further took root in Penang in the late 1700s when British East India Company troops swelled Georgetown’s Muslim community. One of the first things those Indian troops did was build Kapitan Keling Mosque. The initial brick structure was only single-storey, but over the past 200 years it has been expanded and remodelled to become a grand building.

When I arrive in the searing midday height, I’m dazed by the harsh light rebounding from its whitewashed walls. Then I raise my line of vision to admire the giant, dark-grey Mughal-style dome that is the design focal point of this mosque. Its arched doorways, turrets and more than a dozen smaller domes are further nods to the building’s Indian architectural heritage. Perhaps its most striking feature, though, is the lofty white minaret, decorated by Arabesque stonework, which looms above the entrance to the mosque.