Kampong Glam is the traditional heart of Singaporean Muslim life. Since early colonial days, the area has attracted Muslims from diverse ethnic backgrounds, fusing them into one community by their common faith and lifestyle. The name Kampong Glam comes from the Malay word kampong, meaning "village," and gelam, a particular kind of tree that at one time grew abundantly in the area.
In 1819, the British made a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah, then sultan of Singapore, to cede the island to the British East India Trading Company. As part of the agreement, the sultan was offered a stipend and given Kampong Glam as settlement for his palace and subjects. Sultan Hussein built his palace, Istana Kampong Glam, and sold off parcels of land for burial grounds, schools, mosques, and farms. Trade grew in the area, as a wave of merchants and tradesmen moved in to serve the large numbers of pilgrims who debarked from here on their journey to Mecca each year.
Although the ethnic Arab population in Singapore has never reached large proportions, their influence is immediately obvious through such street names as Bussorah, Muscat, Baghdad, and, of course, Arab Street, the center of modern Kampong Glam -- a neat little shopping enclave for textiles and regional handicrafts. Note that the shops along Arab Street close on Sunday.
An Introduction to Mosques
To appreciate what's going on in the mosques in Singapore, here's a little background on some of the styles and symbols behind these exotic buildings. I have also included some tips that will help non-Muslims feel at home.
The rule of thumb for mosques is that they all face Mecca. Lucky for these buildings (and for Singaporean urban planners), most of the major mosques in Singapore have managed to fit within the grid of city streets quite nicely, with few major angles or corners jutting into the surrounding streets. One fine example of a mosque that obeys the Mecca rule but disregards zoning orders is Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam. A peek around the back will reveal how the road is crooked to make way for the building.
The mosques in Singapore are a wonderful blend of Muslim influences from around the world. The grand Sultan Mosque has the familiar onion dome and Moorish styling of the Arabic Muslim influence. The smaller but fascinating Hajjah Fatimah Mosque is a blend of cultures, from Muslim to Chinese, to even Christian -- testimony to Islam's tolerance of other cultural symbols. On the other hand, the mosques in Chinatown, such as Jamae Mosque and the Nagore Durgha Shrine, are Saracenic in flavor, a style that originated in India in the late 19th century, mixing traditional styles of Indian and Muslim architecture with British conventionality.
Each mosque has typical features such as a minaret, a narrow tower from which the call to prayer was sounded (before recorded broadcasts), and a mihrab, a niche in the main hall which indicates the direction of Mecca and in front of which the imam prays, his voice echoing from inside and resonating throughout the mosque during prayers. You will also notice that there are no statues to speak of, in accordance with Muslim laws, which forbid images of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. Some mosques will have a makam, a burial site within the building for royalty and esteemed benefactors. This room is usually locked but sometimes can be opened upon request. To the side of the main prayer hall there's always an ablution area, a place for worshipers to wash the exposed parts of their bodies before prayers, to show their respect. This is a custom for all Muslims, whether they pray in the mosque or at home.
When visiting the mosques in Singapore -- and anywhere else, for that matter -- there are some important rules of etiquette to follow. Appropriate dress is required. For both men and women, shorts are prohibited, and you must remove your shoes before you enter. For women, please do not wear short skirts or sleeveless, backless, or low-cut tops (although modern Singaporean Muslims do not require women to cover their heads before entering). Also remember: Never enter the main prayer hall. This area is reserved for Muslims only. Women should also tread lightly around this area, as it's forbidden for women to enter. No cameras or video cameras are allowed, and remember to turn off cellular phones and pagers. Friday is the Sabbath day, and you should not plan on going to the mosques between 11am and 2pm on this day.