Kota Bahru, Malaysia
For many years, India remained the easternmost frontier of the western religions, beyond which the Abrahamite faiths did not spread until the very late Middle Ages. When Islam finally reached the Far East, it took root first on the Malay Peninsula, the most distant corner of the Asian continent. The first major Muslim settlement at Kota Bahru became a key center for religious worship and the training of local clerics. From here, Islam spread down towards Malacca and ultimately across the sea into Indonesia. The Masjid Negri, or State Mosque, not to be confused with the mosque of the same name in Kuala Lampur, retains its importance as both a religious and cultural center for Islam in Malaysia, and is considered by many Malaysians to be the mother mosque of the Far East.
After Islam swept swiftly through the Middle East in the 7th century, further growth eastwards beyond the Persian Empire was a long, laborious process. Resistance to religious change among the large and populous Hindu and Buddhist lands was considerable, particularly once Islamic missionaries reached beyond India. But seagoing merchants from Arabia seeking trade in the east frequently bypassed India enroute to the rich lands of Southeast Asia. Islam traveled with them, though their missionary efforts met with only sporadic success until the 14th century.
Although the geography of the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia had been well known to Muslim seafarers since ancient times, these areas remained relative hinterlands of Asian civilization. When Islam arrived in the 1300s and began to explore the area in earnest, they found only small Hindu and Buddhist cities scattered along the coasts. The Muslims took advantage of this religious vacuum and began to establish themselves in the area of Terengganu on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. A new sultanate was established at Kota Bahru, which became the primary center of Islamic trade in the South China Sea. This new kingdom set the stage for the Islamic conquest and conversion of the region.
For the next century, Islam spread up and down the Malay Peninsula, largely through peaceful means, although there were periodic clashes with the nearby Buddhist Empire of Siam. By the 1400s, much of Malaysia and Sumatra had been converted to Islam and divided up among a number of sultanates that grew wealthy from the immense trade now pouring in from China, Japan and Indonesia. However, just as Islam was really taking hold in the region, Kota Bahru’s time as the nominal Islamic capital of Malaysia was coming to an end.
During the 15th century, the center of Malaysian politics moved towards the strategic Straits of Malacca. Although no longer the most important governmental center, Kota Bahru retained its religious dominance on the Malay Peninsula until the 1800s, and remained a chief base from which Muslim missionaries continued to spread Islam into Australasia. Although it is now only a provincial capital, Kota Bahru nevertheless remains the spiritual birthplace of Islam in the Far East and Malaysia’s most important historical Muslim site.
If Islam has an architectural equivalent to the Christian colonial churchs that sprang up in the Far East in the 16th and 17th centuries, this is it. The Masjid Negri of Kota Bahru is a relatively small but friendly mosque that belies its cultural importance. Built in the early 1400s soon after Islam’s arrival, the mosque has been regularly updated. As with most Christian churches built in newly established European colonies, the Masjid Negri was simple compared to what would later follow in Malaysia. Even its neighborhood is more reminiscent of a European colonial city than that of a traditional Muslim district.
Emphasizing form over function, the Masjid Negri is a relatively squat, single-story structure of white brick with brown archways. The central building features a peaked roof like a Protestant church rather than the traditional Islamic dome. The rectangular minarets, not particularly tall, appear as a cross between the Moorish structures of Algeria and Morocco and a church belltower. The mosque’s setting is also unusual, standing amid broad western avenues and wealthy homes rather than in a tightly packed ancient city in the midst of a marketplace.
The Masjid Negri is located in the old section of Kota Bahru, approximately 215 miles north of Kuala Lampur and 370 miles north of Singapore. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.tourism.gov.my (official tourism website of Malaysia)
Unfortunately, European explorers and military expeditions were not kind to many important Islamic sites throughout peninsular Malaysia. However, much of the history and culture has been preserved in the Kelentan Islamic Museum, located next door to the Masjid Negri. Among the artifacts on display are many items from the early Islamic period in Malaysia. There are also a number of items attributed as belongings to the Prophet Muhammed.