Study – Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula – Part 1 : The Traditional Vernacular

The Malay peninsula consists of the South Asian countries which shares the same language and culture that is Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. historically The Malay Peninsula was a sea crossroad between China and the Middle East and important trade routes as well as  seaports are established in this peninsula. Hence, the Malay Peninsula and subsequently the South East Asia assimilated various cultures into their own unique culture as well as adopting various religions that came with the traders.

Islam came into the South East Asia sometime in the 11th Century when the Indian Chola navy attacked the Srivijayan kingdom of Sangrama Vijayatungavarman in Kadaram, in what is to be known later as Kedah in Malaysia. Pannai in present day Sumatra and Malaiyur somewhere in the the Malay Peninsula was soon under attack as well. As these attacks happen, the King of Kadaram, Phra Ong Mahawangsa abandoned the Hindu faith  and converted to Islam in 1136, establishing the Sultanate of Kedah. Samudera Pasai (Pannai) followed suit in 1267, and the King of Malacca, Parameswara married the princess of Samudera Pasai which then their son became the first Sultan of Malacca sometime in the 15th Century.

There are several theories on how Islam came into South East Asia and one is trade, when traders from Middle Eastern Islamic countries came into the region bringing their faith along with their goods. The second theory is the role of Islamic missionaries who spread the faith by combining Islamic ideas with existing local beliefs and religious ideas (mostly Hindu, Buddhist or Animistic ideas and beliefs). This is particularly true in Indonesia where Islam and local culture are often combined. Finally the conversion of the rulers in these region led their subjects to follow in their footsteps

Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula

There are seven distinct styles that Islamic architecture in the Malay Peninsula can be classified

  1. Traditional Vernacular,
  2. Sino Eclectic ,
  3. European Classical or Colonial,
  4. North Indian,
  5. Modern Vernacular,
  6. Modernistic Expressionism, and
  7. Post-Modern Revivalism

We will first look into the Traditional Vernacular in this article.

The Traditional Vernacular

Traditional in this context means the style, practices and ideas used by the locals before colonial rule, meaning the original ideas of the local before foreign ideas were adopted. Vernacular denotes the materials and technology utilized by the locals without foreign interference. There are three forms of this particular style – Three tier pyramid roof with cuboid buildings in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth century, Two Tier Pyramid Roof in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century and Gabled Roof which is still being used today. Like most Malay (and generally South East Asian cultures) houses Mosques were raised waist to shoulder heights. The idea is so that the building will not be flooded when the tide rises.

Kampung Tuan Mosque in Kemaman Malaysia. Picture from

The material used are mainly timber. Interestingly enough, one of the defining feature of the architecture of a Mosque, the Minaret were originally absent in the buildings of these styles. Minarets were added later however some mosques still doesn’t have minarets to this day. Columns are utilized both internally and externally as means of support as well as beams.

The form of this style of Islamic architecturea re comparable to Buddhist pagodas and/or Hindu Temples. As with one of the theories noted above regarding the assimilation of Islamic ideas and local existing cultures and religious notions, it could be that the missionaries used the existing form of the Buddhist and Hindu buildings for the new religious structures as a mean to ease the people into their transition of old religion into the new one as well as to attract new converts. This idea is not merely confined to religious structures – many aspect of the local culture such as dances, poems and chants were reinvented with the new faith in mind as well as creating new ones, encouraged by the missionaries.


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