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Study of features of Islamic art and architecture

Study – Islamic Art in the Malay World

I was having problems logging in to my account on WordPress. And when I was able to, I could not post anything on the blog, let alone to write. I had suspicions it was the internet provider’s fault and after failed help sessions with the local ISP, I gave up and brought the matter in my own hands. finally, with some help of a few programs i can now comfortably write and publish articles to the blog.

I had mentioned a few times about the Islamic art in the Malay Peninsula, but I failed to elaborate any further on the subject. You can read a short photo heavy article here. This is primarily because the art in the Malay Peninsula is more affiliated with the Malay culture. Malay art was not often considered to be Islamic. Also, Malay art tends to be more influenced from the Chinese or Hindu-Buddhist culture, and set it apart from the rest of what is traditionally regarded as Islamic Art.

In fact, Malay art is very much influenced by the Middle Eastern traditional Islamic Art, especially after the arrival of Islam to the Peninsula.  The traditions and cultural aspects of the Malay art that were over time abandoned in favour of the Islamic teaching. In time, Malay art amalgamated with Islam that in turn creates a significantly unique art style that is different from other Islamic art styles and yet, given to its roots, can be considered as a part of the Islamic Art.

History –

Before Islam, Hinduism and Buddism had taken root in the social and cultural aspects of the Malay Peninsula. Records of Hindu kingdoms in Java and Sumatra had been written by Indian scholars in 200AD (1) while Buddhism came into the region from Central Asia and China in the first Millennium BC and flourished around the 12th century. (2). Both of these religions bring its tradition and culture into the Malay Archipelago and took roots there as powerful empires. The proof of the strong presence of Hinduism and Buddhism can be found many temples dedicated to Buddha and/or the Hindu deities throughout the region, both intact and ruined. Also, many cultural practices and traditions are still being carried out today by the Malay community which has their roots in these religions

During as early as the 9th Century, a few hundred years after the founding of Islam in Mecca by Prophet Muhammad, there were reports of Arab traders selling their goods in the Malay archipelago. in fact, trading relations can be assumed to already taken place, based on a hadith of the Prophet –

Um ‘Atiyya said, “One of the daughters of the Prophet died and he came out and said, ‘Wash her three or five times or more, if you think it necessary, with water and Sidr, and last of all put camphor (or some camphor) and when you finish, inform me.’ ” Um Atiyya added, “When we finished we informed him and he gave us his waist-sheet and said, ‘Shroud her in it.’ ” And Um ‘Atiyya (in another narration) added, “The Prophet said, ‘Wash her three, five or seven times or more, if you think it necessary.’ ” Hafsa said that Um ‘Atiyya had also said, “We entwined her hair into three braids.” (3)

Camphor is a kind of pleasant smelling substance obtained from evergreen trees primarily found in South East Asia particularly in Borneo and Sumatra. It is very unlikely that the prophet to know of this substance and enjoins his followers to annoint the dead with Camphor, unless he knows of it and its perfumed odour.

It is also noted that Arab traders had been going to South east Asian ports long before their conversion to Islam, strengthening the fact that Islam may have spread in the peninsula as soon as after the prophet Muhammad propagated the religion.

The change from Hindu-Buddhism to Islam

The exact time when Islam was introduced into the region is still a debatable subject among scholars. Some agree that the presence of Islam exists somewhere around the 14th century, or even as early as the 10th century (4). However, the conversion of King Phra Ong Mahawangsa, the last Hindu king of Kedah to Islam and renaming himself Sultan Mudzafar Shah I marks the beginning of mass conversion of the Malays in the peninsula. The exposure of the people to Muslim traders from the Middle east and Central Asia, as well as the conversion of their kings to the Islamic faith, led them to abandon their past beliefs to embrace the new faith.

However, while Islam is their religion, the abandoned faiths leave a lasting impact and still influenced their daily lives – culturally and socially. This can be seen in the ceremonies they held, the music they play that still have notes influenced by their former faith and the artistic work they do. While the influences remain, these over time and in turn get influenced by the culture Islam brings, thus the two traditions – the old of animistic, Hindu and Buddhist and the new of Islamic culture – are amalgamated and creates what is uniquely Malay and yet Islamic.

The influence of Islam in Malay art

The existing artistry of the Malays such as textiles and clothing, metalwork and jewellery as well as architecture became assimilated with the Islamic motifs the new religion brought to the archipelago. The design remains the same, but the existing motifs were sometimes replaced but more often complimented with new, Islamic ones.

Islamic Motifs Used in the art of the Malay World

Batik headcover with stylized Islamic calligraphy design. Courtesy of

Among the motifs employed with the existing designs in the Malay craftwork includes Islamic calligraphy, Geometric designs, Islimi (stylized vegetal or floral motifs) and motif design taken from Islamic lore, such as the Buraq, the ride on which the Prophet Muhammad rode on his way to Jerusalem from Mecca in his Night Journey of Isra’.

Application of Islamic designs and Motifs

Floral and Vegetal design were not unheard of in the art of the Malay world before the rise of Islam in the peninsula as motifs based on nature such as Pucuk Rebung (Bamboo shoot) and Ayer Muleh (a type of stylized flower, but some said it mimics the swirling of waves) were already known. The coming of Islam and thus the art and culture that comes with it, means that the already existing designs were improvised and given a much more adhered look

Geometry design, a hallmark of the Islamic art, is also featured in the Malay art. This is most apparent in the production of textiles such as the woven cloth Kain Tenunan or the Batik textile. A pattern is to be repeated usually in four or six folds. The pattern itself is sometimes a star design, commonly an Octogram or a Hexagram. However, a repeating pattern based on flowers are not uncommon.

Kain Jongsarat, a traditional woven cloth from Brunei. taken from

In fashion, the traditional outifts of the Malay were modified to conform to the modesty rules of Islam. According to the teachings of Islam, both men and women are required to cover parts of their body as modesty as well as for praying. The men are required to cover from the navel to the knees, and women are to cover all but their faces and hands. These areas are called the Aurat. In addition, it is recommended for a Muslim man to wear some sort of headcover during prayers and entering mosques.With this in mind, the Malays adjust accordingly. In the old days, the Malay men wore simple plain buttoned top with trousers, along with a Kain Samping or Sinjang to be wrapped around the waist, covering the aforementioned areas.  They also wear the headcovering called Dastar made of simple square cloth, often using batik but sometimes the elaborate tenunan were used for formal occasions. More recently, Malay men wore a type of hat made out of velvet called Songkok or Peci, believed to originate from the Fez.

Women in Baju Kurung with scarves for headress, 1950s

The women, on the other hand, wears the Baju Kurung or Baju Kebaya for daily life. Baju Kurung is a type of outfit covering most of a woman’s body in two separate pieces consisting of a blouse and a bottom that sometimes uses a batik sarong. Baju Kurung literally means constrained dress. A Baju Kebaya  is basically similar to the Baju Kurung but made to fit the body of the wearer instead of loosely fitting. Ironically, it is believed the word Kebaya comes from the Arabic word Abaya, a loose fitting garment for women. For a head veil, sometimes a sarong is used. A scarf is more commonly worn.

Balustrade and roof adornment of a Malay House. Courtesy of

In architecture, Islamic architectural features such as Masyrabias are incorporated into traditional Malay buildings. The art of the pierced screens are not uncommon to the Malays before the arrival of Islam, but the motifs employed became increasingly Islamic with vegetal motifs used. Malay wood carving that conforms to Islamic standard of not using images of humans and animals adorn many Malay traditional buildings, usually underneath roofs and as railings and window covers.



References –


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Study – Did King Offa Rex Converted to Islam

Perhaps this posting does not discuss about Islamic art at all, but it is quite an interesting topic to share. In one of my previous article, I had discussed about the influence of Islam in Christian art, and one of the example is a coin bearing the stamp of Offa Rex (King Offa) on a supposed copy of a gold dinar from the Abbasid Caliph. A comment on the article  from a reader speculated that King Offa might converted to Islam during his reign, but the Pope in that time erased historical records on this subject.

So the question remains – Did the Anglo-Saxon King, Offa of Mercia, converted to Islam?

The idea that this famous king converted to Islam and hence professing his acknowledgement of  the truth of the faith is quite an attractive notion to Muslims. But what evidence do we have? As I had mentioned before, a copy of the Abbassid gold dinar stamped with the Latin inscription Offa Rex were found and displayed in the British Museum. A Muslim scholar, Dr A Zahoor, suggested that this is the proof of the king’s profession of the Islamic faith, and wanted to publicly announce his new found faith by minting these Islamic coins bearing his name.

The Coin in question

Unfortunately, the coin does not represent any evidence showing that King Offa converted to Islam. One glaringly obvious sign to point out is that the Arabic inscription in the middle, where the Latin text Offa Rex is stamped, is upside down. Furthermore, the Arabic inscription surrounding the coin is, when it is quite clear and faithful reproduction, the word ‘year’ is jumbled – something someone who spoke Arabic would never do. It is clear, with these signs, that neither King Offa nor his officials could not read or speak Arabic. Giving that translated Qur’an were only made after his reign, it is quite certain that King Offa had no idea of what the inscription meant.

Another important point to think about is that copying – whether it is coins, art styles or fashions are a very common practice in those days. Copying the coins of other kingdoms is a well-known practice to ensure that the coins were accepted in international trade. ‘Oriental’ products are in demand at that time, so to obtain such luxuries require the currency accepted by the Caliphate.

Historically, King Offa supported the Pope and the Christian Monasteries means that Islam is not a part of his life, and the fact that he went to great lengths to establish his own Archbishop supports this fact. He annoints his heir with intensely Christian ceremonies. He granted lands to make monasteries and nunneries (which, by logic, should he be a Muslim, he would build mosques instead). He pays tributes and alms to the Church, and even the Pope (in this case Pope Leo) praised him for his generous donations. All these facts leads to the fact that King Offa was not a Muslim.

In my opinion, perhaps the coin in question is an early example of Orientalism – the admiration or patronage of western individuals of Middle East or Islamic art and aesthetics. Frankly speaking, speculating whether a king converted to Islam or not based on a coin minted during his rule with Islamic stamps, even though it is vaguely plausible, is still that – vague. Unless there are more evidence showing such claims, King Offa of Mercia did not convert to Islam.


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Study – Islamic Influences on the Western Architecture

I have been playing a game called Assassin’s Creed II which is set in Renaissance Italy, as I lead my character through the canals of Venice and the towers of Tuscany, visiting landmarks such as the St. Mark’s Basilica and the Pallazo Ducale I can’t help but think about the similarities in the architecture of the Renaissance Italy (particularly Gothic architecture) and the Islamic Architecture.

I have had studied a bit of the influences of Islam on the Western civilization and I have already done a bit on the subject (Islamic influence on Christian Art) but for this topic we look on the influence of Islamic architecture, particularly to the Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

A little bit of history – Islam and the Western World of the European states were at war, multiple crusades were fought since the turn of the first millenia over the control of the Holy Lands and went on until around the 11th Century. During this battles, inevitably the people of each side would travel from their origin to the foreign lands and subsequently bringing their own cultures, tradition and art over.

The East brought a multitude of ideas in the academic field as well as architectural methods and art into the western world. A few examples that I noticed are –

  1. Arches – one theory of the pointed arches of the Gothic architecture are influenced by the Islamic arches, and this theory might be prove very plausible. In fact, the Gothic style of architecture were once called Saracenic. To quote Thomas Warton, an English Historian in the 18th Century- “The more I saw of this peculiar style, the more I became convinced that the Gothic was derived from it, with a certain mixture of Byzantine (…) the origin of this Gotho-Saracenic style may be traced to the manners and habits of the Saracens” To compare, simply looking at the arches of early mosques for example the Ibn Tulun Mosque and the arcades of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, one can easily understand why the theory came to be.

    Author User:Nino Barbieri .The Doge's Palace in Venice Italy. Note the arches, which derived from the shape of Islamic one

  2. Domes – The Renaissance saw the usage of Domes in architecture, especially in special buildings such as churches. One good example is the St. Mark Basilica with its multiple domes. The plan of the church itself follows Byzantine example with mosaics seeming to be recreated by Byzantine artisans. Domes, as you would probably known by now, appeared in the Islamic architecture in the 7th Century with the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It is possible that the Western world utilizes domes, learning the techniques used to built them from their Eastern counterparts.

    Author Nino Barbieri. The Dome of St. Mark Basilica in Venice, Italy.


  3. Decorations and Visual Arts – In the Renaissance there was an appreciation of  intricate scroll-work and vegetal motifs ; Arabesques in today’s understanding. They could be influenced by Roman and Byzantine art, however Islamic influences were possible as well. Mosaics were also widely utilized mainly in the form of glittering gold mosaics and figures very similar to Roman and byzantine, but Islamic geometric designs were also used, however less complex than the original Islamic counterparts. The geometric design mosaics used in the Renaissance looks very similar to the Syrian designs., but the repetition of the design were simpler, such as the eight pointed star and cross design, or the ubiquitous six-pointed stars. Also, the alternating strips of colour on the arches and walls of the buildings were similar to the ones in the Great Mosque of Cordoba  .

    Author - Jean-Christophe BENOIST. The Facade of Santa Maria del Fiore, showcasing geometric pattern elements as well as alternating colour strips.


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Study – Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula Part 6 – Post Modern Revivalism

This is the last part of the Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula series of articles and after wrapping the series up, I will Insya Allah start on the series about my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I would like to apologize as well for the lack of post these few weeks…I guess I had too much things going on here and considering this and that it takes much of my mind. I have some free time now, and on with the article!

Post Modern Revivalism simply means the language of architecture that doesn’t fit into the modern style architecture. This kind of architecture follows traditional Muslim architecture but with modern methods of buildings, easier access of foreign skills and decoration as well as modern materials.

Author - Spirits Ahmad Rithauddin

 Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Mosque in Shah Alam, Malaysia

There are two kinds in this style that is – 1) Foreign Revivalism and, 2) Vernacular Revivalism. Foreign Revivalism means the architecture follows foreign style. In this style you can find features such as Sahns (middle courtyard), different foreign styles of domes as well as minarets, Iwans (Persian gateways) and floorplans following traditional Islamic Middle Eastern or Central Asian styles. The Vernacular Revivalism follows local traditional architecture style and features tiered roofs, square floorplans and traditional materials such as timber. This style is free from any influences of foreign Middle Eastern or Central Asian style (this style is actually used in my village’s mosque)

Al-Azim Mosque in Malacca, Malaysia

This style uses modern materials in building of the mosques – concrete with steel ribbed domes, covered with imported tiles with opulent foreign style decoration. Vernacular Revivalism, though uses the same modern materials, uses materials closer to local styles – woods such as timber and decorations of made by the craftsmen of the local people.

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Study – Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula Part 5 – Modernistic Style

Apparently WordPress had some problems with uploading pics and putting it into the blogs so I will finish this study series of articles first, and then we will move on to the posts about the Museum of Islamic art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Graeme Maclean. Original uploader was Egard89 at en.wikipedia

The National Mosque of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur

Another style of Islamic architecture in the Malay Peninsula is the Modernistic style – the style that is void of any historical revivalism and any ornamentation. In this style of architecture, it is derived from traditional profiles minus the decoration and ornamentation. For example, the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia derives from traditional Mosque architecture with a modern interpretation. The conical, ‘folded’ roof looked like an opening umbrella – Royal umbrella, to be specific – alluding the fact that the mosque is a National one.

Materials used for this style of mosques are the ones used for any other modern buildings – steel, glass, polished stone, concrete, simple ceramic tiles and such. One can easily see the techniques as well as the materials used for this style of mosque are similar to modern skyscrapers and towers. Certainly the interior would be in line with modern style in a secular environment with clean uncluttered lines, usage of polished stone such as marble, in neutral colours such as whites and blacks. Perhaps the most traditional decorated place of this style of mosques would be the Mihrab and the Qiblat wall. For example, the main prayer hall of the  National Mosque of Malaysia are decorated with stained glass, railings with geometric design, the walls covered with Zillij tiles and the Mihrab in the style of Moor/Moroccan arch with carvings and a wooden carved Minbar.

The Interior of the National Mosque of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

One can say that this style of architecture, apart to impress people, is a symbolic move to show that Islam is not stagnant and only relevant for the days gone by but it is a progressive,dynamic religion that can be applied to modern daily lives.

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Study – Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula Part 5 – Modern Vernacular Style

Modern Vernacular refers to buildings constructed mainly with reinforced concrete frame, plastered with brick. The term is considered vernacular in reference to the construction practice and the availability of the said materials.

Credit to Mohamed Yosri Mohamed Yong.

Masjid Al-Azhariah, Shah Alam, Selangor Malaysia

Mosques) in this style usually uses the profile of gabled or pyramid roofing on which sits a small dome or grander ones would have a larger dome over the main prayer area. The mosques in this style usually have only one central prayer area, with a women’s prayer area  in a corner or the rear part of the main prayer hall partitioned with curtains or movable screens – shows that special women’s area is an afterthought for this style of mosques. They also features one or two minarets, sometimes with grand entryway like the Iwan gateway of the Persian architecture. The mosques in this style are usually built in modern housing estates, so the look of the mosque usually reflect as well as compliment the houses.

The compound of the mosques can be grouped into two components – One is that the compound of the mosque is fenced and much of the space used for parking lot, the other would be gardens. The back compound of the mosque usually have kitchen areas where Qurban (sacrifice) were held on Eid-el-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). These mosques were more communal and focuses on more services for the people who lived in the area of the mosques – they are often equipped with facilities such as a religious school or a Madrasa, community center, libraries, shops and even traveler’s lodgings and student dormitories. The usage of this mosque reflects closely the usage of the mosque in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, where his mosque had been used by the early Muslims as a community center.

Taken by User:Sengkang of English.Wikipedia in Mar 2006

Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, Singapore

The construction of these mosques uses reinforced concrete frame with plastered brick infill. The roofs are usually asbestos corrugated tecks, clay tiles or metal decks, over a structure of timber or metal trusses. Floors are tiled and windows are made with aluminum frame. This whole system is used in concern for economy. The structure is usually built with a squaren plan, decorated with Islamic features such as domes and arches to distinguish the mosque and makes it identifiable.


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Study – Islamic Architecture in the Malay Peninsula – Part 4 – North Indian Style

Almost two weeks of no posting…I’m sorry but life is getting busier by the day and exhausting me both physically and mentally. But now I have some spare time to spend, I am continuing the Islamic architecture in Malay Peninsula series.

Next in the series is the North Indian Style. This style, mostly used in the Malay Peninsula in the early 20th Century be easily recognized by the usage of of Onion dome in many sizes, spires and domed canopies. This style is similar to the Mughal style architecture in North India, hence the name.

Kapitan Keling Mosque in Penang Malaysia

There are two theories as to why this particular style to be used in the Malay Peninsula. One theory is that this style is the colonialists’ (read : the European powers especially the United Kingdom) to accept their version of Islam or to differentiate the styles in their own countries versus their colonies. This might be true when many of the government offices built during this period also features the same Style. Simply put, the colonialist chose a different, ‘exotic’ style of architecture as opposed to the classical language of their monuments and religious buildings. Thus, they would have the Classical style in their hometown, but an exotic cityscape in their colonies. As the United Kingdom took hold India as their colony, it is a sensible choice to take the architectural style there to other colonies for example in the Malay peninsula as a continuation.

Another theory is that the style is that the Indian Muslim merchants, building mosques in their native styles. As the merchants return to their homelands, it might be the explanation of why the style declined in popularity as the local population no longer associate Islam with the Indian merchants.

The floorplan of mosques in this style is inconsistent unlike the other style mentioned before. However, as stated above, one can easily distinguish the North Indian style with other styles. All buildings of this style features arches with indents, multifoiled or horseshoe. This recalls the Indian mosques with Hindu influences. These arches themselves mostly are used to cover walkways around the mosques or as decorative accents. Domes are of many different sizes from small ones covering the walkways to large ones covering the main prayer hall. These domes were onion in shape(picture the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia) and built mainly out of concrete or aluminum sheets. Spires ending in smaller domes are abundant and very common feature in this style, as well as a multitude of minarets and covered, domed pavilions, very similar to ones featured in Hindu temples.

Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams (Earth) by 15:26, 26 December 2005

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