Inside Islam: Visiting the Stunning, yet Surprising National Mosque

Inside Islam: Visiting the Stunning, yet Surprising National Mosque

Malaysia may be the second Islamic country I’ve visited, after the Maldives, but it’s really the first time I’ve been able to explore an Islamic country.

Sure, in the Maldives we heard the prayer calls when we were in Male and we saw a couple of mosques from afar, but that was really all we could experience before being whisked away to our private island resort. It was in Malaysia that I had a much better introduction to Islam in daily life.

Stepping off the bus from the airport at 5am, the first thing I saw was a mass of people congregating outside the local mosque for the first prayer call. This was a sight I would continue to see throughout each day of my trip.

Before heading to either country, a lot of people had been concerned with what I would wear. Asking if I needed to wear a full burqa or if I could simply get away with covering my hair. Most people were shocked when I answered a frank ‘no’ to all their crass questions.

Other than when visiting inside a mosque, it is not expected that non-Muslims keep covered up. Yes, you should dress on the conservative side, but no one is going to be offended otherwise.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Heck, even for actual Muslims, many women only wear the hijab to keep their hair covered while wearing jeans and western-style clothing along with it. Again, except for when visiting a mosque.

I think a lot of westerners, especially Americans, have this preconceived notion about Islam that’s just completely inaccurate.

One of the things I wanted to do most in Malaysia, was to spend time visiting mosques to gain a little bit more of an understanding. So that’s exactly what I did, and what I found actually surprised me a bit.

I tried first visiting Masjid Jamek, but it was unfortunately closed to visitors for the duration of my week there. So instead I set out one morning to visit Masjid Negara, or The National Mosque of Malaysia.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Riding the MRT around Kuala Lumpur, I would often see the National Mosque from the windows. Even from the train it looked grand, but up close it was even more stunning. All of the geometric details were incredible throughout the architecture and landscaping.

Malaysia - Jan 2014  Malaysia - Jan 2014

If you’re hoping to visit a mosque, do note the times of the prayer calls for that day. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter during these times, so be sure to plan your visit accordingly.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Of course when visiting any mosque, there are very strict rules involving dress code and behavior.

Basically, women need to cover everything but their faces and hands, and it needs to be loose clothing that doesn’t reveal the female form. Men, on the other hand, can simply wear long pants and a t-shirt (nothing sleeveless though). This was…not the most convenient way to dress for 90+ degree weather, but I happily obliged in order to go inside.

At the entrance, there was a rack for leaving your shoes, and two ladies who check over your dress before you’re allowed to enter. Regardless if you passed the dress code or not, the ladies helped all visitors dress in abaya, the long cloaks that Muslims wear.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Looking around, it absolutely amazed me how many foreigners– especially women– had shown up wearing their short-shorts and spaghetti strap tank tops.

Most mosques do not provide visitors with abaya, but even if they had known that this particular one did, I think it’s really disrespectful to show up dressed like that. I shook my head and felt a bit embarrassed that it was these people who represented western visitors, as I’m sure this happens all the time.

Inside the actual mosque was just as impressive as the outside. Everything was so pristine and clean; the floors looked to be freshly polished.

Malaysia - Jan 2014
Malaysia - Jan 2014

I was surprised by how relaxed the general atmosphere was. The mosque is clearly a place of worship, but it also serves many other purposes as well. Groups of friends were sitting inside the prayer room talking amongst themselves, laughing and hanging out, which I didn’t expect at all.

I guess the mosque environment I had envisioned would reflect the dress code– strict. But that wasn’t the case at all.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Even outside the prayer room many people lounged on the floors texting on their phones or even using their tablets. On one of the pillars I was especially surprised to see this…

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Who knew!

I initially worried about the reaction of others who were actually Muslim. But no one seemed to mind that a bunch of tourists were wandering around the premises camera in hand. When I was taking a few photos, some people seemed to walk in the shot on purpose, and didn’t mind that they ended up in the photo.

In fact, I noticed a group of girls even quickly snapping a photo of me with their cellphones. 

Malaysia - Jan 2014

Spending a morning wandering around Masjid Negara was a great introduction to Islamic religion and culture. Although I’ve taken a fair share of World Religion courses throughout my studies, this was my first time getting to experience this firsthand.

Even though I do not endorse or condemn religion, I think it’s important aspect of society that needs to be experienced to better understand culture and art.

Malaysia - Jan 2014

While we were there, a volunteer was there to explain Islam and what it means being a Muslim. They had stacks of fliers and general information. They never came off as pushy, like they were trying to convert you, but I enjoyed hearing them explain their beliefs.

As I said before, I was a bit worried about visiting a mosque. I anticipated people being really unwelcoming towards me as a non-Muslim. I worried they would think I was making their place of worship a tourist attraction.

But, again, that wasn’t the case at all.

Everyone I encountered at the mosque was very kind and passionate. They all seemed happy to see westerners being open-minded, and that’s really what I took away from this experience.

It’s true most other countries seem to view Americans as ignorant and close-minded, and honestly even though I’m not nationalistic, it still makes me feel partly responsible to help represent my country and slowly change this reputation.

I can only do that by continuing to experience things outside my comfort zone, and to do so going in with an open mind and heart. I highly recommend anyone who visits Kuala Lumpur to visit National Mosque, in order to make up their own mind about such a controversial religion.

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Getting there: The easiest way to get to the National Mosque is via taxi. Our 10 minute ride in an unmetered taxi set us back RM20, but split between 5 people we didn’t worry too much.

Another option is to take the KLM Kommuter to Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.

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Have you visited somewhere outside your comfort zone?

23 Comments

  • What gorgeous architecture! I’m glad to see that the locals were open to Westerners visiting their place of worship with an open mind; many of the places I went to in Asia seemed as if they were getting annoyed by how many people were passing through like it was a tourist attraction. I can understand both points of view, though.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I’m glad they ended up being welcoming also. I too have seen a lot of locals look annoyed in many other places across Asia, which was why I was hesitant to even go to a mosque!

  • It’s experiences like this that really initiate you into the locations you visit. Great piece Beth, how funny that they had free wifi, maybe everyone who visits is a blogger!!

  • Lauren says:

    I love this post! I love all of your descriptions with regards to how to dress and enjoy the experience as a Non-Muslim woman. I don’t endorse or condemn religion either and while I don’t follow any particular one, I am fascinated by world cultures and beliefs, so I feel like I would really enjoy this!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I’m the same way. Even though I don’t follow one myself doesn’t mean I’m not interested in learning about them. It’s an important aspect of culture that I enjoy exploring!

  • Jenna says:

    Gorgeous archictecture! Looks like a beautiful spot. Love that there is WIFI–too funny!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Yeah, I thought the WiFi was quite funny as well! Made me want to sit down and blog right from the mosque! haha

  • I travelled in many Muslim countries and I had never had an unpleasant situation! People are always very nice, respectful and never try to convert me. But again you can not really convert an atheist.

    • Beth Williams says:

      It’s true, they’d have no luck converting me either, but I do agree everyone was very nice and welcoming.

  • Jen says:

    Very well written and respectful post Beth. The mosque looks simply stunning. I have a love of religious buildings and have visited so many different types all over the world but I am yet to visit a mosque.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I hope you do get a chance to visit one, even for the architecture alone. Even though this was only my first mosque, I hope to visit more in the future!

  • I’ve visited three mosques in Istanbul, and it was always an incredible experience. Every mosque had its own atmosphere, of grandeur in the Blue Mosque, the biggest, and of recollection and peace in the other two smaller mosques I visited. Unfortunately in Morocco, where I’m going to in May, non-Muslims cannot enter mosques! That’s a pity, but I’ll find another way to reflect on their religion and the customs connected to it…

    • Beth Williams says:

      The Blue Mosque is someplace I really want to visit when I go to Istanbul (which will hopefully be this fall).
      I encountered a few mosques in Malaysia as well that were closed to non-Muslims, which also was a shame. Are all the mosques in Morocco that way?

  • Sammi says:

    Great post. We visited a mosque when I was at school, and everyone was really welcoming. I actually think it’s disrespectful in any place of worship to turn up in anything that doesn’t cover your shoulders- even a scarf you can wrap around yourself is better than nothing. There are certain places I, as a blonde woman, would wear a hijab in the world anyway, just for safety’s sake (Western Africa for example).

    • Beth Williams says:

      I also would feel more comfortable wearing a hijab in certain places, and I’m not even blonde.

  • Kayla says:

    I love this post! Thank you, I have yet to visit a mosque but I hope to this summer in Palestine. I agree with you about the women showing up in tank tops and short shorts, if they knew they were going to a mosque they should have dressed a bit more appropriately. The inside of the Mosque looks so beautiful. I love learning about other cultures and religions. Great post!

  • Jameela says:

    Brave Beth! well done for going out of your comfort zone…and with an open mind, if only everyone could be as tolerant and ready to accept other people’s culture/religion.

    Sad though how muslims/islam is too often thought off as rigid and unwelcoming when it is quite the opposite. It takes people like you to show the real side of things.

    Keep up the good work and keep showing us what you visit next so we also can open our minds.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Jameela. I think what you said, that many people think of Islam as being rigid and unwelcoming, is especially true in the US. I know a good amount of people who would be concerned that I even went to visit a mosque, but those are exactly the type of people I hope read this post.

  • Yi-Xuan says:

    Glad you love our Malaysia!!! :D

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