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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.