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Opinion: Independence Mosque
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 03 - 10 - 2011

Mischief makers the world over would have us believe that Islam was spread by the sword. They present a picture of Muslim armies sweeping across North Africa and forcing native populations to accept Islam or to die.
The example of Egypt alone would remind us that this was not the case. It took up to two hundred years after Amr Ibn Al-Aas entered Cairo before the majority of Egyptians became Muslim.
Even today there is a very large, and very welcome, Christian community in Egypt. If the idea had been to force Islam upon the people at the point of a sword, then it didn't really succeed.
Let us not forget, either, that Arabs make up just eighteen per cent of the world's Muslims. Muslim armies never went near many of the places where Islam is most strong.
Indonesia, for example, is the most populous Muslim country in the world, yet the story of the coming of Islam to Indonesia is the very beautiful tale of how ordinary Arab traders so impressed the local people by their faith and good manners that they wanted to be like them. This was the case in much of Southeast Asia.
Indonesia today has a Muslim population of around 203 million people, which is almost ninety per cent of the total population. As befits the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia has a mosque in its capital, Jakarta, which is also the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.
Istiqlal, or “Independence,” Mosque, is capable of holding up to 120,000 worshippers at a single time. Situated right in the heart of the capital in Merdeka Square, the mosque is also adjacent to the city's Cathedral – shattering yet another misconception that those mischief makers would have us believe!
Merdeka Square is the most impressive square in the nation. The fact of Istiqlal Mosque being in the heart of the city in this square is inspired by the Javanese tradition of having the mosque and the royal palace at the heart of the community.
Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945 and achieved independence in 1949. Very soon after that, in thanksgiving to Allah for the nation's independence, the idea quickly grew to build a national mosque. An organising committee was set up in 1953, with President Sukarno playing a prominent role from the beginning.
The Christian architect, Frederich Silaban, won the competition for the mosque's design and the foundation stone was laid by President Sukarno on 24th August 1961. So massive was the project that it took a further seventeen years for the mosque to be completed, and it was inaugurated by President Suharto on 22nd February 1978.
What is perhaps most striking about the design, apart from its size, is that the mosque is very modern and quite unlike any traditional mosque architecture of the region. Perhaps to counter such criticism, the President also ordered the building of many more traditional-style mosques at the time of its opening.
Entered by seven gates, the mosque is built in the form of two adjoining rectangles, one larger than the other. Istiqlal Mosque is very simple in design. Unlike many major mosques in other countries, it has only one large minaret, 66.66 metres tall, suggesting the 6.666 verses of the Qur'an. Unlike what is found in other countries, a large drum stands next to the minaret.
Covered in cow-skin, this drum is like many others to be found across Indonesia, where such drums are used, along with the Adhan, to call the faithful to prayer.
The 45 metre-diameter dome, which sits above the main Prayer Hall, is supported by twelve massive pillars. As Muslims we often make Islam seem so very complicated to others. The interior is of this mosque is very simple, as befits the simplicity of Islam itself.
There are four balconies and the mosque has five levels, including the basement.
Even the decoration inside the mosque is strikingly simple. On the main wall the names of Allah and Mohamed (pbuh) are inscribed in Stainless Steel from Germany. On another wall is verse fourteen of Surat Taha.
To offset any criticism that the steel came from Germany, a decision was made to quarry the vast amounts of marble used in the mosque from East Java, rather than bringing it from Italy.
Wherever it came from, the overall effect is very beautiful and very impressive.
The mosque is surrounded by gardens, reminding the worshippers of the gardens of Paradise, underneath which rivers flow. Within these gardens is a large pool, with a fountain, which shoots water 45 metres into the air.
Muslims read in the Holy Qur'an in Surat Taha:
“Verily, I am Allah: there is no God but I. So serve thou Me, and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” 20:14
In a grand, but very simple way, the Muslims of Indonesia have managed to do this. Their national mosque is a beacon of Islam for the whole of southeast Asia. It reminds everyone that our own good example can bring many to Islam, just like the good example of those Muslim traders many years ago.
Standing next to the Cathedral of another religion, it speaks very quietly that Islam is not threatened by the beliefs of others and is comfortable enough to accept their right to believe something different. Isn't that the very same message taught by Amr Ibn Al-Aas when he came to Egypt?
And isn't that the message shared by all people of faith today: that they can believe very different things, even feeling quite certain that others' beliefs are quite wrong, but they can still be friends and have a deep respect for one another.

Author of eight books about Islam, British Muslim writer Idris Tawfiq divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at

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