Photo: Author

Allah’s friends in the Lion City – on Singapore’s Muslim heritage

Singapore, translated from Sanskrit as the Lion City, is the smallest state in Southeast Asia. Located in the south of Peninsular Malaysia, the city-state is home to about five and a half million inhabitants.

Photo: Author

About 15 percent of them identify as Muslims. More than 30 per cent are Buddhists, a total of almost 20 per cent identify themselves as belonging to various forms of Christianity, and five per cent are Hindus. The current head of state is Muslim. Halimah Yacob is the name of the president, and she wears a headscarf.

One of her first activities after taking office was to visit the grave of Habib Nuh to seek blessings through this visit. Habib Nuh, who died in Singapore in 1866, is considered a great lover of God (wali) among local Muslims. His mausoleum was completed at his grave on Mount Palmer Hill as early as 1890. Since then, not only Singaporean Muslims have made pilgrimages to his tomb, but also Muslims from the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. A mosque was built nearby in 1903.

Besides this Muslim pilgrimage site, there are other mosques in Singapore. One of them is the very famous and architecturally impressive Sultan Mosque, which was opened in 1928. The current structure dates to a mosque built almost a hundred years earlier by the then ruler of Johor in what is now South Malaysia, Sultan Hussain Shah.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Singapore had become a centre for Islamic trade, art and culture, and the Muslim community was too large for the old mosque. As early as the 19th century, Singapore was an important centre for Muslims in the region to distribute the first printed religious manuals and scriptures and later periodicals. The Hajjah Fatimah Mosque was also completed as early as the 19th century, in 1846, and named after its benefactress.

Besides the pilgrimage site of Habib Nuh, there is another, far less known burial site in Singapore. Habib Nuh is said to have visited and even cared for it often during his lifetime. It is the burial place of a young woman who, in trying to protect her father from a deadly attack, had herself become a martyr. Radin Mas Ayu was supposedly a Javanese princess from a kingdom on the island of Java. Her name can be literally translated as beautiful, golden princess. However, both the term Radin, and Mas, are Javanese aristocratic titles.

It is reported in Malay annals that she lived in the 16th century. However, there are also suggestions that her tomb is much older and that she may have lived as early as the 11th century.

The tomb of Radin Mas Ayu is much more modest than that of Habib Nuh. Today it is located in a residential area on Mount Faber hill. Few stairs lead to a covered grave where there is a little space to linger and say prayers for her or read Qur’an. At the foot of the stairs, to the left, is another grave, believed to be that of her father, who died a few years after her. In 1959, a film was made about her life and tragic death. Both Radin Mas Ayu’s grave and Habib Nuh’s grave site are officially recognised as Singapore’s Muslim heritage by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Both the tombs and the historic mosques show that Singapore has a rich Islamic history. The great influence of Muslims is also indicated by Singapore’s flag, which shows a moon and five stars on a white and red background. The five stars, according to local Muslims in Singapore, symbolise the five pillars of the Islamic religion: the profession of faith, five times daily prayer, zakat, fasting in the month of Ramadan and pilgrimage.

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