Cultural Fusion: The Changing Face of Mosques in Southeast Asia

Cultural Fusion: The Changing Face of Mosques in Southeast Asia
Grand Mosque of West Sumatra, Indonesia ©️Pinterest

Majority of the people in Southeast Asia are devout and follow specific religions or local belief systems. In their religious practices, places of worship are essential for devotion, worshiping the Divine, communal gatherings, and religious learning. Among these religions, Islam, with its significant number of followers, holds a prominent position in the region. Indonesia, in particular, boasts the largest Muslim population in the world, while Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia have Islam as their official state religion. Islam has deep historical roots in Southeast Asia and has had a long-standing presence in the region. As early as 1292, Marco Polo (1254–1324)'s visit to Sumatra noted the local population's adoption of Islam. Throughout its history in Southeast Asia, Islam has made various cultural contributions, and one notable aspect is the establishment and transformation of mosques within the socio-cultural fabric of the region.

Great Mosque of Demak is the prototype of the Indonesian traditional mosques ©️Antara

Early mosques in Southeast Asia featured distinct architectural styles. In Java, some traditional mosques still maintain their original architecture, characterized by multi-tiered roofs, ceremonial gateways, four central pillars supporting towering pyramid-shaped roofs, and intricate clay finials adorning the roof peaks. On the other hand, the original mosques in Malaysia had a simple architectural design with four pillars for the foundation and palm fronds for the roof. The Masjid Agung Demak, believed to be initiated by Sunan Kalijaga (1450–1513), one of the "Wali Sanga" (Nine Saints), serves as a prime example and prototype for traditional mosques in Indonesia.

300 Years Mosque in Narathiwat, Thailand is the one of the oldest mosques in Thailand ©️Prince of Songkla University (via PSU MOOC)

The Malay world also has its own tradition of mosque architecture. In Malacca, the architectural design combines influences from the local Malay, Indian, and Chinese styles, representing the three largest ethnic groups in Malaysia. In the southern provinces of Thailand, which have been the ancestral home of the Malay people, mosques follow the Malay architectural style. For instance, the 300 Years Mosque in the Thai province of Narathiwat, features pointed roofs, reminiscent of various early Southeast Asian mosques.

During the Dutch colonial period in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), mosque architecture was influenced by various external cultures. Domes and pointed arches, typical features of Central, South, and Southwest Asian mosques, were not introduced to Indonesia until the 19th century under Dutch influence. Despite foreign influences, some colonial-era Indonesian mosques retained their traditional roof designs while incorporating European and Chinese elements. Similarly, during the British colonial period in Malaysia, mosques blended Arab dome elements with Victorian-style architecture. Both Indonesian and Malaysian colonial mosques also display Indo-Islamic architectural features, such as Indo-Saracenic and Mughal influences.

Al Irsyad Satya Mosque in West Bandung Regency, Indonesia is a contemporary-style mosque that interprets the shape of the Masjid al-Haram and the Kaaba. ©️ Suryanto

Post-independence marked a time of architectural freedom for Islamic mosques. Architects began incorporating more internationalist trends and moved away from rigid mosque conventions. Often, these mosques were designed based on the architects' interpretations of Islamic values, such as incorporating the Five Pillars of Islam and Asmaul Husna (the 99 Names of Allah). Additionally, some mosques in Indonesia embraced vernacular architectural interpretations without strictly adhering to traditional norms. However, traditional and Chinese-influenced architectural styles still persist in certain mosques due to the enduring Chinese influence on Southeast Asia since the Hindu-Buddhist era.

Sultan Ismail Petra Mosque in Kelantan, Malaysia has the Chinese-style architecture ©️Wikimedia

The journey of Islamic architecture in Southeast Asia has been rich and diverse, shaped by centuries of historical, cultural, and religious interactions. From its early beginnings to its colonial era and post-independence, mosques in the region have evolved while still preserving their unique identities. Today, modern interpretations and influences from around the world coexist with traditional elements, creating a vibrant tapestry of Islamic architectural heritage in Southeast Asia.


  • Brown, C. D. (2003). A short history of Indonesia.
  • Gunawan, T. (1998). Indonesian Heritage: Architecture. 6. Archipelago Press.


Rafa Sukoco

An Indonesian, born into a multiethnic family, with a passion for traveling, culinary experiences, and delving into history and religion. Enjoying life through listening and sharing stories.
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