Monday, March 24, 2008

Let us pray again!

n last week's MM I visited the Jakarta Cathedral, admired the neo-Gothic serenity of the place and generally expounded my atheistic worldview in no uncertain terms. This week it's the turn of the house of worship located just around the corner from the cathedral to receive a full MM broadside. I refer, of course, to the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia's largest.

If I can get to an Indonesian synagogue in time for the next column then I'll have done all of the world's Abrahamic monotheisms within the space of a month. Don't hold your breath on that one although there is, apparently, a synagogue in Surabaya that serves the small population of the Hasidic Jews who live there (now there's a story*)

Let's get back to Istiqlal though. The mosque is located just north of the National Monument (Monas) and features an impressively huge dome and towering minaret. The mosque was completed in 1975 and can apparently hold 120,000 worshipers when it's full, which is certainly plenty to be going on with.

In fact a mosque full of 120,000 would be equivalent to the combined support at two large English premiership football games, albeit with less swearing and fewer plastic beakers full of urine presumably.

When the Istiqlal Mosque was completed it was criticized by some Indonesians for being too Arabic in design and not in keeping with the local Javanese-style, triple-roof type of mosque. Islam is a pretty Arab-centric religion, however, as can be seen in the fact that it's adherents prostrate themselves toward Saudi Arabia five times a day and also in that, regarding this country at least, it remains illegal to translate and preach the Koran in Indonesian (a preacher in East Java tried this last year and now languishes in jail).

Surely one language or area of the planet being privileged as holier than others rather negates religious claims to universality? But perhaps I'd better stop there and move on.

I strolled into the grounds, past the huge fountain that sits in front of the mosque and headed inside. Upon divesting myself of my shoes and socks I wandered through the basement area to the stairs on the far side. This basement area, with its pipes and ventilation ducts, resembled a far more mundane, functional building such as a hospital or something. God's boiler room, perhaps, or some kind of post-industrial purgatory.

Things were much statelier when I headed upstairs however. I ambled into the huge courtyard area in order to admire the view. The square was flanked by three towering icons: the mosque's own sky-scraping minaret, the National Monument and the Pertamina building across the road. It was quite a symbolic tableau: God, country and capital all looming over me like an unholy trinity of power and injustice. The courtyard itself was all but deserted though save for a couple of gents sitting down reading their newspapers.

Moving into the main prayer hall I sat down on the huge red carpet and took in the enormity of the Istiqlal. The huge dome in the ceiling is similar in scale to the one in St Paul's Cathedral in London and was quite awesome to behold. Next to the hall's huge pillars, there were Korans available for borrowing by worshipers. The one concession to modernity in the mosque is a huge digital clock at the Mecca end. Islam is all about getting one's timings right and prayer times are continually shifting with the wax and wane of the moon.

The mosque was pretty empty when I visited, a few people were praying, one small group were having a prayer meeting with their Korans, some children were playing marbles on the carpet and a couple of gents were sleeping, sprawled facedown on the floor (it never ceases to amaze me how they manage to do that). The hall was serene and peaceful although you could occasionally hear the trains thundering past outside.

I tarried a while before heading back down to the ground floor to collect my shoes and socks. On the way out I picked up a piece of printed paper called "Buletin Al-Aqsha", which informed me that "Jalur Gaza Mengangis" (The Gaza Strip is crying). The various calls to Jihad expounded under this headline will no doubt ensure that it will continue to cry for some time yet, although I think that all three major religions are equally culpable for the whole mess over in the "holy" land.

But keep faith with me dear reader, I promise I'll return with something light-hearted next week, provided of course that I don't stumble across any synagogues in Jakarta. Time to bring in the clowns.