New book launched commemorating Singapore’s oldest mosque

Ms Sharifah Zahra Aljunied, one of the editors of the book, which traces the history of Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - In 1979, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka was at risk of being demolished, as part of a plan by the Ministry of National Development to redevelop the area within Singapore’s Central Business District.

But appeals from trustees, congregants and history buffs ensured that the mosque – the Republic’s oldest-known mosque as well as its oldest recorded house of worship – was saved.

It was eventually declared a historical site by the National Heritage Board in 2001.

This is one of many episodes recounted in a new book – A Reverent Journey: Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, 1820-2020 And Beyond – on the 200-year history of the mosque.

The 268-page volume was launched on Saturday by President Halimah Yacob at an event at the Singapore Islamic Hub, which was also attended by Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo and Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, MP for the Kolam Ayer ward of Jalan Besar GRC.

It was originally scheduled to be launched in 2020, marking the mosque’s bicentennial, but its publication was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, said the mosque’s chairman, Ustaz Muhd Hafiz Rashid.

The book traces the history of the mosque from its founding in 1820 by Syed Omar Aljunied as an attap-roofed wooden structure to its most recent makeover in 2010.

Syed Omar was an Arab trader from Hadhramaut, Yemen, who came to Singapore from Palembang at the invitation of Sir Stamford Raffles.

The book – now available for sale at the mosque in Keng Cheow Street – contains a reproduction of the last will and testament of Syed Omar, whose remains were transferred to the mosque’s grounds from an Aljunied family burial area in Kampong Glam in 2002.

It includes original architectural drawings, historical photographs and maps, as well as essays from the mosque’s congregants, including former senior parliamentary secretary Yatiman Yusof and veteran composer Yusnor Ef.

One of the book’s editors, Ms Sharifah Zahra Aljunied, noted that besides detailing the history of the mosque, the book also features the histories of some prominent Hadhrami Arab families in Singapore.

It also stands as a testament to their contributions to the country, said the 66-year-old retired senior librarian, who is a fifth-generation descendant of mosque founder Syed Omar.

Speaking during the event, Madam Halimah said the mosque had taken part in various inter-faith activities and launched Project Kukoh, a collaborative initiative to help needy families living in rental flats in nearby Jalan Kukoh, last year.

She said the book was a “fitting gift” to the Muslim community, as well as Singapore in general, noting parallels between the mosque and the country.

“Its journey and tenacity mirrors the development of our small city state – a story of how an institution with humble beginnings survived the challenges and crisis of the past two centuries and continues to serve the needs of the community, while remaining strong and relevant in a fast-changing environment,” she added.

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