From a distance, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka looks like any other mosque. However, if a visitor were to walk through its doors, he would not only find himself in Singapore’s oldest mosque, but also its very first place of worship.
The mosque was built in 1820 by pioneer Arab businessman and philanthropist Syed Omar Aljunied, whom it is named after.
It had humble beginnings, as it was originally made of timber, with wooden planks and an attap roof.
Mr Syed Omar helped fund the building of a surau, or prayer house, on the land designated by the Raffles Town Plan for Kampong Melaka, which was meant for the Muslim community. The mosque is currently situated in Keng Cheow Street, off Havelock Road.
Mr Syed Omar was a wealthy trader and land owner from Palembang. He first traded in Penang, where Arab merchants had formed an elite community.
He came to Singapore shortly after Stamford Raffles set up a trading post on the island in 1819 and, by the mid-19th century, was known as a key Arab merchant here.
Besides Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, he contributed to the building of the Benggali Mosque, which used to be in Bencoolen Street. In his will, he also bequeathed a large plot of land – which is now closed – in Victoria Street for Muslim burials.
Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka was a meeting point for local Malays and Jawi Peranakans, as well as early Muslim immigrants such as Arabs and Indonesians.
The first wakaf – a trust for pious, religious and charitable purposes – was also created here.
In 1855, a larger, brick building was built – with funding from Mr Syed Omar’s son, Mr Syed Abdullah Omar Aljunied – to accommodate its growing congregation.
More than 100 years later, in 1981, it was reconstructed to house an administration building and a ceremonial cleansing area. A minaret, with a small domed roof, was added too.
In 2009, a $936,000 renovation to replaced the roof and added new classrooms and a women’s prayer area.
Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka was declared a historic site by the National Heritage Board in 2001.
During a ceremony to mark the occasion, Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, then Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said: “The mosque is a simple building that stands out amid modern skyscrapers in this old quarter of Singapore.”
Mr Abdullah, who was also Minister for Community Development and Sports at the time, added: “The Aljunied family is best remembered for many charitable acts…
“They were living examples of all that Islam stands for with their philanthropic, community consciousness and self-help spirit, and what Malays call gotong royong or the willingness to work together to help each other.”
The mosque is unique because of its rich heritage, said Ms Zahra Aljunied, 61, a fifth-generation descendant of Mr Syed Omar.
For instance, the holy month of Ramadan is also a time for the Aljunied family to gather at the mosque.
On Laylat al-Qadr or “the night of power” during Ramadan, the entire Aljunied family – consisting of some 300 members – meet at Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka. Religious leaders among the Aljunieds lead the congregation in prayers.
The mosque, which can accommodate 1,000 people, has seen greater diversity in its visitors due to its accessibility in the Central Business District, said chairman Yusoff Ali.
Mr Yusoff, 62, said: “Our congregation consisted of mostly Malays previously. But over the past few years, we’ve seen more Indians, Chinese, expatriates and Arabs from different countries such as the US, China and Africa.”
In response to the changing demographic, the management has put up signs in Chinese and Tamil, in addition to English and Malay ones, he added.
It has also installed air-conditioners in the women’s prayer area and built larger washrooms overlooking the mosque’s garden shrubbery.
Despite these developments, the mosque has retained its distinctive features. For example, its main pillars and columns, as well as some of its chengal wood structures, have been preserved from its 1855 structure.
The mosque’s main prayer hall can hold a few hundred people, while the women’s prayer area can house some 50 worshippers.
Although the mosque is centrally located, it is difficult for it to draw a regular pool of visitors for evening and night prayers, said Mr Yusoff.
“It’s easy for people to drop by when they are working, especially during Ramadan. But the problem of having a mosque in the city is asking people to stay back after work,” he said.
This means that it is difficult for the mosque to organise regular activities and events.
Rather than worrying about this, its leaders have focused on the mosque’s speciality – its Quranic courses. It holds both Quran reading and memorisation classes throughout the week, including intensive memorisation lessons.
It is the first Quranic “memorisation centre” here, said Mr Yusoff.
He added: “It is important to memorise the Quran because these are God’s words. When you memorise them, you have God’s words in your heart with you everywhere.”
Ms Zahra said: “This place is like home, for both me and others. On certain nights during Ramadan, visitors pray here throughout the night.
“Madrasah students also like to study here as they like the mosque’s calming ambience.
“It provides respite from the hustle of the city.”
Correction note: A previous version said Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka has been gazetted as a national monument. It has been marked as a historic site, but not a national monument. We are sorry for the error.