Cheng Hoo: A mosque with
some Chinese flair

Alpha Savitri, Contributor, Surabaya

From a distance the new building at Jl. Gading No. 2, Surabaya, looks like a Chinese shrine with its bright colors, dragon-fin rooftop and octagonal three-tiered dome.

But upon a closer look, one will realize that it is in fact a mosque.

The oriental-style exterior is certainly appropriate because it was built by PITI, Chinese-Indonesians' Islamic propagation organization.

Its name is also quite unique with a notable Chinese influence: the Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque. It is one of the few mosques with Chinese architecture in Indonesia.

The mosque was named after Admiral Muhammad Cheng Hoo, who is remembered as a respected negotiator who spread the word of Islam among the Chinese community in Java.

Cheng Hoo, better known in Indonesia as Sam Po Kong or Sam Po Tae Jin, was a Chinese official who embarked on a trade and cultural exchange mission around the world in the 15th century. During his long journey, Cheng Hoo also disseminated Islamic teachings.

On Java, Cheng Hoo built a number of mosques and places of worship. Among his most important achievements are the Gedung Batu Mosque in Semarang (Central Java), and several smaller places of worship in Jakarta, Tuban, Gresik and Surabaya (East Java).

His expedition, which set sail on July 11, 1405, lasted for nearly 27 years. Cheng Hoo was at the helm of the 28,000-strong crew aboard the 200 ships and he headed his mission through 38 Asian and African countries. His voyage was no less prominent than those of Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, and were even undertaken before them.

A replica of the vessel that carried Cheng Hoo during his world expedition can be found on the northern side of the new mosque, which was inaugurated late last month. A wall relief of the famous admiral's face adorns the mosque.

The mosque measures 21 meters by 11 meters, and the inspiration for its architectural design came from the Niu Jie Mosque in Beijing, China. However, the Muhammad Cheng Hoo mosque accommodates both Indonesian and Arabic influences.

The size of the main prayer room is 11 meters by 9 meters, as the Kaaba in Mecca was 11 meters at the time of its construction, while nine implies the Walisongo, Java's first nine Islamic preachers.

The Indonesian influence is also apparent in the use of the bedhug (a large drum), which is beaten at the time of prayers. Cheng Hoo's drum is beaten 17 times. In the first session it is beaten nine times, again suggesting the Walisongo, and eight times after a brief pause to signify the Pat Kwa, the eight directions and elements in Chinese geomancy.

Built by Chinese-Indonesians, the mosque is open to everyone and every Muslim can use this facility, which has functioned as a place of worship since the end of last year.

KH Burnadi, the chairman of Muhammad Cheng Hoo's management board, said the mosque was also open to all denominations of the Islamic faith.

""During the fasting month of Ramadhan we have two sessions of tarawih (evening prayers after the breaking of the fast); the one for those applying the 11 rakaat (a set of rituals) and the other for the 21 sets,"" said the father of two.

In previous months, when Idul Fitri, at end of the fasting month, and Idul Adha, the day of sacrifice, fell on different days, two prayer sessions were also held at the Muhammad Cheng Hoo for both Muslim schools.

""We embrace all Muslims. Members of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah can perform their religious duties here without discrimination. Differences constitute a blessing,"" said Burnadi, who became a Muslim when he was in his teens.

As it is open to all Islamic groups, the mosque has had a good response from the Muslim community, particularly in Surabaya. Even before its inauguration, it was already crowded, most notably on Fridays.

""It holds 200 people but about 500 to 600 worshipers flock to the mosque for prayers every Friday. We have to put up tents out in the yard to accommodate them,"" he added.

The mosque is also popular for weddings and those vowing to profess Islam. More than a dozen couples and converts have had their ceremonies held at the unique building so far.

""People everywhere knew about it even before it was officially opened. We have had a lot of visitors daily since then,"" Burnadi said.

Owing to the overwhelming public response, the mosque will be extended in the near future. In the long term, it will also serve as a tourist destination for those on spiritual journeys and a new highlight to be included on tours for Surabaya's visitors.

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