It is hard for anything to remain still in a world that sees change, regardless of what sort, to be a good worth pursing unquestioningly, as if it is a reality that cannot be denied. It touches both the profane and the sacred – nothing and no one is spared. However, every now and then change does miss something from its seemingly all-encompassing vision, and every now and then a little something that we hold dear stays the way we remembered right under its nose. Masjid Hang Jebat off Portsdown Road is one such example. Nestled in an old military neighbourhood and hidden from the road, it would seem that Masjid Hang Jebat has stayed hidden from change’s sight. However, no one and nothing can hide from change forever and it would seem though that for this gem, time is running out.
Unless someone has told you, you probably would never have heard of Masjid Hang Jebat. It’s not a mosque that you could happen to pass by. To reach the mosque you would have to walk to the end of Portsdown Road along the old colonial terraces and bungalows of Wessex Estate, once home to British Military personnel. At the end of the road there is a path to the right. Continuing down the path you will soon realise two coconut trees greeting you, and the roof of the mosque peeping over the wall revealing itself to you.
The mosque is rather unassuming. There are no tall minarets or domes gleaming in the tropical sun. It is a humble building with blue roofing, very much like those you see on temporary buildings. In fact except for the sign and a little make shift dome made of aluminium on the side of the gates, there are very little indications that this is even a mosque. This was perhaps quite typical of kampong suraus (village prayer area) that were made into mosques. An internet search indicated that Masjid Hang Jebat began as a surau for Muslim workers in the British military camp in the 60s. Following their withdrawal in 1971 the land was opened up and donations were collected from nearby residents to expand the main prayer hall and make it into a mosque serving the community in that area.
As simple as it is Masjid Hang Jebat is truly a community mosque; built by the community to serve the community with, perhaps, little if not no fanfare or the need for pretty minarets and domes. It served its purpose as a place of worship and it had soul, brought to life by those who so lovingly contributed to its construction and worshiped in it. The community there might have moved away but Masjid Hang Jebat continues to serve. It was rather difficult digging up materials for Masjid Hang Jebat, Google did not yield much results other than a single blog, and a search of the National Archives did not supplement what little resources I could gather.
The mosque’s interior is very modestly decorated. The entrance to the main prayer hall is decorated with simple carvings of stylized leaves in green and yellow. In the main prayer hall the posts holding up the roof is rather intricately decorated with a similar theme of stylized leaves and other motifs.
The mihrab is a simple square extension in the direction of the qibla but the mimbar is quite elaborate. My lack of knowledge in the motifs of Malay carvings inhibits me from describing it well but it is more elaborate than some of those I have seen in more contemporary mosques. Here is a picture though.
My first time at the mosque was during NS when I was posted to the nearby Ayer Rajah Camp for technician training. It was convenient for Jumaah prayers – a 5 minute walk away from camp it was a place where I saw my instructors from camp in a different light. There everyone, regardless of rank, was equal before God. I must say countless Alhamdulillah’s that my camp was so nearby such a special mosque. It was a nice escape from NS and a welcomed blessing as many of us were not allowed to go have our Friday prayers during our Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong. We honestly take our freedom to do our prayers, to hear our azan for granted. Only when you have it taken away from for three months, or perhaps even longer for others, that we realise how much we would miss simple things like that.
My relationship with Masjid Hang Jebat continued well into my time in university. It served as the subject matter of one of my very first essays in NUS. Every so often, my father and his group of friends would spend the night at the mosque during the weekend. They would arrive in the wee hours of the morning and then would do their night obligatory prayers together. The time spent while waiting for the others, is spent chatting and keeping up with friends. After the prayers they would do their zikrs as well as the Maulid together until the sun rose.
The sound of human voices in devotion was then punctuated only by the passing of the night trains, first from the Tanjong Pagar station towards Kuala Lumpur and then later, just as the sun peeks over the horizon, the train from Kuala Lumpur would arrive in Singapore. It was, to me, a night to recharge and realign our Imaan, to reassure and remind us that regardless of how difficult life can get, that we are not alone and that Allah is there with us.
The fervour and devotion in the reading of the Maulid was an expression of love and yearning for the Prophet but yet at the same time, thankfulness and a feeling of shame that we, though so undeserving, have been granted the blessing to be part of the Prophet’s ummah. It was and will continue to be an experience beyond words, one that connects us to the global ummah in devotion and love but yet uniquely Nusantaran in style. The night then ends with the Morning Prayer together with the tabligh and foreign workers who frequent the mosque.
Masjid Hang Jebat is one of those places that takes you back to a place that no longer exists, a time when things were, perhaps, a little slower, where the community was still making its transition from kampungs to HDBs. It now remains, out of place in a world that does not stay still, that believes that what is new must be good. As out of place it seems at the end of colonial bungalows for soldiers long gone and by a railway track that no longer exists, it is a place that we need to remind us of who we are and where we come from; for us not to lose ourselves in a world that is lost.
A CNA news feature of Masjid Hang Jebat, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/in-pictures-hari-raya/2152328.html