by Tasa Nugraza Barley

Being the largest Muslim nation in the world by population, it’s not difficult to find a mosque in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta. But you’d be forgiven for walking by the Masjid Hidayatullah and missing its purpose completely.

Located on Jalan Karet Depan in South Jakarta, the Hidayatullah Mosque’s dominant feature is its Chinese-style pagoda. A closer look reveals the beautiful Arabic calligraphy engraved on the entrance gate that marks it as a Muslim house of worship.

But the pagoda isn’t the only detail that makes this mosque unique. The building is a centuries-old testament to religious tolerance and an architectural masterpiece, influenced by four different cultures: Chinese, Betawi, Hindu and Arabic. Hidayatullah is Arabic for “Allah’s guidance.”

The mosque has a long history. It was built by a Betawi native named Muhammad Yusuf in 1747. He constructed the mosque on a piece of land granted to him by a Dutch businessman named Safir Hands.

Muhammad Thohir, an eighth-generation descendent of Yusuf and caretaker of the mosque, said that during that time there were many Chinese people who lived in the Karet district. As a strong believer in religious harmony, Yusuf decided to build a mosque that could represent Indonesia’s plurality.

“This mosque is a symbol of harmony in Indonesia,” Thohir said.

The Chinese influence is clearly seen from the building’s three-layer roof, an adaptation of a Chinese pagoda. Unlike the Indonesian style, the mosque’s roof has curled edges on the corners, visibly different from typical mosques that utilize domes to cover their main prayer halls.

The Betawi architectural influence is seen in the building’s wooden windows and pillars. It is typical in Betawi buildings to have many large windows that can be fully opened to allow air to come in. Betawi people also like to have big round pillars around their houses.

Thohir said that the Hindu influence is visible in the mosque’s two towers, which resemble the same concept that many Hindu temples have used, while the Arabic character of the mosque can be observed in the calligraphy carved on many of the building’s adornments.

“This is a very beautiful building,” Thohir said proudly. “It’s probably the only historic mosque in Jakarta that has retained its original architecture.”

The mosque has been renovated several times, although the builders were careful to preserve the unique design. The latest renovation was completed in 1998, when two new additions were added to increase capacity from 600 to 1,600 people. During the weekly Friday prayer, 3,000 people fill the mosque and spill out into the grounds.

“Hidayatullah Mosque is a very important historic building in Jakarta,” said Kartum Setiawan, a historian who founded Komunitas Jelajah Budaya, which regularly conducts museum tours in Jakarta.

Besides its architectural uniqueness, Kartum said that the building was also a symbol of the people’s struggle against the Dutch occupation. He said that according to historic literature, the Hidayatullah Mosque was often served as a meeting place for Indonesian fighters, mostly Betawi natives, during the war.

“The building is a silent witness of how  the Indonesian warriors fought injustice,” he said.

But the building itself has come under attack in recent decades from the forces of modernization. Located between high-rise buildings, its presence is a symbol of the struggle of traditional versus modern.

“We know that it’s very tempting to just abandon the mosque, but the caretaker committee is very committed to preserving this cultural and religious heritage,” Thohir said.

When it was first built, the mosque sat on 3,000 square meters of land. Over time, due to the building of roads and the widening of a river, the plot has shrunk by over half.

Many businesses have tried to convince the mosque’s coordinators to let it go. According to Thohir, a major Indonesian bank offered Rp 16 billion ($1.77 million) to buy the land where the mosque sits in the early 1990s. They also offered to send the mosque’s coordinators to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca. “But we all said no,” Thohir said.

After years of trying, the bank lost its patience. One morning in 1993, Thohir said, the mosque was suddenly surrounded by police officers and others who had come to tear down the mosque. According to Thohir, they were armed with weapons such as machetes and sickles.

Thohir said the mosque’s caretakers and the neighborhood residents fought back against the would-be destructors using any weapons they could find. “Most of us just threw rocks at them.”

He said the conflict ended up with three people defending the mosque injured. The bank eventually gave up, Thohir said. “They later apologized.”

Asked why they decided to risk their lives in the fight for the mosque, Thohir said it was because the mosque is a valuable legacy from their ancestors and they have the responsibility to keep it. “Money can’t replace the benefit that this mosque brings to the society.”

Due to its history, Thohir said that many people treat the house of worship as an extraordinary place. People find something spiritual there that they don’t find at other mosques, he said.

Kartum said it is tragic if a historic building like the Hidayatullah Mosque has to be torn down in the name of modernization. “City development shouldn’t sacrifice the historic buildings.” He added that theyshould be preserved as sources of knowledge and culture.

The Hidayatullah Mosque finally received cultural heritage status from the city government in 1999, protecting it from developers’ bulldozers.

But with Jakarta’s modernization running at full speed, Thohir believes that the mosque still faces many challenges ahead, but that doesn’t discourage him.

“We will keep this mosque until the end of days.”

The story was previously published on The Jakarta Globe.