Architecture / Interior / heritage

Cheng Hoo Mosque: An Oriental Divinity

The absence of a qubba (dome) and a minaret (tower) makes Surabaya's Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque atypical. Its distinct oriental design and history have ensconced the mosque in popularity, inspiring the construction of other Chinese-themed mosques in Indonesia.

House of Worship
Cheng hoo Mosque

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono

It’s easy to mistake the vibrantly coloured Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque for a Buddhist temple. Its main edifice is a tiered oriental tower with three eaves and upturned roofs, identical to that of a pagoda. The structure of the tower is octagonal because the Mandarin word for eight is a homonym for luck and prosperity, and to symbolise spider webs, which are said to have played a role in the Prophet Muhammad’s survival during a chase in a cave.

In the main building of the mosque, daily prayers and sermons are a regular practice. A chandelier is suspended from the oculus overhead. Chinese letters and antique patterns pepper the interior. Done by Aziz Johan, the design took inspiration from the 1st century Niu Jie mosque in Beijing. The edifice measures 11 by nine metres: Eleven to echo the measurements of the Kaaba in Mecca; nine to symbolise the Wali Songo, the nine historic saints who spread Islam in Java. The doors are reminiscent of a church’s, which are both a nod to Jesus, who evangelised the (Christian) gospel, and a symbol of the all-accepting virtue that Islam promotes.

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Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque was named after the 15th-century Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He, who was a devout Muslim. He was said to have led a fleet of around 100 ships and to have travelled across the ocean seven times, more than eight decades before Columbus. The naval explorer made history with his trade earnings and diplomatic contributions. During his frequent visits to Semarang and Surabaya, he met with local Chinese Muslims and helped develop the community. A relief depicting Zheng He and his fleet traversing the Indian Ocean adorns the right faade of the mosque.

The first of its kind in the country, Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque has become the source of inspiration for other oriental mosques in areas such as Pasuruan and Palembang. October marks 15 years since the 3,000-sqm mosque’s groundwork began on Gading Street. Considering Chinese Muslims are a minority, houses of worship like Cheng Hoo highlight the beauty in Indonesians- despite their diverse ethnic backgrounds- practicing their beliefs in unison.

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