Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia's Capital Houses Southeast Asia's Largest Mosque

Istiqlal Mosque Interior
Istiqlal Mosque Interior.

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Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia, befitting its location in the largest Muslim country in the world (in terms of population).

The mosque was constructed to conform to then-President Sukarno's grand vision of a strong, multi-faith state with the government at its center: Istiqlal Mosque stands across the street from the Catholic Jakarta Cathedral, and both places of worship stand next to Merdeka Square, home to Monas (Independence Monument) which towers over them both.

Istiqlal Mosque's Massive Scale

Visitors to Istiqlal Mosque will be awed by the sheer scale of the mosque. The mosque covers a nine-hectare area; the structure has five levels, with a massive prayer hall at the center topped off by a large dome supported by twelve pillars.

The main structure is flanked with plazas on the south and east sides that can hold more worshippers. The mosque is clad in over a hundred thousand square yards of marble sheathing brought from the Tulungagung regency in East Java.

Surprisingly (given its location in a tropical country) the Istiqlal mosque remains cool even in midday; the building's high ceilings, wide-open hallways, and open courtyards effectively dissipate the heat in the building.

A study was done to measure the heat inside the mosque—"During the Friday praying time with full occupancy in the praying hall," the study concludes, "thermal condition inside was still within the comfort zone of slightly warm."

Istiqlal Mosque from courtyard
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Istiqlal Mosque's Prayer Hall & Other Parts

Worshippers must remove their shoes and wash at the ablution area before entering the prayer hall. There are several ablution areas on the ground floor, equipped with special plumbing that allows over 600 worshippers to wash at the same time.

The prayer hall in the main building is positively cavernous—non-Muslim visitors may observe it from one of the upper floors. The floor area is estimated to be over 6,000 square yards. The floor itself is sheathed with a red carpet donated by Saudi Arabia.

The main hall can accommodate 16,000 worshippers. The five floors surrounding the prayer hall can accommodate 60,000 more. When the mosque is not filled to capacity, the upper floors serve as classroom areas for religious instruction, or as rest areas for visiting pilgrims.

The dome rests directly above the main prayer hall, supported by twelve concrete-and-steel pillars. The dome is 140 feet in diameter, and estimated to be about 86 tons in weight; its interior is sheathed in stainless steel, and its rim is trimmed with verses from the Koran, executed in graceful Arab calligraphy.

The courtyards on the south and east sides of the mosque have a total area of about 35,000 square yards and provide additional space for about 40,000 more worshippers, a valuable space particularly during the high-traffic days of Ramadan.

The mosque's minaret is visible from the courtyards, with the National Monument, or Monas, complementing it in the distance. This pointed spire almost 300 feet high, towering over the courtyards and dotted with speakers to better broadcast the muezzin's call to prayer.

Women praying at Istiqlal Mosque
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Istiqlal Mosque's Social Functions

The mosque is far from being simply a place to pray in. Istiqlal Mosque also hosts a number of institutions that provide social services to poor Indonesians and serves as a home-away-from-home to visiting pilgrims during the season of Ramadan.

Istiqlal Mosque is a popular destination for pilgrims fulfilling the tradition called i'tikaf - a kind of vigil where one prays, listens to sermons, and recites the Koran. During this time, Istiqlal Mosque serves upwards of 3,500 meals every night to worshippers who break their fast in the mosque. Another 1,000 meals are served before dawn during the final ten days of Ramadan, the climax of the fasting season that brings the numbers of worshippers in Istiqlal to its yearly peak.

The pilgrims sleep in the hallways when not praying; their numbers swell to about 3,000 in the few days before Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

On ordinary days, the terraces and the area surrounding the mosque play host to bazaars, conferences, and other events.

Istiqlal Mosque
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History of Istiqlal Mosque

Then-President Sukarno ordered the construction of Istiqlal Mosque, inspired by his first Minister of Religious Affairs Wahid Hasyim. Sukarno chose the site of an old Dutch fort near the city center. Its location next to an existing Christian church was a happy accident; Sukarno wished to show the world that religions could co-exist harmoniously in his new country.

The mosque's designer was not Muslim, but a Christian—Frederick Silaban, an architect from Sumatra who had no experience designing mosques before, but who nonetheless won a competition held to decide the mosque's design. Silaban's design, while beautiful, has been criticized for not reflecting Indonesia's rich design traditions.

Construction took place between 1961 and 1967, but the mosque was only officially opened after Sukarno's overthrow. His successor as President of Indonesia, Suharto, opened the mosque's doors in 1978.

The mosque has not been spared from sectarian violence; in 1999, a bomb exploded in Istiqlal Mosque's basement, injuring three. The bombing was blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah rebels and provoked retribution from some communities who attacked Christian churches in return.

Getting to Istiqlal Mosque

The main entrance to Istiqlal Mosque is across the street from the Cathedral, on Jalan Kathedral. Taxis are easy to come by in Jakarta, and are the most practical way for tourists to travel in the city—choose the blue taxis to take you from your hotel to the mosque and back.

Once you enter, check with the visitors' center just inside the entrance; the administration will be happy to provide a tour guide to escort you through the building. Non-Muslims are not permitted inside the main prayer hall, but you will be taken upstairs to roam through the upper hallways and the terraces flanking the main building.