Often the most iconic and beautiful buildings in a city, mosques are a constant sight throughout one’s travels in Southeast Asia. Skylines across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are punctuated with the tall minarets and curving domes of mosques, and the mesmerizing wail of the call to prayer resounds throughout cities five times a day.
However, there's no reason to be intimidated by Southeast Asia’s mosques. Visiting them is a learning experience and may become a highlight of your trip. Additionally, mosques like Jakarta, Indonesia's Masjid Istiqlal and Kampung Kling Mosque in Malacca, Malaysia, are accustomed to foreign visitors and will typically offer the most enlightening experience.
Followers of Islam welcome tourists and the general public inside most mosques and will gladly answer your questions, but keep in mind when visiting these cultural institutions that respecting the culture is of utmost importance. As a result, it's important to know the proper etiquette for visiting a mosque in Southeast Asia before you go.
Similar to visiting Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, mosque etiquette is mostly just common sense. Follow these simple rules of etiquette when visiting mosques to ensure that you do not cause offense.
Remove Your Hat and Shoes
Hats and sunglasses should always be removed before you actually enter a mosque. Leave your shoes on the rack at the entrance. Some mosques will provide plastic covers for your feet.
Avoid making loud noises or engaging in unnecessary conversation inside of mosques. Turn off mobile phones, don't chew gum, and do not bring food or drinks inside of a mosque.
Do Not Point Feet
While sitting, avoid pointing your feet in the direction of the Qibla, the direction of Mecca. Qibla is the direction that Muslims face while praying during Ṣalāṫ and the fixed direction of the Kaaba in the Hejazi city of Mecca. Most mosques, including those found in Southeast Asia, contain a wall niche known as a miḥrâb that indicates the Qibla.
Modest dress is required. Men and women should both cover as much skin as possible; women are required to cover their heads.
Perhaps the most important rule of etiquette often ignored by tourists, both men and women are expected to be dressed appropriately before visiting a mosque. Modest dress is the rule of thumb; shirts advertising rock bands, messages, or bright colors should be avoided. Larger mosques in tourist areas will loan proper attire for covering up during your visit.
Women should have all skin covered, and ankle-length skirts or pants are required. Sleeves should reach to each wrist and the hair should be covered by a headscarf. Pants or skirts that are too revealing, clingy, or tight should not be worn.
Some mosques will provide clothing for the under-dressed, but don’t expect them to be flattering; the Kapitan Keling Mosque in Penang, for instance, will give female tourists raincoats to wear throughout the visit.
Men should wear long pants and plain shirts without messages or slogans when visiting mosques. Short-sleeved shirts are acceptable as long as the sleeves are not shorter than average. If in doubt, wear long sleeves.
Rules When Entering
Sometimes men and women use separate entrances to enter a mosque, but you'll need to look for signs to know if a specific mosque follows this rule. The typical greeting in Arabic for those entering mosques is "Assalam Allaikum" which means "peace be upon you." The correct return is "Wa alaikum-as-salam" which means "peace be upon you too." Tourists are obviously not expected to return the greeting, but doing so shows great respect.
It is a Muslim custom to enter a mosque with the right foot first and then exit with the left foot first. Additionally, members of the opposite sex should never offer to shake hands upon greeting inside a mosque.
Visiting a mosque is free, however, donations are accepted.
Followers of Islam are expected to pray five times each day, and the position of the sun determines the times. As a result, prayer times differ between regions and seasons across Southeast Asia (and the world). In general, tourists should avoid visiting a mosque during prayer times. If present during the prayers, visitors should sit quietly at the back wall without taking photos.
Photography is permitted inside of mosques, however, you should never take pictures during prayer times or of worshipers performing ablutions before the prayer.
Visiting During Ramadan
Mosques (known to followers of Islam as masjid) are generally still open to the public during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Visitors should be particularly sensitive about smoking, eating, or drinking in the proximity of mosques during the fasting month, though, as many followers of Islam will be giving up such vices during the holy holiday.
It is best to visit mosques before sundown during Ramadan to prevent disturbing locals enjoying their potluck-style iftar dinners, which are sometimes hosted inside the mosque.