Acheen Street Mosque, priceless legacy of the Penang Muslim community

Acheen Street Mosque © Adrian Cheah

The history of the Acheen Street mosque (also known as the Malay mosque), began in 1792, which marked the arrival of its founder Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Aidid who had come from Acheh to settle in Penang. A member of the royal family of Acheh, Sumatra and descendant of a sovereign Arab family, Hussain became a hugely successful entrepreneur and one of the wealthiest merchants and landowners in Penang.

Acheen Street Mosque © Adrian Cheah

Shortly after settling on the island, Hussain used his wealth to build a self-sustaining Muslim enclave in Acheen Street comprising a community of Achehnese, Malays, Arabs and Jawi Peranakan. Within this 'periphery' could be found the aforesaid mosque, religious school, book stores, printers, pilgrim agencies, houses and offices. Way before the founding of the Pilgrims Board, Acheen Street was the place where pilgrims from near and far gathered to depart by ship to Jeddah, a city of west-central Saudi Arabia, for the annual pilgrimage or 'haj'.

Established in 1808, the Acheen Street mosque is the oldest extant mosque in Penang and one of the most statuesque in Malaysia. Its architecture incorporates and reflects the various communities of Penang – Achehnese, Anglo-Indian and Chinese. The influence of the latter is clearly seen in the pagodaesque octahedral minaret. The octadic form of the minaret is repeated in the inner and outer columns which flank the prayer aisles. Other interesting architectural features include the swallow-tailed roof, fanlights and well.

During the Acheh War of the 1870s, the Acheen Street Mosque became one of the focal points in the resistance against the Dutch, with prayers performed there for the success of the Achehnese struggle. By the late 20th century, the mosque was badly in need of extensive restoration. Realising this, the government allocated some RM2 million towards the project, which was carried out in two phases.

Dr. Ghafar Ahmad, Acheen Street Mosque Restoration Manager, described phase one as involving roof works and the mausoleum while the more extensive second phase dealt with the mosque itself, and this included the ceiling, wall, columns, doors, windows, toilets, ablution well, minaret and pulpit. Various experts were consulted prior to actual work. These included technical discussions and training in the mosque grounds between French restoration experts and the project manager, architect, engineer and contractor. The local team also met with the enclave communities, the Lebuh Acheh heritage organization and of course the Penang Islamic Council.

Acheen Street Mosque © Adrian Cheah

The Acheen Street mosque is significant in more ways than one to the history of Penang. Its conservation not only restored the mosque itself and the surrounding properties but also revived the traditional and historical lifestyle and activities which used to govern the area. The result is a breathtaking image of the mosque and its immediate environment. The Acheen Mosque restoration clinched the Restoration and Preservation Award from the Ministry of Higher Education, Saudi Arabia in 1999. The award was conferred for the first time in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Written by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved