ABOUT 15 PERCENT of Singapore’s population is Muslim. Most are Sunni. Almost all Malays here are Muslim and they belong, generally, to the “Shafi’i” tradition.
There are also Muslims among the Indians and other migrants. Muslims from some parts of the Middle East and Africa belong to the “Maliki” tradition. Most Indians and Turkish Muslims here belong to the “Hanafi” tradition; and those from Saudi Arabia belong to the “Hanbali” tradition.
Each Friday, Muslims belonging to all four traditions of the Sunni denomination as well as some Shi’ites come together to pray in the mosques.
MAJLIS UGAMA ISLAM Singapura (MUIS), or the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, was set up in 1968, when the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) came into effect.
MUIS’ mission is to broaden and deepen the Singaporean Muslim Community’s understanding and practice of Islam. It advises the President of Singapore on all matters relating to Islam in Singapore, oversees the interests of Singapore’s Muslim community, and promotes religious, social, educational, economic and cultural activities according to the principles and traditions of Islam.
The principal functions of MUIS are:
– Administration of “zakat” (almsgiving), “wakaf” (endowment), pilgrimage affairs, “halal” certification and “da’wah”(missionary) activities
– Construction and administration of mosques
– Administration of “madrasahs” (Islamic schools) and Islamic education
– Issuance of “fatwas” (religious rulings)
– Provision of financial relief to poor and needy Muslims
– Provision of developmental grants to organizations
Places of worship
Muslims worship in a mosque (“masjid” in Arabic). The primary purpose of the mosque is to serve as a place of prayer but mosques are also important to the Muslim community as a meeting place and a place of study. There are about 70 mosques in Singapore today.
Before 1968, all the mosques in Singapore were set up by the local Muslim communities themselves. When MUIS was established, it took responsibility for the building and administration of new mosques.
Although the overall supervision of post-1968 mosques comes under MUIS, there are mosques that are run by other organizations such as the Muslim Trust Fund Association.
Mosques are managed and maintained by their respective committees. These committees engage in fundraising projects and are appointed by MUIS.
Muslim workers in Singapore also contribute monthly from their CPF to the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund which has helped build new mosques in satellite towns.
In the 1980s the World Muslim League based in Saudi Arabia also contributed a significant sum of money to various mosques in Singapore through Jamiyah Singapore, the Muslim missionary society of Singapore.
Muslim men gather each Friday to pray in a mosque while Muslim women have the option to pray at home or in the mosque. If the women choose to go to a mosque, they pray in a separate wing from the men.
Some Muslim women choose not to wear a headscarf (“hijab” or “tudong”) all the time but they are required to wear it for prayer in reverence to God, just as most men also cover their heads with a prayer cap (“kopiah” or “songkok”).
Every mosque has a direction niche in one of its walls to indicate the direction of Mecca. Most mosques have elaborate domes, minarets, and prayer halls that often reflect Arabic
One of the biggest feasts Muslims celebrate is “Iid Al-Fitri” (also known as Hari Raya Puasa), which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. They start their celebration by praying in the mosque in the morning and follow on with visiting elders, relatives and friends.
On “Id Al-Adha” (Hari Raya Haji) Muslims recall the sacrifice of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. (In the Bible, Isaac was sacrificed.) To commemorate this event, Muslims sacrifice goat, sheep, cattle or camel and distribute the meat to the poor, friends and family. This feast coincides with the pilgrimage to Mecca during the second week of the 12th lunar month.
Other Islamic feasts include Muhammad’s birthday and the anniversary of the day Muslims believe Muhammad had a miraculous journey to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam adopted by some Muslims within both the Sunni and Shi’ite groups. Sufis generally believe that following the Islamic law is only the first step on the path to perfect submission. They focus on the internal or more spiritual aspects of Islam, such as perfecting one’s faith and subduing one’s own ego.
Relationship with Christianity
The teaching of Islam emphasizes respect and goodwill towards different races and religions. In the Qur’an, Christians and Jews are referred to as “ahl al-kitab” (people of the book) but, more specifically, in Arabic, the word “ahl” refers to family. True Muslims thus have a high respect for Christians and Jews.
Service to humanity is seen as service to God with no distinction between men since God makes no distinction in showing his kindness to all mankind. Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, “Be kind and God will show kindness to you.”
Of Sunnis and Shi’ites
THERE ARE TWO major denominations of Muslims – Sunni and Shi’ite. The two groups share essential beliefs but have sharp political differences. Their split arose in the early days of Islam over differences regarding Muhammad’s successors as “caliph” (leader).
One group believed that the leadership should remain within Muhammad’s family, and that leaders are spiritually, not politically, chosen. They were known as the Shiat-Ali, or “partisans of Ali”, after the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, whom they favoured as caliph. In time, they came to be known as Shi’ites.
Another group accepted the legitimacy of the caliphate of Abu Bakr, a close confidant and disciple of Muhammad. They were known as Sunnis. “Sunni” is derived from the Arab word for followers and means “followers of the prophet”.
Sunni Islam is the larger denomination comprising 85 percent of Muslims. Within the Sunni denomination are four schools – Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Every one of the four accept the validity of the others.
Sunni Islam is less centralized than Shi’ite Islam. In most countries a “mufti” (a scholar and interpreter of the law) is appointed to give advice to Muslims based on the “sharia” (Islamic law). This is useful as not all Muslims understand the Qur’an in its original Arabic and they might interpret matters differently in specific situations, leading to disputes, which a respected leader, the mufti, can offer advice on. The mufti in Singapore is Syed Isa Semait.
Large Shi’ite communities are found in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. The Shi’ites have a more centralized and hierarchical clergy than the Sunnis. All practising Shiites nominally observe the advice of an “ayatollah” (a top cleric) on Islamic law. “Ayatollah” means “sign of God”.
Generally, in most countries, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims live in harmony and pray together in the same mosques, like in Singapore. Most Muslims would agree that the current civil war between the two denominations in Iraq is a political struggle between extremists rather than a religious struggle.
Originally posted: Understanding Islam – The Singapore perspective