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Influential Muslim Leaders in Penang

Penang was not lacking in influential Muslim leaders in its early history. In fact, it was recorded that there were several Malay/Muslim settlements on the island before Francis Light took over Penang in 1786.

This is actually a very good project for schoolchildren to do. By tracking family genealogy and learning about influential Muslim leaders, they can learn a lot. That is what Muhammad Danial Amni, a thirteen year-old from Taman Jelutong Secondry School, Kulim, Kedah had done regarding his great great great great grandfather. The paragon happened to be one of the most influential Muslims, second generation founders of Penang back in the 19th century.

Danial at 69, Acheen Street
Danial at his ancestor's house: No. 69, Acheen Street

Danial was assisted by his father, Bazlan. For his school project, he focused on his ancestor: Tuan Syeikh Omar Basheer, an Arab from Yemen who lived in Penang from the middle of 19th century until his death in 1881. Syeikh Omar Basheer was a Muslim scholar and a well respected member of the community at that time.

Danial prepared a total of sixteen slides with description, old pictures and also very interesting facts about this prominent leader of the Muslim community in Penang, together with a few others that had shaped Penang as it is now, in the context of the Muslim community.

The work was written in the Malay language. I have translated his work and attached some of the photos that Danial used below. Some edits were necessary and a few additional facts were added to maintain the flow of the report.

Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy
Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy

One of the influential Muslim leaders, Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy used to live at no. 69, Acheen Street, Penang in the mid nineteenth century. He was the Imam for the Acheh Mosque and a religious teacher for the local community.

He came from Yemen and was well known as a philosopher, reformer and a scholar.

He was a leader for a tasawuf group (recognized by the Saudi government). The group was Tarikat Naqshabandiah. He led it together with Syeikh Abdul Ghani.

Such was the influence of this man among the Muslim community in Penang, that during the 1867 riot, the British government had to seek his help to curb the riot. It showed the signifiance of influential Muslim leaders at that time.

Hence, on 4th August 1867,he issued a fatwa that Muslims who were involved in secret societies would be considered as infidels. Those who were involved were required to swear that they were not members of the secret societies or they had quit from such activities.

The activities were very outspread. Malays who were involved in the secret societies came from all walks of life. It was believed that around 7000 Malays went out to swear in front of him. Those who refused to swear had the bad luck of being alienated from the community.

Old picture of Acheen street
The community around Acheh Mosque in early 20th century. Notice the small can non in the middle of the picture.

Syeikh Omar Basheer had the authority to issue a letter to those who swore, thus clearing them of any allegations. A sample of the letter was available on display in the Penang Islamic Museum. The letter was included in his journal. The inscription at the exhibit stated: "Syeikh Omar personal account regarding riot in Penang in 1867"

Old picture of Acheh Mosque
An old picture of Acheh Mosque before it was restored.

The riot actually started when two Chinese secret societies (the Ghee Hin and Tua Pek Kong) were at war. At that time there were two Malay secret societies too, the Red Flag and the White Flag.

The situation went really out of hand that at one point, sepoys from other British colonies were recalled to Penang. The minaret of the Acheh mosque was also hit by a stray cannon ball which resulted in a hole which remained until today.

After his death in 1881, his son, Syeikh Zakaria Al-Basheer took over the role as the Muslim leader. Syeikh Zakaria became the first Mufti in Penang and his elder brother, Syeikh Yahya became the first Qadhi in 1888. Syeikh Omar Basheer died leaving a widow, Hajjah Saleha Yahya, with four children.

Syeikh Yahya made no. 69, Acheen Street as his office while Syeikh Zakaria made his home as the school for learning the Al-Quran in 1917.

The tomb of Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy
The tomb of Syeikh Omar
Basheer Al-Khalidy

The tomb of Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy at Ayer Itam is the largest mausoleum in Penang. The architecture is typical of Islamic civilization with a large dome measuring 35 feet high and 40 feet in diameter.

It was built in 1881 by his son Syeikh Zakaria, another one of influential Muslim leaders, with the help of architects from England and India. It cost tens of thousands of dollars. The tomb was built to commemorate his good deeds over his lifetime as an outstanding citizen of Penang and the pillar of Islam in the region.

He was indeed one of the most influential muslim leaders in Penang.

Penang Islamic Museum

Penang Islamic Museum is housed in the Syed Al-Atas Mansion. It is a restoration project in 1993 done by the State Government with the help of a famous French conservation architect, Didier Repellin. It became the headquarters of Penang Heritage Center after the building was restored. Later it was turned into a museum until now. The house was a former residence of Syed Al-Attas, also one of influential Muslim leaders in Penang.

Acheh Mosque (Malay Mosque)

The history of Acheh Mosque began when in 1792, when a prince from Acheh, Sumatra, came to Penang with his entourage. He opened up a village in an area encompassing 66000 square feet in Acheen Street. His name was Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Aidid, one of the influential Muslim leaders a nd founders of George Town. Besides the mosque and the minaret, he built a row of shop houses, trading offices and also a school teaching the Al-Quran.

Acheh Mosque after restoration
The Acheh Mosque after restoration

This was where Syeikh Omar Basheer had played his role as the leader to the community. He taught the fundamentals of Islam, teaching the Al-Quran, set up the religious school for the pilgrims to prepare them for the trip to go to Mecca. It was the first of its kind in the region.

Pilgrims to Mecca boarding the ship in Penang Ship sailing to Mecca
Pilgrims boarding the ship to Jeddah; the ship used for the journey

Acheen Street became the center of commerce. A myriad of business flourished, especially spices, clothes and jewelers. They also included restaurants, printing shops for religious books and travel agents for the journey to Jeddah. It was not surprising that the area was dubbed as the "Second Jeddah".

The pilgrims would board on a ship owned by a private British company: Mansfield & Co. Syeikh Zakaria Basheer was the guarantor of this enterprise. One of the top ticketing agencies at the time was called Jeddah Pilgrims Ticketing Agency. The agency used the address of 87, Acheen Street as its office.

Editor's note: The Basheers remained as influential Muslim leaders in Muslim affairs in Penang up to the end of the twentieth century.

Datuk Haji Syed Syeikh Fadhil Basheer, the grandson of Syed Syeikh Omar Basheer, and the son of Syeikh Zakaria Basheer, died on 4th October 1994 at the age of 95. He was partly responsible in establishing the Muslim Heritage Trail and also providing valuable facts on the history of the heritage enclave.

During his life, he was a Justice of Peace, the first Secretary of the Muslim Religious Council and the founder of Kampung Melayu in Ayer Itam.

Journey ticket by ship from Penang to Jeddah
Ticket to Jeddah

Every year during the Haj season, the area would be packed with the pilgrims and their relatives. They were waiting for their travel documents to be processed. This resulted that almost all the houses around the mosque areas being rented out.

All these stopped during the World War II and were resumed after the war in 1949. To streamline the process of sending the pilgrimage properly, the Malaysian government set up an official body (LUTH) in the early 1970's. The consequence of this was, Acheen Street lost its role as the second Jeddah.

In 1984, the Malay mosque and its surrounding area was recognized by Malaysian Museum and Antiquities department as a heritage area. It was repaired and restored accordingly. Then, it was also included in Zone 5 of Inner City George Town, part of the mosque and clan houses enclave. This designation helped George Town to be recognized as one of the World Heritage Cities by UNESCO.

More photos related to Syeikh Omar Basheer, one of Penang's influential Muslim leaders, as compiled by Danial:

Artist impression of 69, Acheen Street Water color of 69 Acheen Street
Water color paintings of no. 69, Acheen Street.

Current location of 69, Acheen Street
The bird's eye view of the location of No. 69, Acheen Street

A steamer used in the 19th century
The steamer used for transporting the pilgrims to Jeddah

Syeikh Omar Basheer's Personal Journal Letter from the Saudi government to Tariqat Naqshabandiah
Syeikh Omar Basheer's journal; Letter of Accreditation by the Saudi Government

Burial ground for Syeikh Omar Basheer Burial ground for Syeikh Zakaria Basheer
The grave of Syeikh Omar Basheer, the grave of Syeikh Zakaria Basheer
Both graves are housed in the mausoleum at Ayer Itam.

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