Crowded in its courtyard were French tourists with backpacks and cameras. Its unassuming location betrays a rich history and cultural admixture that have made it mandatory on the itinerary’ of every tourist visiting our capital.
Originally established in 1853, through the contributions of Muslim tradesmen and merchants, die ‘Mosque des Arabes’as it was then known, could only accommodate two hundred people at a time. It is the second oldest mosque in Mauritius.
A growing congregation meant that by 1877, adjoining property was purchased to expand the mosque; it subsequently took cm the name Jummah Mosque. This included commercial property that was leased and rented out to finance its maintenance. “Our ancestors sacrificed a lot to ensure that the mosque is able to continue for a long time to come” affirms Nissar Ramtoola, President of the Jummah Mosque. Apart from government subsidies that every religious institution is entitled to, rents from adjoining stores ensures that the facility does not depend upon charity or individual contributions to keep itself running.
What captivates the first- time visitor is the architectural motif of the Mosque. Prom 1878 onwards, Indian artisan* worked on the edifice and woodwork. The result is a fusion of Mughal and Persian themes consistent with the dominant architectural patterns on die subcontinent at die time.
From the rooftop spires in the Mughal style to the courtyard and its pond reflecting a Persian aesthetic, the admixture is so subde that “very often the casual visitor mistakes the mosque for a temple” smiles Ishmael Mungroo, administrator of the mosque.
Services to the community
When asked what role the Mosque plays in the lives of members of the Muslim community in Mauritius, Ramtoola pointed out that apart from routine rituals such as weddings, blessing of babies, preparations for pilgrims going to Mecca and funerals, the mosque is active in disseminating moral and spiritual education.
“Our role,” Ramtoola elaborates “is to encourage the young to go for higher education, to balance education in secular subjects with spiritual development.”
Making sure that we know which restaurants and food suppliers are consistent with Islamic dietary laws (Halal) and also helping the rehabilitation of prisoners by offering spiritual advice and ensuring that they are supplied with all the means necessary to observe Islamic rituals are other services. “Naturally, any assistance and service that we provide is not restricted to Muslims but is extended to people of any faith,” Ramtoola is quick to point out.
That, however, is not what is most striking about the operation of this institution. After all, this is what just about every religious body purports to do.
“We are in the age of ICT,” was how the subject was introduced. “Since 2005, we have been streaming live videos of events at the mosque on our website. We have had 12 million hits on our website and have our very own Facebook page,” beams Ramtoola.
“Our way of contributing to a greener environment is to operate an SMS service with 12,000 registered users who receive notifications about prayer timings, ‘Halal’ foods, meanings of names, obituaries and any other queries they may have,” but not too much. “After all we don’t want to spam!” quips the president.
Hardly the stuffy old ecclesiastical lecture I was expecting as I went in. It seems that this particular facility has embraced modem technology with a vengeance.
My particular interest, however, lay in what efforts the mosque undertook to promote interfaith relations. After all, in the ethnic and religious melting pot that is our island, no religious institution can be called a responsible one, unless it makes a conscious effort to promote integration and harmony.
Promotion of interfaith dialogue
“Our role,” asserts Ramtoola “is to ensure that Muslims cohabit with others in peace and harmony.” The exchange of opinions with representatives of other faiths constantly takes place because “after all, despite the differences of faith, we all largely confront the same problems; drugs, delinquency and temptations that may lead our youth astray”.
The mosque is open to everybody, not just Muslims. That much I figured from the streams of tourists filing in and out of its wooden doors. It was interesting to learn, however, that this building in Port Louis figured on the study group of university students and the ecclesiastical tourism circuit as well.
Priests, Imams and Pundits from the Indian Ocean rim often carry out symposiums on comparative religion and emphasize the commonalities of the different faiths. “Just last week,” affirms Ramtoola “we received a mixed delegation from the United States and Reunion to hold a discussion on the commonalities of Christianity and Islam and the role of Christ in both faiths.”
The mosque also boasts a well-stocked library that adherents of the mosque, tourists and anybody that desires to do so can consult. Many of the publications of the mosque are distributed free of charge or at subsidized prices.
Needless to say, there is much in this institution that came as a surprise and contradicted my expectations. Hopefully, this hitherto undervalued historical site in Mauritius will figure more prominently in the list of places to visit for Mauritians of all faiths curious about the rich religio-cultural mosaic that is our society.