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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - TAIPEI: The Taipei Grand Mosque sits in the center of the city’s commercial and educational hub. Its simple gray walls are witness to the modernist era in architecture, which smoothly blends with traditional Arabic and Chinese designs.
Entering inside, worshippers walk through arcades to finally reach a spacious and simple prayer room decked with carpets and chandeliers. On both sides of it, colorful light enters through stained glass windows.
Not very busy on weekdays, the hall fills with people during Friday prayers.
And just like its structure, those who gather at the Taipei Grand Mosque bring with them different cultural backgrounds as well.
Babamale Olarewaju Abdulkareem, a Nigerian scholar pursuing his doctoral research in Taipei, is one of those who will be there every Friday.
“Everybody would always come (here) to observe the jumah prayer, particularly in the congregation. Normally, I come here once in every week,” he told Arab News.
“As far as Taipei is concerned, there are very few central mosques.”
Located in the Da’an district, the Taipei Grand Mosque is Taiwan’s largest and oldest.
Completed in 1960, it was designed by Yang Cho-cheng, the renowned Chinese architect behind most of Taipei’s landmark structures.
It is one of 11 mosques in Taiwan, a state of 23 million people among whom only a few thousand profess Islam.
Yaser Cheng, chairman of the Taipei Grand Mosque Foundation, estimates that while there are only a few thousand native Muslims in Taiwan, the community has some 300,000 members, including all those who have arrived from abroad.
“According to my personal calculations, there are no more than 3,000 Taiwanese Muslims,” he said.
“The total number of Muslims in Taiwan increases because of foreign workers, some businessmen, and students from different countries.”
For Cheng, the key person behind the commissioning of the mosque was Gen. Bai Chongxi, a prominent Chinese Muslim leader who fled for Taiwan when China’s nationalist government lost the civil war of 1949.
Representing the Muslim community, which migrated from mainland China, he proposed the construction of an Islamic place of prayer of international standard as “a necessity,” Cheng said, adding that at the time of the mosque’s construction, Taiwan had good relations with many countries.
In the 1950s and 1960s, more states had formal relations with Taiwan and leaders and diplomats from the Middle East frequently visited Taipei.
While the official representation from different countries has waned since, the international character of Taiwan has not, which is most visible at its grand mosque on Friday afternoons.
“You will see (people from) more than 30 countries,” Cheng said. “You don’t see any sense of the so-called Islamophobia … Muslims enjoy liberty, full democracy in Taiwan.”
Many of them, like Afif Ismail, a student who arrived from Indonesia five years ago to obtain his doctorate in physics, feel quite comfortable as Muslims in the non-Muslim state.
Coming from a Muslim-majority country, where most shops sold only halal food, he sometimes had to spend a little bit more time to buy groceries, but that was not much of an issue.
“Finding particular halal foods may require more effort,” Ismail said. “If you compare it to Indonesia, it’s a little bit more difficult, but still relatively easy.”
But at the grand mosque, it was for him pretty much the same as at home, with the only difference being that the main languages used in sermons are Mandarin and English.
“The congregation here is diverse, from various countries,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s the same as mosques in Indonesia. All facilities are complete. The place of worship is pleasant.”
Warda, a Pakistani engineering student from Rawalpindi, was new to Taipei and in awe of how everything was so well-organized in the complex where reception and prayer halls, administrative offices, ablution rooms and a library took the space of less than 2,800 square meters.
“There are so many people, but still very organized. Everything is well-planned,” she said.
“It’s a very pleasing experience for us. We always like it, so we come here every Friday.”
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