The Dawn of the Mega Mosque
Peter C Baker
Last Updated: May 06. 2008 11:45PM UAE / May 6. 2008 7:45PM GMT
Every morning there are a handful of tour buses lumbering around Abu Dhabi, picking guests up from hotels and shuttling them across the country from attraction to attraction.
Over the past year, they have started adding a new stop on their routes. They leave the city centre and head east, where low-rise buildings and trees still outnumber skyscrapers. It will not stay that way for long; construction is everywhere.
New Airport Road, for example, takes tourists past the future sites of several multi-acre, mixed-use luxury developments such as Rawdhat Abu Dhabi and the Bridgeway at Zayed Sports City.
Advertisements as tall as houses foretell five-star hotels, towering glass apartment buildings and plenty of fine dining and shopping. Behind the hoardings, marble domes and minarets loom. They belong to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque, and that is where the buses are heading.At the mosque, the passengers – almost entirely westerners – pile out and spend half an hour taking pictures of the mosque’s gleaming white main dome (the world’s largest), 81 smaller domes and four towering minarets, while a guide from their tour company shares basic information about the mosque’s history and architecture.
If they feel like it, they kick off their shoes and slip into the air-conditioned main prayer hall to look at and photograph the world’s biggest carpet and chandelier. Back in the car park, they snap pictures of each other with one of the world’s 10 biggest mosques (exact rankings are hard to come by) in the background. Then they leave, off to a heritage city, or the dunes, or a day in Al Ain or Dubai.
There is nothing new about large mosques. For as long as people have worshipped, they have mobilised vast resources to make their worship centres enormous and opulent. The earth is dotted with large mosques, large cathedrals, large synagogues and large temples.
Nor is there anything new about large mosques in the Gulf. Ever since the late 1940s, when Muslim nation-states started to be created out of former colonial territories, those states (particularly the oil-rich ones) have sought to proclaim their new-found independence, Islamic identity, modernity and technical prowess with the construction of monumental and extravagant mosques.
But the Zayed mosque, while certainly huge (it can hold almost 41,000 people), is more than another monumental mosque. It is a mega mosque: an emerging breed of monumental state mosques conceived and managed both as value-adding tourist attractions and as vehicles for advertising a certain notion of Islam. Its marble coating, gold fixtures, crystal chandeliers, glistening pools of water and lavish carpeting are meant to make Abu Dhabi a must-see city for world travellers. And its free official tours, offered at 10am each weekday by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), are meant to make Islam less foreign to non-Muslims.
The mega mosque-as-tour site is a recent phenomenon in the Gulf. No authoritative records on the subject exist, but it seems likely that the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat was the Gulf’s first mega mosque. When it opened in 2001, it claimed the world’s biggest carpet and chandelier, and its tours quickly became a fixture of Oman’s tourism industry, which has since tripled to more than a million tourists annually.
The Jumeirah mosque in Dubai started offering tours to non-Muslims in 1996, the same year the Sheikh Zayed mosque’s first foundation stone was laid. In recent years, the tour has drawn hundreds of visitors each week. But the Jumeirah mosque is not large or extravagant enough to be “mega”. Nor is it old enough to be “historical”. People go to Dubai to shop and party. And rather than competing with Dubai for retail dirhams, Abu Dhabi is hoping to fashion itself into a cultural capital: a city that tourists, perhaps after a few days of shopping in Dubai, will visit to take in Emirati culture and learn a thing or two about Islam (and pay for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, dune rides and so on).
The Sheikh Zayed mosque, which opened last Eid, is probably the Gulf’s second mega mosque. But several more have already been announced, and it is fair to assume that more are in the works. And while the vast majority of new mosques are small, neighbourhood-orientated establishments, neighbourhood mosques do not provide tours and are not covered by the international media for costing billions of dirhams and breaking architectural records. As a result, tourist-friendly mega mosques will soon define contemporary Islamic architecture – and, to a lesser but significant extent, contemporary Islam itself – to non-Muslim visitors to the Gulf.
Last autumn, the slightly rundown Sheikha Salama mosque in the centre of Al Ain was demolished by Aldar Properties to make way for a larger mosque designed by the renowned Islamic architect Jafar Tukan.
Tukan’s design is distinctly modern: boxy and white, with lots of plate glass. Instead of a dome, it features square, glass-faced cubes that increase in height in the direction of Mecca.
When the new Sheikha Salama mosque opens next year (during which the ADTA is hoping to draw 250,000 hotel-staying tourists to Al Ain), it will hold almost 4,000 people – far fewer than the Sheikh Zayed mosque, but an impressive amount for a truly downtown mosque. The minarets will include lifts and observation windows for looking out over Al Ain’s streets and gardens. In anticipation of increased visitor traffic, the car park is being expanded by 1,000 spaces.
In Bahrain, planning is under way for the King Hamad Grand Mosque, which will be located on a man-made island in the ocean between the northern cities of Manama and Muharraq. Details of this project are being closely guarded by the Bahraini government, which has largely prohibited Gulf House Engineering and Scott Wilson Consultancy, the two firms working on the project, from speaking to the press.
Early plans, however, suggest that the King Hamad mosque will be enormous, with a bigger site and prayer hall than even the Sheikh Zayed mosque. Visitors will cross a moat and enter the courtyard through a dramatic archway framed by curved rows of trees, and a walkway around the main prayer hall will let them take pictures of themselves with the ocean in the background.
Some of the King Hamad mosque’s specifics suggest an incipient battle for intra-Gulf bragging rights. The Sheikh Zayed mosque’s dome is 32.8 metres in diameter; the King Hamad mosque’s dome will be approximately 40 metres in diameter. The Sheikh Zayed mosque has four minaret towers, each 107 metres high; the King Hamad mosque will have four minaret towers, each 93 metres high – plus, on a special dock-like protrusion apparently constructed for this very purpose, one free-standing minaret 108 metres high. Information is not yet available regarding the King Hamad mosque’s tours, the size of its carpet or whether it has a crystal chandelier.The King Hamad mosque might, like the Sheikh Zayed mosque, take more than a decade to build. But even in 2018, the Gulf’s most curious destination mosque will still be under construction – in Kuwait. The Burj Mubarak Al Kabir, or Tower of a Thousand and One Nights, will be radically more than a mosque. This sky-puncturing tower (probably the world’s tallest) will hold seven vertical “villages” of hotels, offices, residences and leisure facilities. It will sit on a tiny island in the middle of the Madinat Al Hareer, or City of Silk, a government-funded, ultra-modern and precisely planned port city of 700,000 being built from scratch 17 miles from the Iraq border.
The Burj Mubarak Al Kabir will have three blades, and each blade will reach a different height. The bottom blade will be topped by a synagogue, the middle blade by a cathedral, and the top blade by a mosque. A centrepiece running between the blades will lead to an interdenominational chapel (and a prime view of the City of Silk, which will include galleries, museums, beaches, universities and a 45-square-kilometre wildlife sanctuary). Each worship centre will hold around 1,800 people and be designed to accommodate a steady stream of visitors.
According to Eric Kuhne, whose firm, CivicArts, is designing the entire city, the Tower is “architecture as diplomacy”. He says that a tour running through the building will stress “the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths and the Kuwaiti willingness to embrace religions and cultures”.
“It’s not enough,” Kuhne insists, “to depend on Europe or North America to resolve the conflict between these faiths. We have to come back to the homeland where these faiths evolved. This is big news. To put houses of worship atop a skyscraper is big news, so it’s going to become a destination just by doing that.”
CivicArts also drew up the plans for the ongoing renovation of the Dubai International Financial Centre, a 20.5 million-square-foot enclosed network of leisure, entertainment, residential and cultural facilities. These plans originally included a smallish mosque: a glass cube made to look as if it is being intersected diagonally by large stone sheets (“intended,” says Kuhne, “to look like pages of the Quran, with Quaranic passages engraved on the stone”). It was to be open 24 hours a day, for Muslim and non-Muslim shoppers alike. However, it has been moved to the centre of Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens, an 88-square-kilometre canal city that Kuhne planned and will be built adjacent to Dubailand (it will, accordingly, be titled Mohammed Bin Rashid Grand Mosque).
The Gulf governments commissioning mega mosques are not just looking for prestige and tourism money (though both will certainly come, and be welcomed). They are looking for new chances to present Islam to non-Muslims. Since the events of Sept 11 2001, more westerners than ever are curious about Islam and Islamic countries. And most Gulf governments increasingly want to reassure the world that Islam is a friendly, liberal and pluralistic religion. This is the purpose of a mega mosque tour.
According to Michelle Sabti, the ADTA employee who designed and oversees the Sheikh Zayed mosque tour, “the concept of having the mosque open for tours was around from the beginning.” As she sees it, the tour has a responsibility “to show how the mosque is more than another pretty building, which is all it would be without the spirit of Islam, the spirit of openness and tolerance that Sheikh Zayed wanted to demonstrate”. Sabti, an Australian convert to Islam, thinks that the tour will contribute to a new “age of awareness and conversation” between the Islamic world and the West. “The attitude of ‘there’s us and there’s them’ won’t work anymore,” she says. “Humans are prone to examine weakness and difference. This tour is about strengths, shared strengths.”
The groups that come on buses generally do not take the official tour; apparently, at 60-plus minutes, it is too long for them. But each week hundreds of other people (again, mostly white westerners) arrive at the mosque by taxi or car to receive a tour from Sabti and Ahmed Al Mehairbi, the first Emirati trained as a Sheikh Zayed mosque guide. Eventually, there will be multiple daily tours, all led by ADTA-trained Emirati guides because, as Sabti explains it, “people want to meet locals and feel the authenticity”.
One Thursday this March, a tour group gathered in the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed mosque. Some women giggled as they donned abayas. Men snapped pictures of their newly covered wives.
“You must ask questions,” joked Sabti. “There’s no such thing as a ‘too silly’ or ‘maybe offensive’ question. And we must have lots of photos. Ahmed will be offended if you don’t make him pose for photos. But you must wait until after the tour.”
Mehairbi grinned and started showing the group around the courtyard. “Each dome is topped with 24-carat gold,” he pointed out. “Good thing you can’t reach the tops.” Everyone laughed, then descended an escalator to the ablution chamber, where Mehairbi leant to pantomime washing himself. Cameras clicked, snapped and whirred.
Upstairs, outside the main prayer hall, Mehairbi took questions about the mosque’s marble and gold, Islamic polygamy and Emirati industry. “What do you do besides produce oil?” asked a fortysomething British man.
“As you can see,” answered Mehairbi, gesturing around him, “we have tourism now.”
Sabti waved everyone into the main prayer hall. After a few minutes of fiddling with shoelaces and lockers, the entire group was walking on the world’s largest carpet, with Sabti describing how it was sewed by 1,200 Iranian women working for two years.
“Jesus Christ,” remarked an American teenager. A few minutes later, Sabti was explaining cheerfully that Jesus was a Muslim prophet.
A little girl (probably nine or 10 years old) raised her hand to shyly ask why women cannot pray in the main prayer hall (on the world’s largest carpet, under the world’s largest chandelier). Mehairbi responded with a canned joke: “We pray shoulder to shoulder. Imagine there’s a woman there. I won’t think of her. But she’ll be thinking ‘Oh, Ahmed smells so nice,’ and won’t be able to pray.” Everyone but the girl chuckled, and Sabti took another question.
Later, the tour over and the call to prayer sounding, the group wandered into the car park. Workers swarmed around the unfinished, grassless site, their faces protected against the dust with scarves. Tour buses idled in the car park, picking up and dropping off visitors. Cranes and half-finished buildings soared in every direction.
Someday soon, those buildings will be finished, enabling Abu Dhabi to accommodate millions more visitors. A dozen or more buses, carrying hundreds of tourists, will pull up to the Sheikh Zayed mosque every day, and demand for tours will soar. And what will the mega mosque’s conversation with Islam sound like then?http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080506/ART/304256492