Sheikh Zayed Mosque: The legacy of its founder, and a symbol of modern values

Diana Galeeva

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Finding one place where people from around the world, who speak different languages and have diverse religions, can peacefully coexist with each other, is challenging. There is a prevailing stereotype that extremist ideologies are connected with Islam itself, and embedded within Muslim umma sectarian divisions, which has fueled hatred and separation.

In contrast, for almost ten years the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque has encouraged people to value the virtues of tolerance and coexistence. Millions of people around the world, in viewing the stunning patterns of Islamic Art, in appreciating its magnificence and charm, and in hearing the Ayahs of the Quran, have been convinced that Islam is a religion of peace.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is located in the heart of Abu Dhabi, was constructed as a monument to consolidate Islamic culture, and to act as a recognized center for Islamic sciences. The mosque is the third largest in the world after those in Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, with 82 domes, four minarets (each 107m tall), and an area of 22,412m2. With a diameter of 32.8 meters, the largest dome is unrivalled for size by any other mosque.

Similarly, the courtyard, which covers 17,000m2, is the largest open space at a mosque anywhere in the world. It contains 1048 columns, and is paved with a mosaic design. More than 3500 workers and 38 companies were involved in the process of creating this wonder of Islamic art.

After the first stage, linking the concrete structure and foundations, the mosque was completed with the purest types of marble in the world, of Italian and Greek origin. For the interior design, calligraphers from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Syria supervised the work of artists from around the world. In three types of Arabic calligraphy, verses from the Holy Quran are written. As well as being a favored place for prayers, the mosque has become a landmark in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

In a 2017 poll by Tripadvisor, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was ranked by travellers as the world’s second favorite landmark, out of 706 landmarks in 82 states. Placing after Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, in the ‘Top 25 Landmarks – World’ category, the Grand Mosque surpassed such well-known world landmarks as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (4th), the Taj Mahal in India (5th), and the Eiffel Tower (13th).

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque also took first place in TripAdvisor’s ‘Things to Do in Abu Dhabi’ category, with more than 20,660 reviews. The scale and beauty of this monument is equaled to that of its purpose, and with this in mind, it is perhaps more relevant to note the fact that since 2004, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has been the last resting place of its visionary founder and namesake, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

A picture taken on November 17, 2017 shows a view of the interior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi. (AFP)
A picture taken on November 17, 2017 shows a view of the interior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

The legacy of Sheikh Zayed

In his book With United Strength, HH Muhammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan explains that ‘[Sheikh Zayed’s] great ambition was to found a masjid where many thousands could congregate for Friday prayers, and he began to make plans for this building that would stand at the heart of the UAE’ (2013: 297). From the late 1980s, Sheikh Zayed developed his ideas for the architectural style of the mosque. While travelling he noticed the beautiful features of mosques around the world, and the final design in 1990s was informed by his impressions.

The architectural concepts were his own: he chose the location, approved every significant detail, and he decided that the whole building should be covered with white marble. Finally, Sheikh Zayed appointed architect Yousef Abdelky to realise the design, and oversaw the construction of the magnificent monument. His dedication to the nation, and his vision of progress, marked the building of a mosque which unites thousands of Emirates, and the Muslim community worldwide.

This vision was central to the project’s success. In 1953, while Sheikh Zayed was the Ruler’s Representative in Al Ain, he visited Paris with his elder brother Sheikh Shakhbut, who ruled Abu Dhabi between 1928 and 1966. Abdul Rahman Ziyad, in Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan: A life of Achievement, states that during this visit, Sheikh Zayed had an opportunity to view a modern city, and was fascinated by landmarks such as the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower (1982:22). He was also impressed by modern French hospitals with their crèches ‘while he knew that in that time in Abu Dhabi malnourished babies were lying in their desert cradles, in conditions virtually unchanged from about BC 2000’.

This visit changed Sheikh Zayed’s vision of nation-building, according to Abdul Rahman Ziyad, who explains that the Sheikh wondered when these ‘gifts of progress’ would arrive in his own country. Visits to other countries changed the course of Zayed’s thinking; ‘From this time on, through his regular visits to other countries and also through the medium of radio and the occasional film that found its way to Al-Ain, he became more and more convinced of the need for progress’ (ibid, 1982:22).

As a consequence of Sheikh Zayed’s efforts to realise his ambitions, the UAE has become a favourite destination for millions of tourists who have been impressed by the country’s rapid development, and leaders around the world now learn from the UAE’s experience and development. In other words, just as Sheikh Zayed was impressed in 1953 by symbolic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, so now has his creation, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, become a powerful and popular internationally recognised symbol.

For Sheikh Zayed, a sense of belonging to the nation, and a desire to build a society that benefits everyone, was as important as, if not integral to, maintaining union. In 1968, when the British declared their intention to withdraw from the Trucial States by the end of 1971, Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966, led discussions to establish a federation between the emirates. In 1971 the new state, the United Arab Emirates, was established, and the UAE today carefully preserves the tradition of union. In its unique combination of modern technologies and history, the Etihad Museum demonstrates the story of the founders of the Emirates.

Especially emotional is the pavilion Seeds of Unity, a visual showcase of the meeting between Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, where they agreed that the Sheikh Zayed would become the first President of the United Arab Emirates. The collection of quotes of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Flashes of Wisdom (2015:119), described the role of the founders, specifically Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid: ‘How does history judge Zayed and Rashid? Are they still remembered today? Of course. I personally know many a man whose eyes well up with tears at the memory of Zayed and Rashid. Such is history’s judgment’. Deeply believing that the only way to prosperity was unity, Sheikh Zayed built the foundations and values on which the modern UAE was developed.

This vision and wisdom of Sheikh Zayed included not only the unity of the nation, but union between Arabs and with other states. Abdul Rahman Ziyad (1982:32) cites Sheikh Zayed’s declaration that the ‘first priority is to unite for the sake of Islam and the Arab world, then we extend our relationship with the Third World and finally the international community of nations as a whole’.

Sheikh Zayed considered the success of one state to strongly depend on cooperation with others: ‘…the biggest job of persuasion is to make human beings all over the world create relationships with one another so that they can obtain advantages from each other. […] Any country wishing to behave in an isolated manner will not succeed in the long run’ (ibid, 1982:32).

Moreover, in the Collection of Speeches, Stances, Meetings and Instructions of H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates ‘Leadership’ since 1971 to 1987, Muhammed Khaleel Al-Siksek and Shams Al-Din Al-Doaifi (1998:258) refer to the Sheikh Zayed’s explanation of the importance of coexistence and friendship between different parts of the world: ‘The east is working together with the west and the west is working together with the east. Both of them are far away (geographically) from each other… Between them lie terrains and distance… Nevertheless, friendship between them has been established’. The values on which Sheikh Zayed built policies were coexistence and tolerance, and these values are connected with another explanation of the reasons for building the Mosque. The custodians of the Mosque have defined at some length the purpose and symbolic significance of the construction:

The late Sheikh Zayed aimed to establish a historic Mosque, personifying the Islamic message of peace, tolerance and diversity. He intended to turn the Grand Mosque into a living reference in modern Islamic architecture linking the past with the present in a harmonious melody. The Mosque is the fruit of Sheikh Zayed’s unique vision. The father of the UAE has created an Islamic monument, a center for Islamic sciences and an emblem of genuine Islamic values, in order to illuminate the horizons of Islamic thought rooted in tolerance, love and peace.

Global unity and tolerance, coexistence and friendship are other key values of Sheikh Zayed’s legacy; and the mosque helps to preserve and promote these founder’s values by hosting millions from both the west and east.

The wisdom and legacy of Sheikh Zayed is preserved by the UAE leadership and every Emirati citizen. Sheikh Zayed declared the importance of learning from the past to live a better future, and the Emirates today follows this path, using its experience to make progress while avoiding the mistakes of previous generations (Al-Siksek and Al-Doaifi, 1998:96). The UAE has declared 2018 as ‘Sheikh Zayed Year’, to commemorate the 100th birthday of their late founding father.

The President of the UAE, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed states: ‘ The Year of Zayed is great national occasion when we will proudly share memories of the life of the founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and his gift to us of deeply-rooted values, principles and traditions that have become part of our Emirati identity.’ In addition, HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed highlights that Sheikh Zayed applied a unique system of noble values and morals that transformed the conscience of the UAE people, establishing a positive image of the UAE worldwide.

‘The UAE’s image is founded on a core belief system of tolerance and coexistence’. He also added that ‘The late Sheikh Zayed established a global school of tolerance and coexistence because he knew that from the Union’s beginnings, the UAE’s uniqueness lay in its ability to welcome different races, religions, and cultures without abandoning its social and cultural identity. The principles in which the late ruler believed, and strived for, were aimed at creating a world of coexistence and peace’.

In fulfilling the vision of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE leadership has not only preserved Sheikh Zayed’s legacy, but found a niche in international politics of building internal and foreign policies on principles of tolerance and coexistence. The greatest legacies of Sheikh Zayed, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, help to make the UAE a leader in promoting these principles.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip stand next to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed during their visit at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi November 24, 2010. (Reuters)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip stand next to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed during their visit at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi November 24, 2010. (Reuters)

Place-branding and soft power

Along with its importance for the UAE as the main masjid, uniting Emiratis and Muslims for prayers, and as the legacy left by the founder of the nation, the Mosque also serves as a political tool for the UAE, via place-branding and soft power. These two concepts are widely used in academia, especially in the context of GCC strategies, but the difference between them is rarely explained.

Soft power was defined by Joseph Nye (2004) as a state’s ability to achieve political influence without resorting to the use of force or financial clout. Meanwhile, place-branding, according to Peter van Ham (2008:1-2), is an attempt to ‘use strategies developed in the commercial sector to manage, if not necessarily wield, the soft power of a geographical location’. Place-branding is a part of soft power focussed on concepts like norms, values, and rules in global politics.

Thus, place-branding is not only about ‘selling’ products, ideas or services, and gaining attention, it is about reputation and identity. While soft power is a tool of influence and control, place-branding is an essential component of forming an identity on the international stage. The area which is now the UAE has along history of place branding, and this strategy has proven to be extremely beneficial, attracting tourists and establishing the identity of the country worldwide.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque plays a significant role in identifying the UAE with magnificence and modernity, suggesting an Arab fairy tale brought into reality, and for these reasons it attracts tourists from around the world. Last year, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque hosted 5,209,801. Moreover, above-mentioned facts that the Mosque the second year became the world’s second favorite landmark and the published online posts about the Mosque describe it as ‘stunning – a modern wonder’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘beautiful’ reveal how the Mosque plays an important role in place building.

Successful place-building means achieving greater influence through soft power. While many states aspire to this, often, the idea remains an ambition alone. The creation of soft power is difficult, and not all states have succeeded in it. The UAE, however, recognized that the successful implementation of soft power depends on isolating and exhibiting its uniqueness in order to attract others. The successful and strategic use of soft power by the USA during the Cold War provides a clear example, resulting in the collapse of the USSR and a unipolar world dominated by American influence. Because soft power incorporates political values, cultures and foreign policies, ideology serves a crucial role in implementing soft power. Militarily and economically the USSR could not be defeated, so American soft power worked to erode the ideological identity of the USSR.

The USA’s famous universities and education system, an element of culture and therefore soft power, helped them to achieve this. Nye explains that Aleksandr Yakovlev, a member of the Politburo, became one of the main liberalizing influences on Mikhail Gorbachev, having studied at the Columbia political school in 1958 under David Truman. Oleg Kalugin, a high-ranked KGB official stated that ‘Exchanges [in education] were a Trojan Horse for the Soviet Union.

They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system’ (Nye, 2004: 46). In other words, instead of working on improving communist ideology and appealing to other governments, which served as one of the main identifiers/political niches of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s government started to adopt American values. For example, in 1987 Gorbachev introduced the slogan ‘Demokratizatsiya’ (Democratization), and introduced ‘democratic’ elements into Soviet Communist ideology, including a set of reforms such as glasnost, uskoreniye, and perestroika.

In addition, the propagation of the myth of the ‘American dream’ encouraged people around the world to believe that the USA was the best place to live and achieve their ambitions, and for the leadership of other states, it was an example of a democratic government that symbolised prosperity.

As Nye (2004:17) puts it, much American soft power has been created by Harvard, Microsoft, Hollywood, and Michael Jordan; all of them American icons with global recognition, a combination which helps to win the ‘heart and minds’ of the international community. After the collapse of the USSR, the USA was welcomed as the world’s hegemon, and it achieved this by finding its uniqueness and using it to attract others.

The UAE similarly found its niche in international politics by suggesting a new world order based on the values of tolerance and coexistence. In a speech at the UN Assembly in September 2016, HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan highlighted that the UAE’s efforts to restore stability in the region were through promoting tolerance, compassion and inclusion: ‘My country works with regional and international partners to put in place mechanisms which remind our youth of our shared human values and counter the rhetoric of the terrorists. [ … ] We have learned from experience that we must expose extremist and terrorist rhetoric and defeat it intellectually, and provide an alternative narrative based on the principles of peaceful coexistence and tolerance’.

In order to make people around the world feel welcome and comfortable in their home, regardless of their nationalities or faiths, the UAE promotes these on an international scale. As a symbol of the state and its values, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque strengthens this process in the same way that Microsoft, Harvard and Hollywood did for the USA. One example is that when visiting the Mosque, people view the stunning architecture without questioning the need to wear veils, abayas or other aspects of Muslim tradition that are considered appropriate when visiting a mosque.

In doing so, these visitors become acclimatized to the idea that veils or other Muslim clothing requirements are part of the culture and religion, not a sign of extremist ideology, and take this idea back to their own country. While the coexistence of different religions is possible under one roof at the Mosque, it is also possible in the international arena, as Sheikh Zayed’s legacy shows us.

For every state, only time can measure the success and tactical accuracy of the founders’ vision. Considering Sheikh Zayed’s legacy, the rapid and dynamic development of the UAE today is undoubtedly an indication that the state was fortunate to have such a leader of the nation, whose vision in the past brought success in the present. His wisdom and his values of union, tolerance and coexistence with others extended to the international arena, just as the modern UAE leadership approach promotes such principles internally and internationally.

Meanwhile, the Mosque, part of the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, preserves in itself all of his values. The value of learning from history is expressed in the mosque, as its design draws on the best mosque architecture from around the world. The value of constant progress and development is reflected in the fact that despite preserving the traditions of the past, it is a modern building that has impressed millions with its beauty, using the patterns of modern Islamic art.

The values of union and tolerance are literally and symbolically demonstrated by the mosque which, by opening its doors to those of all nations, languages and faiths, unites the world. Moreover, as the mosque’s founder played a key political role in his nation as the first President of the UAE, the mosque also serves a political purpose: it is the state’s best example of place branding and soft power, promoting domestic and foreign policies based on tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, political islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010). Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter university in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk and @diana_galeeva.

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