Sheikh Zayed Great Mosque in Abu Dhabi: Islamic Architecture in the 21st Century

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 10th April 2008

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A splendid mosque was erected recently at Abu Dhabi. Named after the late Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan, the Mosque was opened at the end of 2007 to emerge as one of the ten major mosques of Islam with a total capacity of 40,000 worshippers. It proved to be a gigantic project which took twelve years to complete, and has already achieved three entries into the Guinness Book of World Records with the largest carpet, the biggest chandelier as well as the largest dome of its kind in the world. Bringing classical Islamic architecture to a summit of refinement, and providing all the contemporary commodities, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is an outstanding example of Islamic architecture in the 21st century.

By Rabah Saoud*


Since its creation in 1971, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has carefully invested in development and progress. It has invented itself as an important centre for international investment and job markets. With oil prices reaching record levels in the last few years, the Emirates saw a huge economic boom which instigated considerable building activity. The leader of this radical change was the late Sheikh Zayed Ben Sultan al-Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, who wanted to celebrate his achievements with the erection of a splendid mosque at the capital city of Abu Dhabi. Named after him, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was opened in December 2007 to emerge as one of the ten major mosques of Islam with a total capacity of 40,000 worshippers. The mosque proved to be a gigantic project which took twelve years to complete at an estimated cost of 2.167 billion UAE dirhams. It has achieved three entries into the Guinness Book of World Records with the largest carpet, the biggest chandelier as well as the largest dome of its kind in the world [1]. This comes after the launch of Saadiyat cultural district which contains branches of Sorbonne University, The Louvre, and Guggenheim Museum, projects which will make from Abu Dhabi a cultural hub in the region.

Architecture and Design

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Figure 1: General view of the mosque.

The mosque was built on a platform nine meters above ground level at the main entrance of Abu Dhabi [2]. The general plan is a classical hypostile originally modelled from Moroccan mosques, combined with domed Ottoman mosque architecture (figure 1). It consists of a large prayer hall, two small prayer rooms, one for daily prayers and another for female worshippers. The halls open into a large courtyard surrounded by arcaded galleries made of pointed horse-shoe North African arches raised on double columns. The total building area exceeds 22,412 m², about the size of five football fields, built in two phases. The first stage consisted of building a reinforced concrete shell of the mosque then followed by another phase which included marble cladding for the whole structure, inlaid decoration and carvings as well as landscaping works.

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Figure 2: Marble mihrab or niche made of a narrow niche decorated in gold-glass mosaic while calligraphy work incorporating the ninety nine names (attributes) of Allah inlaid in carefully elaborated scheme of floral and vegetal motifs.

The prayer hall extends over an area of 55 m x 50 m with a capacity of 7,000 worshippers. The Qibla wall (which represents the direction of prayer towards Mecca) lies in the western side adorned with ninety nine names (attributes) of Allah in kufic script, which are carefully distributed around the wall surface. The calligraphy work is laid out in an elaborated scheme of floral and vegetal motifs, finely back-illuminated with fibre-optic lighting. At the centre of the wall a marble mihrab (or niche where the Imam leads the prayer) made of a narrow niche decorated in gold-glass mosaic symbolising the shining light of Islam coming from Mecca (figure 2). The size, design and decoration of the prayer hall create an atmosphere of peace and calmness essential for worshippers.

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Figure 3: The roof of the prayer hall is dominated by three giant egg shaped domes.

The roof is 33 m high made of a series of small egg shaped cupolas arranged around three central domes, eight for each dome (figure 3). There are eighty two domes crowning the roof of the mosque including the galleries around the courtyard. The largest dome, however, is found in the prayer hall, in front of the mihrab, the focal point of the whole mosque. The outer shell of the dome is 32.8m in diameter and 85 m high (from outside), features which make it the largest of its kind in the world. The dome carries the largest chandelier in the world made of thousands of German Swarovski crystals arranged in 24 carat gold plated stainless steel frame of between 10 meter diameter and 15 meter height and costing over 30-million dirhams [3]. Above the chandelier gypsum friezes of arabesque designs and calligraphic bands incorporating verses from the Quran adorn the interior of the dome.

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Figure 4: The eight pointed star plan of the central space of the prayer hall.

The genius of the architect reaches climax in the design scheme he provided for the central space around the mihrab area, which received a particular attention. The space is designed in the shape of an eight-pointed star defined by the regular eight sides polygon of the dome and the eight pillars carrying it (figure 4). Some people refer to it as being a symbol the Divine Throne which is transported by eight angels [4]. This focal point has particular sanctity in Islam; it holds the mihrab, the indicator of qibla, the minbar (or pulpit from which the Friday sermon is delivered), and it marks the location of the imam who leads the prayers. Indeed if one raises his gazes to the giant dome he would observe a huge eight pointed crown which covers the entire area, raised on eight robust pillars, each one being made of four marble columns carrying huge pointed horseshoe arches. Above them smaller arches were intersected in the Cordoban manner, transforming the polygon into a circle carrying the dome (figure 5). Two other smaller domes of beautiful but simpler design accompany the main dome. A total of ninety six columns and twenty four arches are used, transforming the prayer hall into a peaceful forest of robust pillars (figure 6). The columns are decorated with semi precious stones such as dark lapis lazuli, white mother of pearl and fancy jasper, a scheme which is repeated in columns of the courtyard galleries and all columns of the mosque using over 20,000 hand made panels of these stones [5].

Figure 5: The Cordoban style consists of the use of intersecting arches to transform the polygon into a circle carrying the dome.

Figure 6: Prayer hall looking like a forest of robust pillars.

The floor of the prayer hall is covered with one of the largest carpets ever made. It was designed by the distinguished Iranian artist Ali Qaliqi, who based his pattern on three giant medallions fitted under the three domes, with the largest being at the centre corresponding to the central giant dome and having a diameter of 20 m. The carpet has a total area of 7,119 m², made from a total of 2,268,000 knots, weighing about 47 tonnes – 35 tonnes of wool, and 12 tonnes of cotton. It is unique in its designs and colours which are said to exceed twenty five colours. The carpet was originally manufactured into pieces hand-woven by a selection of fine Iranian artisans, totalling 1,200 weavers, 20 technicians and 30 workers. The pieces were later knitted together by artisans who were flown over form Iran for this specific task [6].

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Figure 7: The galleries around the courtyard made of succession of pointed horseshoe arches raised on double columns.

The courtyard or sahn of the mosque extends beyond the prayer hall over an area of about 17,000 m² capable of accommodating up to 30,000 worshippers. Two aisled arcades surround the court, carried by some 1048 columns arranged in pairs carrying the roof which contains some 34 small domes (figure 7). The columns are made of concrete but covered with white marble cladding which is decorated with precious stones in the shape of floral and vegetal motifs and topped with capitals carved into palm trees with golden plated finish. The mosque has four corner minarets, 107 m high incorporating a complex design scheme; starting with a square plan, changing to octagonal and finishing in a circular form (figure 8).

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Figure 8: The 107 m high minaret showing the three sections: square base, octagonal centre and circular top.

The works are still underway for the final touches to complete the ablution area and a series of reflective water ponds and lakes which will cover an area of about 7874 m² surrounding the mosque. Ali Al Hosani, Promotions Director of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority commented on the potentialities of the mosque: “The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque will become one of the landmarks not only of Abu Dhabi but of the whole of the UAE. As well as becoming an important place of worship, the mosque is extremely valuable as an attraction for visitors to the emirate [7].”

Appendix: Diaporama of pictures from the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Further resources

End Notes

[1] Abu Dhabi Chronicle (13 February 2008), Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque achieves three entries in Guinness Book.

[2] The mosque is located between Mussafah bridge and Maqta bridge in the emirate of Abu Dhabi: click here for the route map.

[3] Abu Dhabi Chronicle (13 February 2008), Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque…, op.cit..

[4] The Holy Quran, Sura 69, Aya 17.

[5] See Sheikh Zaid Mosque Allows Guided Tours for non Muslim Visitors.

[6] Arafah Adel, “Sheikh Zayed Mosque to open in Ramadan“, Al-Khaleej Times, 10 August 2007; Abu Dhabi Chronicle (13 February 2008), Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque achieves three entries in Guinness Book.

[7] Ibid.

* Consultant at Muslim Heritage Consulting (MHC), Dubai.

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