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Visiting the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi
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The corners of the square plaza of the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi are surmounted by minarets from which the call to prayer is announced, and which lead the mind upward towards God in the heavens. - photo by Deseret Connect
Contemporary media are filled with relentlessly negative news from the Middle East: murders, kidnappings, bombings, suicide attacks, torture, brutal executions, missile attacks, air and drone strikes, failed leaders and states, anarchy, hundreds of thousands dead in wars, millions displaced and widespread human suffering.

Extremist Islam is often a principal factor in these catastrophes, leading many in the West to essentially give up on Islam. Unfortunately, the Middle Easts current social, ethnic, political, economic, military and religious conflicts took generations to create and will probably require generations to resolve.

Still, while the situation today is certainly grim, there are some hopeful signs of an Islamic reformation or renaissance emerging from the anarchy engulfing the region. One manifestation of such reformation is the United Arab Emirates, on the east side of the Arabian Peninsula. Although by no means a haven of western-style liberal democracy, the Emirates have emerged through a combination of vast oil wealth, moderate social policies, an intense focus on education, and wise economic plans and investments as the most wealthy, stable and progressive state in the Middle East.

Clearly Islamic in culture, the Emirates are nevertheless also major opponents of extremist Islam. Their air force has recently undertaken strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Of course, theres an undeniable element of self-interest in the Emirates support for moderate Islam; extremist movements are far more concerned with overthrowing what they view as corrupt and apostate regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates than with fighting America, which they regard as an outside enemy propping up these rulers.

The Islam thats beginning to emerge in some regions of the world is reflected in one of the most magnificent mosques of modern times, the Shaykh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2007. (Abu Dhabi is the Emirates capital and second-most populous city.) Its a modern masterpiece of Muslim architecture.

The fundamental purpose of a mosque (masjid) is to serve as a place in which one can prostrate oneself (sajada) in prayer before God. A secondary function is preaching and education. In its most simple form, a mosque is a room facing the central Muslim temple of the Kaaba at Mecca.

Beyond that, however, Muslim civilization over the past 1,400 years has developed a range of styles and means of ornamentation that have made the mosque one of the great architectural symbols of world religion.

Constructed mainly in highly polished white marble that can appear harsh in the noonday sun, the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi is subtly ornamented with a rainbow of beautifully colored semiprecious stones.

Structurally, the mosque faces almost due west toward Mecca, so the great gateway faces east. In the early morning light, one can see the marvelously intricate carved floral motifs that surround the gate, making entry into the mosque symbolic of entry into the Garden of Paradise as described in the Quran. When entering, visitors remove their shoes, just as Moses did when entering the holy place on Sinai.

The gateway leads into splendid arcades surrounding a vast open courtyard. The columns of the arcades are decorated with intricate floral motifs, recalling the trees and leaves of the garden; the corners of the square plaza are surmounted by minarets from which the call to prayer is announced, and which lead the mind upward towards God in the heavens. The vast courtyard, said to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of worshippers, is decorated with huge vines and flowers, making one feel almost like an insect walking into paradise.

The main structure of the mosque in the west has another vast ornamental gateway, through which visitors pass into a great hall surmounted by huge domes in classic eastern Islamic style. Inside, the overall floral motifs continue with added complex interlocking geometric patterns, often taking the forms of flowerlike stars of heaven, and calligraphic representations of the 99 mystical names of Allah. (The hundredth great name of Allah is a mystical secret.)

Thus, in the mosque, one passes first through the garden of paradise (or Eden), then through the heavenly temple represented by the great hall and, finally, into the presence of God, symbolized by his names engraved on the wall. The purpose of the mosque is to bring the worshipper into the divine presence via prayer, study, meditation and mystical contemplation.
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