The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a landmark of modern mosque architecture, Robert Hillenbrand, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, told a public audience at a New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Institute lecture Thursday.
Looking at the individual architectural features of the mosque, Hillenbrand spoke of the multiple elements in its design and ornament taken from across the Islamic world, which combine to make it a truly ecumenical building. He also emphasized the role of architectural devices in evoking spiritual contemplation.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque has both modern and traditional elements, paying homage to the diverse traditions of earlier Islamic architecture, while also implementing unique design features, he explained.
"It uses the past innovatively and respectfully, and the past is drawn from every area in the Arab world," he said. "It looks critically and observantly at a number of different Islamic traditions and tries to bring them into a whole."
At the same time, there are a number of design innovations which contribute to the overall spiritual nature of the mosque.
The treatment of the Qiblah wall, the wall indicating the direction of prayer facing Mecca, is one example of a unique feature of the Grand Mosque.
"Here we have the 99 beautiful names of God and they are all easily visible – this is a first in Islamic architecture," Hillenbrand said. "They are aids to religious contemplation."
Typically, he explained, representations of the 99 names of God in mosques are not all equally readable.
Other unique design elements serve both practical and spiritual functions. The towering minarets of the mosque, for example, light up at night and are used as beacons for aircraft. Minarets, whose very name in Arabic means a place of light or fire, traditionally used to have lamps with burning lights so that caravans that travelled at night could use them as beacons – a guidance that can be seen as both practical and spiritual, Hillenbrand said.
Intentional spiritual meaning is weaved in throughout the mosque's design, from the use of white, the spiritual color of Friday, to the intricate calligraphy used in inscriptions from the Quran that encourage a deeper contemplation of the inscription's meaning.
"The Grand Mosque is a multi-functional place, it is eclectic, and it's pan-Islamic," he said. "It serves not just Abu Dhabi, but the Islamic world itself."
Professor Hillenbrand's book on the mosque is scheduled to be available at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair this March.