Abu Dhabi, Sharjah & Other Cities, United Arab Emirates
Once little more than a collection of small kingdoms tucked away on the western side of the Arabian Peninsula, the region now known as the United Arab Emirates has grown from a relatively unimportant mercantile enclave into a world economic powerhouse. Since the end of World War II, vast reserves of oil have made this small country into one of the world’s wealthiest; and the emirs have used much of this money to transform their kingdoms into a showcase of modern Islamic architecture and culture. From the national capital of Abu Dhabi to the economic capital of Dubai to the cultural capital of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates’ cities gleam with some of the finest modern mosques and museums in the entire Islamic world.
The region now incorporated into the United Arab Emirates has long been inhabited by local Bedouin tribes; but for all intents and purposes the UAE’s modern history began with the discovery and exploitation of the region’s oil in the mid-20th century. Vast amounts of wealth flowed into Western Arabia in the post-war years, and in the 1960s, as the European colonial empires were breaking up, seven of the nine emirates of western Arabia organized themselves into a new nation. Centered around the large cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, these emirates included Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Ras Al-Khaimah and Fujairah, but not Bahrain or Qatar.
Most of the subsequent history of the UAE largely revolves around the mindboggling economic growth that these kingdoms have enjoyed in the four decades since independence. During the latter half of the 20th century the UAE has grown from a population of tens of thousands to nearly six million, doubling between 2000 and 2009 alone! Despite this population explosion the nation’s per capita GDP is among the highest in the Muslim world. Vast sums of this money have gone not only to the construction of gleaming new cities and skyscrapers, but to a host of massive new mosques and Islamic cultural institutions as well.
Beginning in the 1990s, the seven chief cities of the emirates have vied to construct the most magnificent mosque in Western Arabia. In 2007, Abu Dhabi effectively won the unofficial rivalry with the completion of the Masjid Sheikh Zayed, the most magnificent mosque in the UAE and one of the ten largest in the world. It is unlikely that Abu Dhabi’s supremacy will be eclipsed anytime soon, but with the countless piles of money available throughout the UAE, nothing is certain.
The seven chief cities of the emirates have also been working to outdo each other culturally, founding colleges, libraries, museums, performance and sports venues by the boatload. Despite serious competition from Dubai, the emirate of Sharjah has emerged as the UAE’s cultural capital, and offers some of the finest attractions in the entire Arabian Peninsula. The most interesting by far, especially from a religious standpoint, is the recently opened Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, one of the greatest museums of its kind in the world.
The Masjid Sheikh Zayed is not only the largest mosque in the UAE, it is one of the most spectacular mosques in the Arabian Peninsula. More than any other major mosque in the world, it appears like a movie set; an idealized vision that might have been born in Hollywood in the 1940s. Built of brilliant white stone, a veritable mountain range of gleaming white domes sprouts from every inch of the main prayer building and all of the walls. Four impossible tall and slender minarets crowned with golden spires grace the corners of the courtyard. The Masjid Sheikh Zayed also holds two world’s records: one for the single largest carpet, and one for the world’s biggest chandalier.
The great gold-domed building that houses the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization can easily be mistaken for a mosque. Originally built in the 1980s, it was recently renovated and expanded to accommodate its sizeable collection of over five thousand Muslim artifacts. There are amazing exhibits on history, science, art and most importantly, religion. The Islamic Faith Gallery is a one-of-a-kind look at the Muslim religion, and includes an impressive collection of artifacts related to the Hajj as well as many old, historic and beautiful Qur’ans.
The Masjid Sheikh Zayed sprawls on the outskirts of the city center of Abu Dhabi, about 85 miles southwest of Dubai. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is, in fact, one of the few major mosques in the world that actively encourages non-Muslim visitors to take a tour. As of this writing the cost of admission was not available. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization is located in the Heritage and Arts District in the center of Sharjah, less than 10 miles northwest of Dubai. It is open daily from 8:00am-8:00pm (closes early on Fridays). The cost of admission is Dhs10.00. Web: www.visitabudhabi.ae (official tourism website of Abu Dhabi).
All seven of the emirates now boast, or will soon boast, spectacular new mosques which are the envy of the Middle East. Aside from the Masjid Sheikh Zayed, the next two best known are the Grand Mosque of Dubai and the Masjid Faisal in Sharjah. Each of the seven is now home to at least one small museum dedicated to the local history and culture, including the Dubai Museum, the Heritage Museum of Sharjah, the Ajman Museum, the Umm Al-Qaiwain Museum, the Ras Al-Khaimah Museum and the Fujairah Museum. But Sharjah is the UAEs museum city, and is home to both the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Archaeological Museum.