The nation of Pakistan boasts the world’s second largest Muslim population, so it is not surprising that Islamabad, its capital, is home to one of the world’s largest mosques. The Masjid Faisal was in fact the world’s largest mosque outside of Arabia for about a decade in the late 20th century, and is still the largest mosque in the Asian Subcontinent. The Masjid Faisal’s extremely modern architectural style has been both hailed as a masterpiece by some and scourned by others, especially among northern Pakistan’s conservative traditionalists. Nevertheless it is the defining mosque, and building, of Islamabad, and a glimpse into the future of mosque contruction in the 21st century.
The history of Islamabad and the Masjid Faisal is relatively short and fairly uneventful. After Pakistan achieved independence from England and India in the late 1940s, a new capital was established at Karachi. This made sense at the time, as it had been the British capital of the region and was Pakistan’s largest commercial center. However, within a decade, it was decided that a new capital was needed; one more centralized, more modern and less connected to Pakistan’s colonial past.
In 1960 the government relocated to Islamabad, a relatively small city in north-central Pakistan. This location, close to Afghanistan, Kashmir and the great Mughal-era city of Lahore, placed the capital in much more traditionally conservative Muslim territory. As plans for the city were drawn up, it was decided that to honor its Muslim heritage, Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Muslim population at the time, would build the world’s largest mosque.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, numerous ideas and plans were considered, a design by Turkish architect Vedat Dekolay was picked for the new mosque. Vedat Dekolay was also involved in the design of the national mosque of Turkey in Ankara, the Masjid Kacotepe. The Masjid Faisal took just over ten years to build, and was completed in 1986. It was named for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who funded its construction and who was subsequently assasinated.
At the time of its completion the Masjid Faisal was the largest mosque in the world outside of Arabia. Although heavily criticized by traditionalists for its excessively modern look, there is no doubt that it became an overnight sensation with most Pakistani Muslims as national expression of their faith. Unfortunately, the completion of the Masjid Faisal sparked off a great international competition among other nations to top it. In 1993 it was surpassed by the Masjid Hassan in Morocco; it was also surpassed when expansions were made to the Masjid Istiqlal in Indonesia.
The Masjid Faisal is absolutely enormous and absolutely unique in Muslim architecture. Standing before the foothills of the Himalayas, its massive white bulk stands out against the rich green of the hills behind it. The mosque is modern in every respect, and offers virtually nothing in the way of traditional architecture, whether of the style common to the Asian Subcontinent or anyplace else. The main mosque building is a towering white structure designed to look like a Bedouin tent of sorts. It is devoid of virtually any ornamentation, and does not even have a dome.
Even the minarets are completely different. Very loosely patterned after the pencil-thin minarets that are common to mosques in Turkey, the four at the corners of the great tent look more like rockets on a launchpad preparing for a mission to space. Even the mosaics on the mosque’s interior reflect modern artistic tastes. Despite the fact that many traditionalists consider the Masjid Faisal to be a scar on the city, the mosque is at least harmonious with itself, and offers a change of pace for those who have already visited countless other traditional mosques throughout Asia. The Tomb of Muhammad Zia-Ul-Haq is located on the mosque grounds.
The Masjid Faisal occupies a huge complex on the northern edge of Islamabad. It is absolutely the most easily recognizeable landmark in the city, and because of its uniqueness one of the most easily recognized mosques in the world. It is open at any time to Muslims, but is absolutely off-limits to non-Muslims. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.tourism.gov.pk (official tourism website of Pakistan)
Although it is the capital of Pakistan, and despite its location in the nation’s far north, the most conservative region of Pakistan, Islamabad is surprisingly devoid of major Muslim sites of interest. This is due in large part to the fact that Islamabad is a very new and very thoroughly planned, with few major buildings which predate Pakistani independence. Of greatest interest perhaps is the International Islamic University, one of the largest Muslim colleges in the world.