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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

The reconstruction of the Al Nuri mosque reclaims a rich and humane legacy

First usurped and then destroyed by ISIS, this extraordinary building has always stood for diversity and tolerance

The Great Mosque of Al Nuri in the old city of Mosul was destroyed by ISIS but is now under restoration, funded by the UAE. AFP
The Great Mosque of Al Nuri in the old city of Mosul was destroyed by ISIS but is now under restoration, funded by the UAE. AFP

The recent announcement that the UAE will undertake the reconstruction of the Great Nuri Mosque in Mosul, destroyed by ISIS in July 2017, represents the quiet victory of moderation over extremism. The mosque was built by one of the most important figures of Islamic history, Nur Al Din Zangi, who led the fight against the Crusaders and Shiite Fatimids in the 12th century.

ISIS had previously attempted to lay claim to this legacy, of Nur Al Din the mujahid or holy warrior, when its leader gave a speech at the Nuri Mosque in July 2014. Yet Nur Al Din was no extremist. Rather, he was a notable exponent of moderation, known as iqtisad or qasd in Arabic, a concept deeply embedded in classical Islamic civilisation.

“Know that moderation in the things of this world brings one increased power and preserves one from sinfulness. There is nothing more excellent than moderation as a protection for yourself and your intimates, or as a force to improve and put right your affairs. So adopt it as a rule of life, and let yourself be guided by it.”

This quote comes from the Book of Baghdad by the ninth-century writer Ibn Taifur, written during the golden age of Islam, when Baghdad was known far and wide as one of the largest and most splendid cities in the world. An example of the ancient Middle Eastern tradition of “wisdom literature”, it epitomises the urbane and civilised culture that Nur Al Din fought to uphold.

Nur Al Din was born into an age when the fortunes of Islamic civilisation were at a low ebb. Islam was split between two rival caliphates, the Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad and the Shiite Fatimids in Cairo, while such violent extremist groups as the Hashashin − from whence the English word “assassin” is derived − terrorised moderate Muslims. Worse still, militant Christian extremists from Europe had seized Jerusalem in a frenzy of atrocity and massacre, as the weakened and divided Muslims stood by powerlessly.

Nur Al Din made it his life’s work to restore the spiritual unity of Islam, to secure the Middle East from foreign invasion, and to preserve classical Islamic civilisation from ignorance and extremism.

Work on the Great Nuri Mosque in Mosul began in 1171, the same year he ordered his protege, the celebrated Saladin, to formally dissolve the Shiite Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Nur Al Din was determined that there should be just one caliph around whom the Muslims could unite. The mosque was built, in part, as a celebration of that victory.

And yet he was magnanimous in victory. Among the inscriptions he included in the Nuri Mosque, we read “Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Uthman, Ali, Umar, Hassan, Hussein, may God be pleased with them all!” This formula includes the names of the first four Sunni caliphs and first two Shiite imams, an attempt to reach out to the moderate Shia and unite the Muslims under his leadership.

He categorically was not a Sunni extremist. As the 13th-century Iraqi historian Ibn Al Athir reminds us, Nur Al Din “had a good knowledge of Muslim law (fiqh) of the Hanafite school but he was not a fanatic.” The Hanafite school was widely regarded as the most tolerant and liberal of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

Nur Al Din had a great respect for the Sufi mystics of Islam, a group repeatedly targeted by Islamist terrorists today. He built Sufi monasteries in every town and provided them with a state salary. He even entrusted supervision of the construction of the Nuri Mosque to a pious old Sufi, saying, “If I were to assign this job to a soldier or scribe, I know that he would oppress some of the time, and a mosque cannot be founded on oppression.”

Even his Crusader enemies admired him. Nur Al Din smashed the Second Crusade and subsequently laid siege to Jerusalem. When news reached him of the untimely death of King Baldwin III, however, he lifted the siege and respectfully allowed the Franks time to mourn. This noble act won him the praise of the Crusader historian William of Tyre, who called him “a just prince, valiant and wise”.

Nur Al Din believed that justice and not terror was the foundation of the state. In his royal titles − political and social policy statements − he declared himself to be the Just King, the Protector of the Oppressed against the Oppressor. Ibn Al Athir records that “he set up Houses of Justice throughout his realm, and with his qadi (judge) sat to administer justice to the oppressed, Jew or Muslim, at the expense of the oppressor, even if it were his own son or his chief amir”.

His concern for social justice may be read into the dozens of mosques, baths, schools and hospitals he built in Syria and Iraq. His architectural legacy is one of the most impressive in the Middle East, not only for the great quantity and high quality of his monuments, but for the humane vision they served. The Nuri Hospital in Damascus, for example, included the treatment of mental health issues, using musical therapies far in advance of anything in Europe at that time.

In the words of a near-contemporary Arab historian, Nur Al Din “built congregational mosques in all regions, of which his mosque in Mosul is the ultimate in beauty and excellence”. This, then, is what the UAE has undertaken to reconstruct in Mosul: not just a historic mosque, but the legacy of moderation, social justice and humanity it embodies.

Dr Timothy Power is an archaeologist and historian focusing on Arabia and the Islamic world and an associate professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. His book A History of the Emirati People is due to be published in 2020