Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Religious tolerance is part of the fabric of the UAE

The renaming of an Abu Dhabi mosque sends important messages about the country and its residents, says Peter Hellyer
The Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Mosque in Al Mushrif has been renamed ‘Mariam, Umm Eisa’ — Arabic for ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus’. Vidhyaa / The National
The Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Mosque in Al Mushrif has been renamed ‘Mariam, Umm Eisa’ — Arabic for ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus’. Vidhyaa / The National

For many years, I have quietly enjoyed and admired the message about the UAE’s religious tolerance that is given by the proximity of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Mosque to the neighbouring churches, the long-established St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, the Anglican St Andrew’s and, in recent years, the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.

On Fridays, worshippers of one faith at one building happily park their cars outside buildings belonging to another with nary a sign of controversy, apart from the normal hassle of finding a place to park at all. While there is, one assumes, a discreet and quietly watchful presence from the forces of law and order, there are no serried ranks of uniformed and armed officialdom in place, helping one to reflect that such a scene is something rather special, and unusual, in the broader Middle East region and, indeed, in many other countries too.

The picture presented has long been one of utter normality, indicating that it’s all really rather unremarkable, within a UAE context. We’ve got used to it; it’s nothing strange. The philosophy of religious tolerance, dialogue and understanding that permeates the UAE today is not new. It goes back decades, with the first modern churches built here half a century ago. It represents a reflection of the fact, as Mohammed Mattar Al Kaabi, Chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, has noted, that the country’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed, was firmly committed to building a society “that is based on justice and brotherliness among all those living in the UAE.”

Indeed, as I have noted before, the public recognition of the significance of the 1,400 year-old Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas, as shown by the visit to it earlier this year by the Minister of State for Tolerance, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, and over 30 Christian priests of many denominations, is itself testimony to the UAE’s historical openness to a variety of faiths. That’s something, that, as a historian of the country, I value.

Like many others, though, I was surprised – and greatly pleased – by the news last week that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed had ordered that the beautiful mosque in the capital’s Al Mushrif district that carries his name should be renamed as the Mary, Mother of Jesus (Maryam Umm Issa) Mosque. There can be no better way of emphasising that both Mary and Jesus are of enormous significance to both faiths.

I’ll leave it to theologians or religious figures, much more qualified than I, to explain that. I will simply note that if the decision helps both Muslim and Christian residents of the UAE to come to understand more about what their faiths share, rather than where they differ, that’s all to the good.

The decision on the renaming of the mosque is also one that sends an important message abroad about the UAE. A quick scan of the internet indicates that the story has been widely reported, within the Arab world and far beyond.

A leading British Parliamentarian, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has commented, according to WAM, that “The renaming of the mosque is powerful evidence of the commitment of the United Arab Emirates to the principles of religious tolerance … At a time when enormous intolerance to Christianity and Christians is to be found across much of the Middle East, this decision by Sheikh Mohammed is particularly welcome.”

That belief in religious tolerance has been shown elsewhere across the UAE over the last few days, with, for example, Christian churches in Sharjah and Al Ain and the Sikh Gurdwara in Dubai hosting special iftar events for their Muslim neighbours. Events like that, too, send important messages about the country and its residents, citizens and expatriates alike.

The timing of Sheikh Mohammed’s announcement, in Ramadan, has a resonance all of its own, but the message it gives is one of lasting importance.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Updated: June 19, 2017 04:00 AM