IN THE EARLY days of Islam, mosques were modest affairs. The first ones had neither domes nor minarets. The Prophet Muhammad used his courtyard as a prayer hall. But Arab autocrats now see things differently. Many hope to leave a legacy in stone in keeping with their proclaimed grandeur.
Take Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s longtime president, finally ousted last year. Just as he was wheeled from office, he beat Morocco for the crown of Africa’s largest mosque with a megalith costing $1bn that spans 40 hectares. It has all the charm of a vast Chinese airport with a traffic-control tower. Given that it was built by Chinese workers, that is almost what it is, minus a few archways.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman held the record for hanging the world’s largest chandelier in his state mosque. But in 2007 the al-Nahyans of Abu Dhabi (part of the United Arab Emirates) outdid him by hanging an even bigger one in the Sheikh Zayed mosque (see picture). “A Disneylandish propaganda tool,” says Sinan Hassan, a Syrian architect.
Others are at it too. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi adorned his new capital east of Cairo not just with a mega-mosque but with the Arab world’s largest cathedral. Iran’s ayatollahs in Tehran are working on their bid for the world’s largest mosque, now half-built in cement and metal. “It’s soulless, cold and brutalist with none of the ornamentation of tradition,” says an Iranian architect. “It says we’re huge—and bigger than you.”
To be fair, grand mosque-building is a long-standing tradition. Within decades of the prophet’s death, Muslim leaders ordered up mighty religious buildings to cement and legitimise their rule. The Omayyads, a sybaritic early Muslim dynasty, built mosques like palaces, with golden mosaics and coloured cut marble. In the 15th century the Ottoman Turks began to fashion pencil-thin minarets to outdo church spires in their newly conquered Christian lands.
The worst tyrants often built the finest mosques. At least they had style. “The most beautiful face the Earth has ever turned towards the sun,” said the writer Amin Maalouf of Samarkand, a city rebuilt by the Emperor Tamerlane, also known for erecting towers of skulls. If only today’s tyrants had better taste.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Why Muslim leaders like building grand mosques”