The ceiling of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue at the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, UAE (Photos: Ullekh NP)
A UGANDAN CABBIE IN Dubai suggests that the Abrahamic Family House is the newest place to visit in Abu Dhabi. “The newest” is exactly the expression he used. “It speaks a lot about how this country [United Arab Emirates] is changing and becoming more accommodative of multiple religions and plurality,” he says with a certain conviction, emphasising that he also works as a guide. He has the gift of the gab. Although I find his personality appealing, I immediately view his claims with scepticism—a synagogue and church built alongside a mosque in an Arab nation?
The concept is nothing new to me: faiths have coexisted in India, especially in my home state of Kerala, which has for many centuries earned a reputation as a place for interfaith harmony, having welcomed diverse ideas and belief systems thanks to traders who came from afar since ancient times. One of my earliest memories of childhood is, in fact, about the coexistence of faiths as though there was no other way possible. At the Martyrs Column in Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram, the most remarkable sight, an enduring memory, is that of a church, a mosque, and a temple facing each other and watching over the crowds below during the day. In Palayam, the Juma Mosque shares a common wall with the Ganapathy Temple; next to both is St Joseph’s Church.
But then certain expressions tend to stick. The Abrahamic Family House. It does generate curiosity. What is it about interfaith promotion that I will find interesting in an Islamic emirate, I wonder after initial scepticism wears away. And yet for the next few days, my family and I settle for the regular tourist destinations of the UAE’s two most famous emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
These are amazing places in different ways. If Dubai is about fast, international life, then Abu Dhabi stands for a slower, laid-back existence. Each of the seven emirates has its own peculiarities, but these two invariably stand out. What is striking about both these emirates is that they have lately been showcasing art and culture to announce to the world that their country isn’t just about oil wealth or commercial and financial hubs alone. Museums, souks, and mosques, besides the Burj Khalifa and Jumeirah Beach, are attractions in Dubai apart from numerous shopping malls catering to people from various economic categories. In Abu Dhabi, where old wealth gives the city a more leisurely pace of life and a sheen of quiet luxury, the Abrahamic Family House, the newly opened interfaith building on Saadiyat Island right across from the imposing Louvre Abu Dhabi, is drawing crowds within weeks of opening. Though the rest of the upcoming cultural district is still under construction, the House has been attracting visitors of all faiths and nationalities. People in the know tell me the majority of Jews who visit are not only from the UAE but also from Israel and faraway nations. For the House is home to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, which the UAE describes as the first purpose-built Jewish place of worship in the country in more than 100 years.
It is a big departure from the past. According to reports, many synagogues in the Gulf region and the rest of the Middle East have either gone into disuse, such as in Bahrain, or been converted into museums over the decades. Jews in the Middle East—outside of Israel and occupied areas that are claimed by Palestinians as theirs—had often hidden their religious identities and worshipped in private so as not to invite public attention.
My wife, who grew up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, tells me that in school she never heard the mention of Israel at all. A synagogue or anything to do with Judaism was hardly ever discussed. Even at home, any mention of Israel was done in whispers—as something not to be spoken about in public. Not that the government issued any edicts, but because there was a widespread perception that any mention of Israel in an Islamic country was disapproved of.
I gather that it wasn’t for no reason. The creation—and the expansion—of Israel and the wars that the country had fought with its Muslim neighbours, besides evicting people who had lived in and around Jerusalem, have been controversial projects. Many Indians tend to side with Arabs and view Israel as a military power engaged in the occupation of land once owned by Palestinians over a contentious reasoning that it was a place from where they were expelled some 2,000 years ago—which since then, they aver, was the promised land of the Semitic races, the Jews. Referring to the claim of the Jews to return to their holy land, Gandhi wrote in the Harijan weekly that he wasn’t thrilled at the settling of Jews in Palestine. He went on to explain, “The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.”
But then the tragedy of history played out before us. It was the controversial Balfour Declaration of 1917 (a public statement issued by the British government declaring its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which then fell in the Ottoman Empire, which was part of the Central Powers along with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and others fighting against the rest of the world in World War I) that set the ball rolling. The unimaginable crimes perpetrated on the Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II ended with the establishment of Israel in 1948. It was done in the name of righting a perceived wrong committed in ancient times. Anyhow, as Israel celebrates 75 years of existence this year, it has come to realise that military power has its limitations amidst protests raging within from Jews themselves.
THE HUSHED TONES in which the name Israel or anything to do with Judaism was talked about until a few decades ago even in a country like the UAE—which is known to place business interests above all else—had to do with the way Israel was created and the wars that were fought as it expanded, occupying new regions around it. Let’s face it: Israel’s behaviour in the region was destined to polarise the Middle East.
Inside, overlapping, asymmetrical display screens show vignettes of life from these three Abrahamic religions and their specific rites. The colours and sounds, with extreme precision of various religious rituals, contribute seamlessly to the beauty of viewing them
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A Jewish visitor, who said he considered himself a pilgrim to the Abrahamic Family House, told me he was from Dubai and that he used to pray inside his home and never wore his kippah (cap) while in the UAE until a few years ago: until after the Abraham Accords were signed between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, towards the end of 2020. The agreement to normalise relations was brokered by the US and signed in the White House. He told me that he is in tears every time he visits the place. The House was open to the public in March this year. “This is proof that we can overcome anger and hate. Reconciliation must begin. We cannot make peace with war. The Abrahamic Family House is a step in the right direction. Who expected an Islamic emirate to build a synagogue, especially in the face of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians?” he asked with some wonder. Palestinians, meanwhile, thought of the Abrahamic Accords as a betrayal of their cause by the Arab bloc. “The lesson is we cannot fight against each other endlessly and hope to have peace,” the short Jewish man says.
The symbolism of the Abrahamic Family House is stark and for all to see. The first time we go to visit the place, we have to return disappointed because it is houseful—the management doesn’t want crowds milling about but only a limited number of daily visitors who can walk around and absorb the beauty and quietude of the place, its finest architecture, and the exhibition area that offers a peek into resplendent art in a hi-tech setting. We return for a visit after booking online a few days later. Currently, there is no entry or tour fee for visitors, but the authorities here expect to charge a fee soon.
We are directed to the exhibition space first before we set out for our pre-booked guided tour of the three centres of worship. Inside, overlapping, asymmetrical display screens show vignettes of life from these three Abrahamic religions and their specific rites. The colours and sounds, with extreme precision of various religious rituals, contribute seamlessly to the beauty of viewing them. As you keep moving from one visual display to another, watching the happy smiles of children, families, and solemn faces of the priests, it hits you that the place is about holding a mirror to the good things that humanity has inherited as religions: the traditions, sense of community, and how they merge with modern life. The effects, videos and photographs are extremely pleasing, and the colours used mesmerising. The fusion of art and technology is, to say the least, breathtaking. These visuals say what a thousand words cannot: love is the greatest religion of all; look at the positive side and count your blessings. That is what I felt as I emerged out of the exhibition space.
Our gracious guide of Indian Sikh origin, Gagan Kaur, takes us on a tour of the St Francis of Assisi Church, Moses Ben Maimon synagogue, and the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, all of the same size. The entire monument was designed by the noted Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye and his team. Unlike older religious structures in Asia that tend to be colourful and ornate, the design is minimalist and contemporary here— straight lines and neat curves in cream-coloured structures that blend into the Arabian desert. Religion appears like a work of noble art, and symbolism is the only embellishment.
The three buildings are named after Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo; the Christian friar St Francis of Assisi; and Jewish philosopher Moses Ben Maimon. The plan to build this monument was conceived in 2019 following the signing of what became known as the Abu Dhabi Declaration (also called the Document on Human Fraternity) by Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Jewish counterpart was included later. The striking complex—where technology blends with history and meaning—was inaugurated this year.
Churches are a common sight in the UAE, and the one inside this complex has an abstract 24-karat gold-plaited figure of Jesus crucified on the cross, making it fluid enough to represent Christians of all denominations. Mass is held at noon in this church and religious congregations are expected to be more frequent as the House streamlines its daily activities.
All three structures have tall pillars alongside carrying their respective symbols—the mosque with a crescent mark, the church with a cross and the synagogue with a menorah. We remove our shoes before entering the mosque. Kaur takes pains to explain to us in detail various features in each of these places of worship: for instance, the mosque’s exterior has seven arches, indicative of the importance of the number seven in Islam. Air-conditioning is hidden—we could not spot ducts or vents even after a thorough scan—and the walls and ceilings of all three structures are designed to use natural daylight and create an ambience of holiness after dark. Indeed, the thought that has gone into the lighting, sounds, colours and materials used in these buildings is worthy of a thesis. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, deserves credit for initiating the construction of such a monument that exudes both tranquillity and serenity and promotes a deep sense of fraternity among otherwise hostile people.
Jews in the UAE have never had a permanent centre of worship prior to the making of this remarkable monument, which celebrates mutual respect, syncretism and religious harmony. Until a decade or so ago, works by Jewish people and most things associated with Judaism were banned in the UAE. Therefore, as you walk out into the heat of Abu Dhabi from the aptly titled Abrahamic Family House, what reasserts your faith in humanity is the readiness to reconnect and the kindness to people you were trained to hate. Only such gestures can lead to reciprocity and goodwill. Without a doubt, the Abrahamic Family House has a powerful message for the whole world.