Faisal Mosque in Islamabad: The Saudi legacy of Pakistan's largest place of worship

Worshippers tell The National about the affinity they have developed with the landmark because of its Saudi ties

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As worshippers trickle out of the historic Faisal Mosque in Islamabad after noon prayers, Sheikh Mohammed Attaurrahman’s day is about to get busier.

Besides preparing the mosque for the afternoon Asr prayers, he also has to oversee a marriage ceremony, welcome a delegation of guests from Saudi Arabia and supervise a young man studying to become a Qari – a person who recites the Quran according to the rules of recitation – who could one day take over his job.

“Being the imam and Qari of this historic mosque is not a responsibility that any sheikh can take on. You’re not just in charge of calling and leading the prayer, you’re also in charge of so many activities that are being held in this grand mosque that was built and gifted by our dear brothers from Saudi Arabia,” Sheikh Attaurrahman tells The National.

Faisal Mosque, named after Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz who gave a grant for its construction, is considered one of Pakistan’s most prominent landmarks. With four towering minarets, each 79 metres high, the mosque's main hall has an angular roof rather than the dome shape seen in traditional Islamic architecture, resembling the tents used by Arab Bedouin tribes.

“This mosque was gifted by King Faisal, may Allah have mercy on him, and Saudi Arabia,” Sheikh Attaurrahman says. "In 1969, an international competition was held in which architects from 17 countries submitted 43 proposals. The winning design was that of Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay."

Mr Dalokay, who passed away in 1991, said his design for the grand mosque came from the Holy Kaaba in Makkah.

“Imagine the apex of each of the four minarets as a scaled explosion of the four highest corners of the Kaaba – thus an unseen Kaaba form is bounded by the minarets at the four corners in a proportion of height to base," he was quoted as saying by the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.

Given that its construction was funded by Saudi Arabia, many of the Pakistanis who visit Faisal Mosque see it as a representation of their countrymen's ties with the kingdom and the wider Gulf region.

“I grew up in the 1990s in Dhahran in the Eastern Province when my family and I lived in Saudi Arabia because of my father’s job as a petroleum engineer,” Mohammed Afzal, 33, tells The National as he waits at the mosque to witness his cousin perform the Nikkah, or marriage ceremony, administered by Sheikh Attaurrahman.

“For many of us, this mosque is not just a national landmark of our country Pakistan but it’s also a mark of the Pakistani diaspora and those of our fathers’ generation who went abroad and helped build economies in the Gulf and, in turn, helped Pakistan grow as well,” Mr Afzal adds.

Covering an area of 5,000 metres near central Islamabad, Faisal Mosque is the largest mosque in Pakistan and the fifth largest in the world. Construction began in 1976 and took 10 years, with the first public prayer held on June 18, 1988. The cost of building the mosque was $45 million, of which $28 million came from the government of Saudi Arabia and $17 million from the Pakistani administration. The main hall can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, while the outdoor courtyards increase capacity to 300,000.

During the Covid pandemic, Faisal Mosque, like many across the world, introduced social distancing that drastically reduced its capacity from the hundreds of thousands who usually showed up for prayers, especially on Fridays and during Ramadan.

“I remember this year, especially during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the entire mosque would be filled to maximum capacity. I had the blessed opportunity to lead a few nights of Taraweeh prayers during that time and words cannot describe the feeling it is doing so,” Sheikh Attaurrahman recalls.

Saudi Arabia association with the Faisal Mosque has remained strong over the years. In November, Sheikh Saleh Abdullah bin Humaid, currently one of the nine imams of the Grand Mosque of Makkah, was invited to Islamabad and gave the Friday sermon. So many people showed up that mosque authorities had to turn many away.

At the end of Ramadan this year, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al Issa, the secretary general of the Makkah-based Muslim World League, delivered the Eid Al Fitr sermon there.

Saudi Arabia is home to more than 2.7 million Pakistani expats and the top source of remittances to the south Asian country. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to visit Pakistan this month, as Islamabad seeks foreign investment to address its economic challenges.

Updated: May 10, 2024, 6:16 PM