“Since God bestows His graces on us, providing us with wealth, it is our role to use this wealth for the benefit and prosperity of our people, as an expression of gratitude to our Lord.”
Thus summarised the Founding President Sheikh Zayed’s Muslim commitment to humankind. He was a man of patient determination, committed to equitable progress for all.
He is well remembered as the great unifier who inherited a collection of undeveloped emirates and turned them into a modern economic powerhouse, with a crucial role on the global stage.
However, so too is he remembered as “the humanitarian leader”, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, called him.
During his tenure as the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi, he personally funded the emirate’s first modern school and made local water ownership rights fairer. The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, which he established before the United Arab Emirates came into being, has provided Dh35 billion in loans, grants and investments, across 59 countries.
From the start, Sheikh Zayed had a vision of world peace, harbouring a Muslim duty to care, not only for his own citizens but also for the sons and daughters of less fortunate countries.
Dr Farouk Hamada, the prominent Islamic scholar and adviser to the Crown Prince Court Abu Dhabi, says Sheikh Zayed was especially passionate about the Quranic verse that reads: “We have honoured the children of Adam.”
With this in mind, Dr Hamada says, Sheikh Zayed was determined to help anyone who needed it, be they individuals, countries or heads of state.
“If he made a promise or covenant, he never breached or missed the covenant, when he promised states or some organisations, he met his promise even if he had to scrounge sometimes,” Dr Hamada says.
In 1983, Sheikh Zayed oversaw the establishment of the UAE’s Red Crescent Authority, which has delivered emergency response and implemented health programmes in more than 100 countries. The UAE was the only Muslim country to assist in Nato’s Kosovo peacekeeping mission in 1998.
Former United States president Jimmy Carter said Sheikh Zayed “never sought credit or approval for his diplomatic efforts” and “yet he was tireless, even in the face of belligerence and bad faith among those he was trying to help”.
However, while Sheikh Zayed was gracious in his appreciation of the country’s prosperity, he also recognised the true source of wealth as what “lies in men”.
He maintained that women, like men, had “the right to work everywhere” and deserved “the right to occupy high positions according to their capabilities and qualifications”.
Again, he said it was Islam that gave women their “rightful status” and encouraged them “to work in all sectors, as long as they are afforded the appropriate respect”.
Today, 95 per cent of girls who complete secondary education enrol in higher education – 15 per cent higher than the statistic for boys – and women play significant roles in all aspects of society.
The “grace of wealth bestowed upon us by the Almighty”, Sheikh Zayed believed, was best enjoyed when shared with “our friends and brethren around the world”.
He said there was “no true benefit for us from the wealth that we have unless it does not also reach those in need, wherever they may be and regardless of their nationality or beliefs”.
Zaki Nusseibeh, Sheikh Zayed’s chief interpreter and adviser, describes the Founding President as a “deeply religious person” who had a clear understanding of the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed’s traditions. “At the same time, he was a deep humanist and believed the human race was born as one family, destined by The Almighty to work together for the well-being and prosperity of mankind.”
One area in which he was determined to implement the Islamic principles of justice and fairness was in the judicial system, Mr Nusseibeh recalls, especially as the country’s legal system was developing. “He said we are all equal as human beings, so all individuals have to be treated as equal before the eyes of justice.
“Islam is charity, is justice, is tolerance and this was evident in all of his actions as a leader.”
Sheikh Zayed’s legacy determined that Islam should form the bedrock of society and should always have a strong presence in government. As a result, numerous departments and authorities have been established across the country for the advancement of Islam. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, which was set up in 2006 shortly after his passing, reports directly to the Cabinet and is responsible for “promoting social awareness and progress on the basis of the tolerant teachings of Islam”.
Sheikh Zayed even established Islamic centres and research institutes outside the country, such as the Sheikh Zayed Islamic Centre in Pakistan, to help promote and advance the faith internationally.
Highlighting the direct correlation between Islam and Arab progress, Sheikh Zayed said that “when the Arabs followed the instructions of Islam, they dominated the world achieving glories”, and those who understood the religion properly would achieve miracles. For this reason, he emphasised the importance of preserving the UAE’s national heritage and Islamic traditions. Yet he simultaneously encouraged a culture of tolerance, stating that “to stereotype a fellow human being is to deprive him of his humanity”.
“We should be proud of our religion,” he said, “because Islam is against all forms of racism.”
Perhaps one of the most recognisable symbols of his commitment to his faith was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – an architectural masterpiece and the third-largest mosque in the world.
It is a symbol not just of the Islamic roots behind Sheikh Zayed’s vision but also of his unique respect for diversity and the power of peaceful collaboration. The Grand Mosque incorporates three types of Arabic calligraphy, Greek and Italian marble, Swarovski crystals, Iranian-knitted carpet and a combination of Mamluk, Ottoman and Fatimid architectural styles. Although the Grand Mosque may be his final resting place, Sheikh Zayed’s Islamic faith continues to live through the Emirati identity he cultivated. More than a decade after his passing, the UAE is the top donor of international aid in relation to gross national income – giving away Dh18 billion last year. As Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of International Cooperation and Development and head of the UAE Committee for the Coordination of Humanitarian Foreign Aid, says: “He planted a tree of giving that the world is reaping the benefits of.”