At first glance, the Ahmed Al Fateh Grand Mosque in the capital city, Manama—Bahrain’s largest—is unassuming with a beige brick-and-stone facade, typical of other Bahraini monuments. The geometrical patterns, carved windows, minarets and surahs engraved in kufic calligraphy are unobtrusively understated. But upon entering the mosque, its interiors catch me off guard. The opulence wouldn’t look out of place in a palatial five-star hotel lobby. The carpet in the prayer halls is from Scotland; the marble flooring from Italy; a three-and-a-half-tonne Swarovski crystal chandelier from Austria hangs in the main hall; the 952 hand-blown glass lamps inside the mosque are from France and the dome is one of the largest fibreglass domes in the world.
Our group of seven visitors is being given a tour of the premises by Hashir Ahmed, one of the guides trained by the Islamic Centre at the mosque. Looking up, he says, “The multi-coloured stained glass windows are from Iran. Do you see anything written on them?”
I notice the word “Allah.” When I tell Hashir this, he is surprised that I can read Arabic and even more pleasantly so, when I reveal that I share his faith.
My fellow travellers are all Indians, most of us in Bahrain for the first time. Our guide for the trip is Zahra, a 24-year-old anime fan who has shown us around most of Manama. But at the mosque, Zahra relinquishes her role and makes way for Hashir.
Hashir reveals that the ornately decorated mihrab (a niche in a mosque that faces the Mecca) has been designed in a way that the voice of the imam can resonate across the mosque and the minbar is a beautifully wood-carved pulpit used during sermons. It is time for the azan. I expect him to ask people to leave the hall, but he tells everyone they’re free to take videos.
He stands in silence, head bowed and eyes closed, listening to the prayer call, and I join him. The azan is not the same as what I am used to back home, I realise. The one I remember Abbu reciting is longer. I tell Hashir that, which kick-starts our conversation on the different branches of Islam.
As we discuss the religion’s many sects, several divergences emerge. Unlike a lot of mosques in India, women are allowed to pray in this one, often in the same row as men, with a partition for the two sides. Since Bahrain is a Muslim majority country, there are mosques everywhere, even opposite bars and clubs. Compared to the rest of the Middle East, the standards here are fairly liberal. People here are free to go to any mosque to pray, even during Ramadan and Muharram. I recall things being a lot different back home—spots in the mosque were fixed, and booked much in advance during major festivals.
Being raised by parents who are fiercely religious has meant that faith has been omnipresent in my life. Although my parents hope that I will someday share their devotion, they are open-minded enough to let me make my own decisions. So yes, while I am Muslim, I don’t necessarily subscribe to some of Islam’s fervent practices.
I am, however, aware of my religion’s tenets to the degree that I can dispel some unfortunate notions about them. Despite my distance from my faith, I am often in the position of defending it from unfair labels. It is perhaps this that has maintained my tenuous hold on the religion.
Hashir is now addressing the rest of the group, and tuning back in, I realise he is no longer talking about the mosque, but about Islam. He has already rattled off important facts about the mosque. It has a capacity of 7,000 and its premises also house the National Library of Bahrain, which has an impressive collection of Islamic literature. Hashir asks my group if they’ve seen a Quran before. Most of them haven’t. He not only gives them English translations of the holy book, but also shows them gigantic boards on which some of the important surahs from the Quran have been translated into multiple languages.
He reads out the first surah and explains it to the crowd, drawing a parallel with the Mahabharata. Krishna told Arjun he must choose between what is right and what is easy; Islam, Hashir says, is no different.
Before he takes our leave to offer namaz, he tells us to pick up the free books on Islam that the centre offers. These include books that draw parallels between Islam and other faiths, and others that function like the FAQ section of a website, clearing widely held misconceptions about the religion.
As much as it has to offer the devout, the Al Fateh Mosque is not the most breathtakingly beautiful of them all in this world. Neither is it the place that holds the most religious significance for Muslims everywhere. Yet, as I stood in its resplendent foyer, I felt a strange kinship to this place. All through my adulthood, I had been a disinterested spectator to matters of my faith. For the brief period I was there, Bahrain’s grandest and largest mosque had melted away my aloof dispassion. I don’t know if I had become a believer but I was a listener again.
The Ahmed Al Fateh Grand Mosque is open to visitors of all faiths and nationalities, and abayas are provided for women at the reception desk (Sat-Thu 9 a.m.-4 p.m, on Fridays non-Muslims are not allowed; entry and guided tours are free, and are offered in English; if you prefer it in other languages, write to them in advance).
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.