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Abu Dhabi heralds Era of Religious Accommodation in Islamic West Asia

20 February 2024 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Indian Premier Modi with the priests at the 
Abu Dhabi Temple

Due to the demographic changes brought about by economic growth, the Islamic United Arab Emirates (UAE) is beginning to shed its traditional objection to the public practice of other religions, especially idol worship.   
On February 14, Abu Dhabi heralded a new era of religious accommodation by allowing Hindus, a very large community of expatriates from India, to build a grand temple. Significantly, the land for it was donated by the UAE government. This could well be a harbinger of religious tolerance in Muslim-majority West Asia.   
A few Hindu temples had come up in the past, with one even dating back to 1817, but the newest and the grandest of them all is the one which was consecrated on February 14 by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Abu Dhabi, a constituent of the UAE.   
The UAE has 3.5 million Indians, the majority of whom are Hindus. Indian immigrants, who make up 30% of the UAE’s population, are the single largest ethnic community in the UAE.   
The temple built by the century old Gujarat-based organization, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). It is a massive structure with seven spires to represent the seven constituents of the UAE. The temple was built at a cost of about US$ 95 million by BAPS.   
It was built on 27 acres (11 hectares) of land gifted by the UAE government. The fact that the land had been donated by an Islamic country is very significant since it shows that the cosmopolitan UAE is proceeding full throttle towards becoming a pluralistic society, which has room for all.   
“This temple is a symbol of the shared heritage of humanity. It is a symbol of the mutual love between the Indian and Arab people. It reflects the philosophical connection between India and the UAE,” Modi said to a crowd waving UAE and Indian flags.   
Accompanied by Hindu religious leaders and priests, Modi offered prayers and performed rituals as he toured the temple. The grand event was attended by members of the UAE government, Bollywood stars and the local Indian community.   
Significantly, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, joined Prime Minister Modi, as the presiding priest of the temple, Mahant Swami Maharaj, consecrated the temple.   


It was in February 2018, that the UAE President, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, granted the land to Modi, who in turn tapped BAPS to design the new temple. The result is a structure made of Indian sandstone covered in carved Italian marble.   


Inclusivity Exhibited


The stone carvings feature motifs from both Indian and Arab cultures, including Indian elephants and mangoes and Arabian camels and dates.   
Another aspect of inclusivity was the fact that the UAE government identified the project’s chief architect as a Christian and other key personnel as Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian and atheist! It was a multi-religious cooperative venture.   
The temple’s Dome of Harmony, a companion to its Dome of Peace, was designed and donated by a Muslim architect. For the first year after the temple’s opening, the “Prasad” — the sanctified food offered to visitors — will be provided by a Muslim vendor.   
Knox Thames, a former special adviser for Near Eastern and South Asian Religious Minorities at the US Department of State, said the new temple in Abu Dhabi is part of a “decades-long trend” of the UAE’s efforts to accommodate the “spiritual and religious needs of the millions of expatriates who are working in the country.”   


Not the First in UAE


However, the BAPS temple is not the first Hindu temple in the Gulf. The Shrinathji Temple in Bahrain at Manama, dedicated to Lord Krishna in the form of a 7-year old child, has been in existence since 1817. It was constructed by the Thattai Hindu community from Sindh, which is now a province of Pakistan. The Thattais are Sindhi traders.   
Dubai has a Hindu cum Sikh temple in existence since 1958 at Bur Dubai. This temple has shrines dedicated to Shiva and Krishna and also a Sikh temple (called the Gurudwara). In October 2022, the Shiva temple and the Gurudwara were relocated in a new Hindu temple built at Jebel Ali. But the Krishna shrine was retained in Bur Dubai.   
The temple in Dubai came into existence after the then ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, permitted its promoters to use the first floor of a building housing shops in Bur Dubai. The walls were made sound proof as per government laws.   


The new temple, which came up in Jebel Ali in October 2022, was built at a cost of 60 million Dirhams (US$ 16.3 million). The architecture is a fusion of Indian and Arabic styles. The temple was built using 900 tonnes of steel, 6,000 cubic metres of concrete, and 1,500 square metres of marble.   
The Motishwar temple is a Shiva temple complex located near the Al Alam Palace in the Muttrah area of Old Muscat in Oman. It is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the Middle East. The temple celebrates numerous Hindu festivals such as Vasant Panchmi, Ramnavmi, Hanuman Jayanti, Shravan and Ganesh Chathurthi.   
Over 20,000 Hindus visit the temple during Maha Shivaratri. It was built between 1892 and 1909 by the Bhatia community of Sindh (now in Pakistan). The Bhatias first set foot on Muscat in 1507 as traders, and have remained there since.   
The Motishwar complex contains three temples - Shri Adi Motishwar Mahadev temple, Shri Motishwar Mahadev temple and Shri Hanumanji temple. Although Muscat is a desert, the temple’s well has water throughout the year. Indian Prime Minister Modi visited it on 12 February 2018, during his state visit to Oman. 

 
Last year, UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan opened the Abrahamic Family House, a complex in Abu Dhabi that includes a Christian church, a synagogue and a mosque, all facing a planted plaza. It is indeed remarkable for an Arab country to accommodate a synagogue despite the centuries-old Arab-Jewish conflict in the Middle East.   
According to www.memri.org while Islamic radical clerics in West Asia criticised the permission given to the BAPS Abu Dhabi temple, especially when the Hindu nationalist government in India is accused of being hostile to Muslims, liberal Muslims stressed that the temple reflects the UAE’s efforts to promote peace, coexistence and tolerance.   
On October 6, 2022 on the building of a temple in Dubai, Emirati Twitter user Sir Ahmed wrote: “Respecting the religions of our partners in development is a fundamental principle in the UAE. Our tolerance is a seed that was planted by Sheikh Zayed. Our coexistence is the fruit of that planting.”   
Egyptian film creator, artist, and YouTuber, Sherif Gaber praised the building of the Dubai temple in a tweet that he posted on October 5, 2022. He wrote: “This is the real representation of the concept of coexistence for mankind. This is the future of human beings. The time of ‘our religion will take over the world’ is over. Those who believe in such ideas will either live in prisons, caves, or behind keyboards.”   
The London-based Yemeni author and politician, Ali Al-Bukhaiti congratulated the Hindus and expressed his gratitude to the UAE in a tweet he posted on October 5, 2022. He also wished that the UAE would allow atheists and secularists to express themselves freely.   


BBC’s Arabic TV host, Noran Sallam wrote that “the UAE has advanced in promoting religious tolerance and religious freedom” and noted that until recently, “it was difficult to imagine that such things would take place in an Arab country.”   
Praising his government and addressing the critics including Al-Jazeera, Twitter user, Ayoub Yousif with over 46,000 followers wrote: “The UAE is the symbol of tolerance and love. Wanting to practice your religious rituals in their countries and refusing to allow them to practice theirs in your country is selfish.”  


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