The taxi accelerates around a curve on a wide, clear highway, a four-lane thoroughfare that runs flat and straight toward a line of low green hills in the distance. The median is planted with flowers. Gentle mounds, grassy and topped with trees, rise along each side of the highway.
Directly ahead - white, massive and serene amid the greenery - is a striking, angular construction that, despite its untypical design, can only be a mosque. It is kilometers away, but no other building is visible and the taxi is hurtling straight toward it, so the Faysal Mosque completely dominates this main approach to Islamabad, the capital city that Pakistan built from scratch in the last three decades. A more tranquil ride into an otherwise bustling federal city would be hard to imagine.
The feeling of peace stays with you as you leave the taxi and stroll through rose beds and across lawns toward the broad entrance of Pakistan's national mosque. A pool and a simple fountain greet you; people mount a long flight of steps toward the platform on which the mosque itself sits. At this point, you become aware of another impression: size. This complex is big.
At ground level, you advance through a commodious passageway to a large courtyard where more than 185 worshipers at a time can perform the ablutions that Islam requires for prayer. Fountains play, the central one frothing 10 meters (32 feet) into the blue sky toward the huge platform of polished Italian granite.
From atop the platform, the impression of size is abundantly confirmed: The prayer hall is colossal. The folded roof slopes effortlessly upward from the platform to a peak 45 meters (148 feet) high, an expanse clad in white Greek marble weighing some 70,000 tons, and surrounded by four minarets soaring to twice the roof's height. This hall looks every bit like the tent it was designed to resemble, but on a mammoth scale.
"It's unique," said Mohammad Khan, the project engineer on the site. "There is no central pillar, no support. The walls are not load-bearing. There were doubts that it would be possible to build."
So how does it stay up? Surprisingly, to the layman, the four minarets play a critical part in this. Resting on massive foundations sunk 12 meters (40 feet) into the ground, these immense towers are fixed to four sets of giant twin girders which rise up from each corner at a startling angle and meet at the top of the prayer hall.
The weight of the roof bears on the girders and the minarets counterbalance the girders, the engineer explained. "In a sense, the minaret is an outside pillar" that holds down the edge of the roof like a Bedouin tent peg, he noted.
Inside the hall, abundant light filters in from all sides onto a blue carpet stretching over 4900 square meters (50,000 square feet). Suspended at the center of this great room is a six-ton chandelier: a sphere of gold-anodized aluminum tubes, almost 10 meters (32 feet) in diameter, studded with 1100 tiny lights and ringed by a gossamer hoop more than 40 meters (131 feet) across that holds a golden mesh and 36 lights.
Ahead stands the white marble mihrab, or prayer niche, shaped like a giant open book. The work of Pakistani artist Gulji, the mihrab displays at its center the best of the holy names of God in gold-plated copper and blue lapis lazuli, and on its two open "pages" is inscribed the 55th Surah, or chapter, of the Qur'an, al-Rahman, or The Compassionate. The 99 names and attributes of God are carved in relief at the edges, and gilded.
Next to the mihrab is another of Gulji's works in white marble: the minbar, or pulpit. Tall and elegant, it features the Qur'an's first Surah, al-Fatiha, The Opening, in a circular emblem, again worked in gold-plated copper and lapis lazuli.
Behind the mihrab and minbar, a shallow pool of water runs under the qibla wall, the wall which faces Makkah and indicates the direction of prayer for Muslims. By raising and lowering the water level in the pool, fresh air can be brought into the hall through holes below the wall, for cooling, or kept out. The qibla wall itself is covered in a mosaic of tiles from Turkey, predominantly blue, with the Kalimat at-Tawhid, the Muslim profession of faith, in golden yellow: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God."
Along the north and south walls a recently completed hand-written copy of the Qur'an in 30 massive volumes is kept in a set of 30 cabinets. And along the back wall, over the entrance, a women's gallery large enough to accommodate 1500-worshipers is screened off with a lattice of Greek marble in traditional Moghul design. A fountain plays over white marble by the doors.
Outside, high above all this elegance, strength and serenity, hang five golden crescent moons - one on each minaret, and one weighing six and a half tons fixed atop the prayer hall, where the supporting girders rise to a delicate meeting point.
Covering the crescents with gold proved more complicated than originally planned.
Engineer Mohammad Khan assured us that gold was electroplated onto all surfaces of the copper crescents in a layer two microns thick. As soon as that was done, lacquer should have been applied to protect the crescents against the weather. But the artist Gulji, not realizing what would happen, postponed the lacquering, and as a result, the crescents weathered, Khan explained. Black spots appeared.
To resolve the problem, Gulji removed the spots, replated those areas at his own expense, and, this time, lacquered the crescents immediately.
Despite all this, Khan said, the gold coating will still eventually succumb to the elements and will have to be replaced, possibly as early as 1997.
The mosque's construction was funded by Saudi Arabia and is a crowning architectural symbol of the longstanding ties between Pakistan and the house of Sa'ud.
As early as the 1920's, leaders in what is now known as Saudi Arabia supported their coreligionists on the Indian subcontinent. That friendship continued when Pakistan became an independent state in 1947. In time, the British-built city of Lyallpur in Punjab was renamed Faisalabad, and in the, new capital, Islamabad, the most prominent avenue was also named after Saudi Arabia's late King Faysal ibn' Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud.
In 1959, Islamabad's master plan had designated some 18 hectares (44 acres) of prime flat land as the site of a national mosque. Six years later, King Faysal toured Pakistan and was shown the new capital city under construction. He inspected the site of the mosque and decided to donate a large sum for construction of the building.
In 1969, an international competition among Muslim architects was held to choose the design for the mosque; the winner was Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay, then barely 40 years old. In 1976, King Faysal's successor, King Khalid ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, laid the foundation stone of the mosque and donated an additional sum of money for construction of an Islamic Center to be housed at one end of the vast granite platform of the mosque complex.
Work on the complex was started in 1978 by National Construction, a Pakistani engineering and construction company with many fine national buildings to its credit. The first regular Friday prayers were held in the mosque a decade later, on June 24,1988.
One part of the enormous building project remains to be completed: a centrally air conditioned auditorium set under the northern side of the courtyard. Proposed several years ago by Pakistan's then-president, Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, and given a $10-million start by his government, the auditorium, when finished, will offer a conference venue the equal of any in the world.
It is now late morning. The crowd of visitors grows. Respectful and yet thrilled at the size and beauty of their national mosque, people from all of Pakistan's different ethnic groups mingle in these great precincts: burly Sindhi men in multi-colored caps, poor village Punjabis in flapping lungis, groups of schoolgirls in uniforms, bearded Afghans with baggy trousers hitched well above their ankles, and Pathans from the border tracts. Among them are some foreigners: modest young Americans in jeans, older European ladies in Pakistani national dress, a few Iranians and Africans.
A foreign convert prays in a side portico off the main hall. Muslims and non-Muslims seem glad to be in this friendly place of peace.
It is a place, also, of learning: In the long tradition of incorporating institutions of higher learning in mosque complexes, the Faysal Mosque houses Pakistan's prestigious International Islamic University. In fact, the university is the custodian and administrator of the mosque.
Combining several earlier Islamic academic institutions and adding new ones of its own, the International Islamic University took its present form in 1985. Students and staff use the suite of rooms, offices and halls at the eastern end of the complex. But some 285 hectares (about 704 acres) of land some 12 kilometers (seven miles) southwest of the mosque have been granted to the university, and construction of its own separate campus could start as early as April of this year.
University enrollment is currently limited to around 2000 students, but they come from more than 40 countries - many from Africa and the Middle East, some from China and the former Soviet republics.
Shari'ah law, theology, Arabic and Islamic economics are taught in the four university faculties. In addition, four other autonomous parts of the university are engaged in training, research and publishing on a wider, less academic level.
One is the Shari'ah Academy, which runs four-month, in-service courses for the judges and lawyers who administer Islamic law in Pakistan. Another is the eminently practical Da'wa Academy, an institution for the propagation of the faith. Besides organizing seminars for editors, writers and college teachers, and other outreach activities, this academy has published 135 books in a dozen languages.
In addition, the university has established links with Muslims in the territories of the former Soviet Union, and provides scholarships and imam training, publishing assistance and teaching in Arabic. It also cooperates with the International Center of Arabic Studies at the University of Beijing, in China, where nine books have been translated and 10 more are in progress.
Inside the prayer hall, it is time for midday prayers. The muezzin (prayer caller) and gari' (Qur'an reciter) Khorshid Ali climbs a short, steep flight of steps to a platform backed by a giant piece of calligraphy executed by Pakistani artist Saadiquain. His call echoes through the prayer hall and carries across the courtyards. Huge doors swing open in the glassed eastern wall of the hall, and a swirl of people surges into the calmness to pray.
On the great 'ids, or holidays, of Islam, the hall is packed to its 10,000-person capacity. A further 90,000 can pray on the platform outside the hall, and 200,000 more on the lawns around the building, making this the country's largest mosque.
Today 80 men are lined up in a single row the width of the hall behind Khorshid Ali. Six latecomers hurry into the hall and quickly form a second row. The age-old prayers begin. The heart of this great mosque is at peace.
Len McGrane is a New Zealand freelance journalist who writes on Muslim affairs. He lives with his family in northern Pakistan.