Mus­lim wor­ship in Bri­tain

Nige Tas­sell and Pro­fes­sor So­phie Gil­liat-Ray ex­plore the Shah Ja­han Mosque in Wok­ing, Bri­tain’s first-ever pur­pose-built mosque, which turns 130 years old next year

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - So­phie Gil­liat-Ray is pro­fes­sor in re­li­gious and the­o­log­i­cal stud­ies at Cardiff Univer­sity, and the found­ing di­rec­tor of the Is­lam-UK Cen­tre. She is au­thor of Mus­lims in Bri­tain: An In­tro­duc­tion (CUP, 2010). Words: Nige Tas­sell

De­spite be­ing flanked by both road and rail, it’s easy to miss the Shah Ja­han Mosque if you’re not look­ing out for it. The ea­gle-eyed, ei­ther in their car or aboard a train, may catch a fleet­ing glimpse of its strik­ing emer­ald-green dome, but such a glimpse is in­suf­fi­cient. A build­ing of such beauty and majesty de­serves lengthy ad­mi­ra­tion from the clos­est of quar­ters.

Its com­par­a­tive in­vis­i­bil­ity notwith­stand­ing, the Shah Ja­han Mosque has been one of the key land­marks in Wok­ing since its con­struc­tion in 1889. Lo­cated on Ori­en­tal Road, its pres­ence in the iden­tity of the leafy Sur­rey com­muter town has since be­come a per­ma­nent fix­ture. It’s part of the lo­cal fab­ric. In­deed, the mother of per­haps Wok­ing’s most fa­mous son, singer Paul Weller, used to be the mosque’s cleaner.

Not that Wok­ing had been an ob­vi­ous place in which to con­struct Bri­tain’s first pur­pose-built mosque. At the time of its com­ple­tion, the town had no Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion. Most Mus­lims liv­ing in the UK in the late Vic­to­rian era, and usu­ally tem­po­rar­ily at that, were las­cars (for­eign sailors em­ployed by Bri­tish ship­ping com­pa­nies). Land­locked Wok­ing would hardly have been a port of call.

Ac­cord­ingly, it’s un­sur­pris­ing to learn that the first mosque to open its doors in Bri­tain, a hand­ful of months be­fore the Shah Ja­han Mosque did so, was in a port city. A solic­i­tor in Liver­pool called Wil­liam Quil­liam, who changed his name to Ab­dul­lah Quil­liam when he con­verted to Is­lam from Method­ism, turned a ter­raced house into a place for Is­lamic wor­ship.

Study­ing the Is­lamic world

Wok­ing’s lack of Mus­lim res­i­dents did not de­ter the man be­hind the build­ing of the Shah Ja­han Mosque, though. Dr Got­tlieb Wil­helm Leit­ner was a Hun­gar­ian-born Jew with a vi­sion of es­tab­lish­ing an ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion in Europe at which Is­lam and the Is­lamic world could be stud­ied. While Lon­don would have been the more sen­si­ble lo­ca­tion, the price of prop­erty sent him out of the city to Wok­ing. The build­ings and grounds of the de­funct Royal Dra­matic Col­lege were not only up for sale, but they could be bought cheap. Leit­ner’s plans for what be­came the Ori­en­tal In­sti­tute were dou­blepronged, ex­plains So­phie Gil­liat-Ray, pro­fes­sor in re­li­gious and the­o­log­i­cal stud­ies at Cardiff Univer­sity. “The aim was to ori­en­tate those In­di­ans com­ing to Europe for study, and like­wise

help Euro­pean schol­ars to learn In­dian lan­guages prior to their trav­els in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. The mosque was built within the Col­lege grounds and served Mus­lim stu­dents, as well as stu­dents from Lon­don. Other no­table wor­ship­pers in­cluded the Mus­lim staff serv­ing in Queen Vic­to­ria’s house­hold in Wind­sor.

“Leit­ner was an en­tre­pre­neur­ial and en­er­getic in­di­vid­ual, re­mark­able for his lin­guis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­i­ties, both in terms of breadth and depth. He spent an ex­ten­sive pe­riod in what is now Pak­istan and was ap­pointed as Reg­is­trar of the Univer­sity of the Pun­jab in La­hore in 1882. But there is no record of him ever con­vert­ing to Is­lam.”

Up in Liver­pool, a man who had taken the Is­lamic faith, Ab­dul­lah Quil­liam, re­flected on how the lo­cal com­mu­nity saw him. “When I first re­nounced Chris­tian­ity and em­braced Is­lam,” he wrote in 1890, “I found that I was looked upon as a species of mono­ma­niac, and if I en­deav­oured to in­duce peo­ple to dis­cuss the re­spec­tive mer­its of the two re­li­gions, I was ei­ther laughed at or in­sulted.”

De­spite the re­ac­tion to Quil­liam, he was far from an anom­aly. A no­table num­ber among the in­dige­nous Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion were fas­ci­nated by Is­lam and its teach­ings. After Leit­ner’s death in 1899, the Shah Ja­han Mosque closed for a num­ber of years, be­fore be­ing re­vived and re­opened in 1913. By then, cer­tain fig­ures from the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment had also con­verted, such as Lord Headley and Mar­maduke Pick­thall. Both made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the evo­lu­tion of Is­lam on th­ese shores. Headley, un­der his adopted name of Shaikh Rah­mat­ul­lah al-Fa­rooq, es­tab­lished the Bri­tish Mus­lim So­ci­ety, while novelist (and vicar’s son) Pick­thall trans­lated the Qur’an into English and was the edi­tor of the Is­lamic Re­view, pub­lished from the mosque in Wok­ing.

“Th­ese high-pro­file con­verts seemed to be at­tracted to Is­lam on ac­count of its doc­tri­nal teach­ings and its eth­i­cal, egal­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ples,” ex­plains Gil­liat-Ray. “The de­vel­op­ment of sci­en­tific knowl­edge in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies of­fered less of a chal­lenge to Is­lamic be­liefs than to Chris­tian ones. In­deed, for Ab­dul­lah Quil­liam, the teach­ings of the Qur’an pos­i­tively sup­ported sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies. Some of th­ese high-pro­file con­verts turned to Is­lam as a re­ac­tion to the power, priv­i­lege, dis­unity and po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism of some of the Chris­tian churches.”

Mi­gra­tion and set­tle­ment

Yet th­ese con­ver­sions did not sig­nify the first in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Bri­tain and Is­lam. “Mus­lims ini­tially ar­rived in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers as tran­sient sea­far­ers as part of the colo­nial ship­ping in­dus­try of the 19th and 20th cen­tury. Few were per­ma­nent set­tlers, but resided in board­ing houses in the mar­itime ports of Liver­pool, Lon­don, Ty­ne­side and Cardiff,” as­serts Gil­liat-Ray. “Th­ese board­ing houses of­ten be­came a lo­cus for later Mus­lim com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment. Their lo­ca­tion in and around dock­land ar­eas, and the fact that sea­far­ers were com­ing and go­ing with the ar­rival and depar­ture of ships, meant that there was rel­a­tively lit­tle en­gage­ment with the wider pop­u­la­tion.”

If Mus­lim man­power was re­quired to se­cure Bri­tain’s colo­nial trad­ing dom­i­nance, it also proved vi­tal in less peace­ful times. Gil­liat-Ray says: “Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, Mus­lims from var­i­ous parts of the Bri­tish em­pire were cru­cial in both the First and Sec­ond World War ef­forts. Mus­lims worked in ar­ma­ments fac­to­ries, as well as on the


bat­tle­field. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the In­dian army, which in­cluded large num­bers of Mus­lim sol­diers, con­sti­tuted the largest vol­un­tary army. Their brav­ery was recog­nised via the con­fer­ring of mil­i­tary awards, but for the vast ma­jor­ity, es­pe­cially those lost at sea, there was lit­tle recog­ni­tion of their con­tri­bu­tion.”

The largest wave of Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion to Bri­tain oc­curred fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, when the coun­try was in need of re­build­ing, both phys­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. By then, Mus­lim mi­gra­tion had moved in­land, away from the ports and into the in­dus­tri­alised cities.

“There was a need for semi-skilled and un­skilled labour to work in Bri­tish fac­to­ries, tex­tile mills and in pub­lic ser­vices,” ex­plains Gil­liat-Ray. “Many young sin­gle men came to Bri­tain from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent as eco­nomic mi­grants in the 1960s and 1970s. They in­tended to even­tu­ally re­turn ‘ back home’, tak­ing their sav­ings with them. How­ever, leg­isla­tive changes, among other things, led to the ar­rival of women and chil­dren to join their hus­bands and fa­thers in the UK, which led to a shift from tem­po­rary male res­i­dence to more per­ma­nent fam­ily set­tle­ment.”

The de­mo­graphic make-up of Wok­ing cer­tainly fol­lowed this pat­tern, thanks to the easy avail­abil­ity of work in man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries dur­ing the post­war years, al­most cer­tainly cou­pled with the mag­netic draw of the Shah Ja­han Mosque. From that nonex­is­tent pres­ence at the time of the mosque’s con­struc­tion, the town cur­rently boasts a Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion of around 10,000, the high­est of any town in Sur­rey.

Mus­lim in­flu­ence in Bri­tain

It’s un­der­stand­able for the com­mon per­cep­tion to be that Mus­lims only set­tled in this coun­try in large num­bers dur­ing the post­war decades, as the longer story re­mains no­tice­ably hid­den and un­told. “The his­tory of en­gage­ment be­tween the Bri­tish Isles and the Mus­lim world stretches back over many cen­turies, but few peo­ple are aware of this his­tory,” says Gil­liat-Ray. “Sim­i­larly, few peo­ple recog­nise the cul­tural, sci­en­tific, math­e­mat­i­cal and lin­guis­tic con­tri­bu­tion of the Mus­lim world. Take our vo­cab­u­lary, for ex­am­ple. So many words in com­mon us­age to­day stem from the Ara­bic, such as al-jabr (al­ge­bra), qahwa (cof­fee) and sukkar (sugar).”

More so than ever, our times dic­tate that a stronger un­der­stand­ing of the Mus­lim world is re­quired and the, now Grade I-listed, Shah Ja­han Mosque is the per­fect cru­cible in which the pub­lic per­cep­tion of Is­lam can it­self be ren­o­vated.

On this warm Au­gust af­ter­noon, it re­mains an oa­sis of calm and peace. Got­tlieb Wil­helm Leit­ner might not have en­vis­aged the con­stant stream of cars along Ori­en­tal Road, nor the re­tail park that now oc­cu­pies the eastern side of the orig­i­nal site. But were he alive to­day, he would ap­prove of the num­ber of wor­ship­pers still us­ing the mosque and its more re­cently added ex­tended prayer halls. Ra­di­ant in the bright sun­light, this ar­chi­tec­tural gem looks more mag­nif­i­cent than ever.

The Shah Ja­han Mosque was saved from de­vel­op­ers and ren­o­vated from 1913 by Kash­miri lawyer Kh­waja Ka­mal-ud-Din, who also founded the Wok­ing Mus­lim Mis­sion

Got­tleib Wil­helm Leit­ner was “en­tre­pre­neur­ial and en­er­getic, re­mark­able for his lin­guis­tic ca­pac­i­ties”

Two men pray at Wok­ing’s Shah Ja­han Mosque which, ear­lier this year, be­came the first Grade I-listed mosque in Bri­tain

In­dian sol­diers fight­ing for the Bri­tish Army in the Sec­ond World War drink tea out­side the Shah Ja­han Mosque in Novem­ber 1941

Scholar Mar­maduke Pick­thall pub­lished his trans­la­tion of the Qur’an into English in 1930

Asian work­ers at a Black­burn fac­tory in 1983, at a time when Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion into the UK had in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly

Ori­en­tal Road, Wok­ing, Sur­rey GU22 7BA shah­ja­han­

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