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Britain’s First Purpose Built Mosque, Everyday Muslim

The Shah Jahan mosque was built in Woking in 1889, as part of an ambitious project initiated by Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. Although, born to a Jewish family in Hungary, Leitner identified as Anglican. He came to Britain when he was seventeen to study at King’s College London University and became a Professor of Arabic and Mohammedan law at the University at the age of just twenty-one.

After many years working as a Principal of Government College at Lahore which he helped to become a University, Leitner worked in many Governments posts across Europe, return to England in 1881 and started to look for a location for an institution for students from the Indian sub-continent. In, 1883 he came upon the unoccupied Royal Dramatic College in Woking.

The Oriental Institute was founded in 1884 with the intention of creating a centre for oriental learning and literature. His aim was to establish a safe place where Orientals of Hindu or Muslim faiths could live their own way of life. Leitner’s vision for the Institute to be a university never materialised, however, it became attached to the University of the Punjab, which he had founded earlier that century.

Leitner also established a small museum within the grounds of the Oriental Institute which displayed oriental art and literature. He published several journals from the Institute, including the Asiatic Quarterly Review. Falling ill in 1898, Leitner died in 1899 of pneumonia and was buried at Brookwood Cemetery. The service was conducted according to the rites of the Church of England. The Institute closed shortly after Leitner’s death and his rare collections of antiquities and literature were sold and dispersed across Europe. The Oriental Institute is commemorated by the modern street name Oriental Road.

The mosque was built a year before Leitner’s death in 1889 and was frequented by a small number of dignitaries and Queen Victoria’s British Indian employees; including her secretary Abdul Karim. The land for the mosque was bought with funding from the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the mosque was built with a donation from the Begum Shah Jahan of Bhopal. Begum Shah Jahan (29th July - 16th June 1901) was the Begum of Bhopal, who was ruler of the princely state of Bhopal in central India. The Begum made a substantial financial contribution towards the building of the mosque at Woking. Hence, why it is named after her.

The mosque building was designed by a local Anglo - Irish architect William Isaac Chambers. The design of the building was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as; “an onion dome on delicate rubble walls, with a decorative three-part frontispiece in blue and gold, as pretty as the Brighton Pavilion.” It is interesting to note that he mentions the decorative panels were painted blue and gold as it seems through the years, the dome has been painted in a series of different colours. Yet, its current white painted facade is attributed to a film company which featured the outside of the mosque in a 1977 film called; Valentino which starred Rudolf Nureyev. Unfortunately, it cost too much to remove the paint and it has stayed white ever since. The mosque building recently achieved Grade 1 listed building status in March 2018.

Reviving a Vision: The Founding of Britain’s First Purpose-Built Mosque

Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din was a lawyer by profession who arrived in London on the 24 September 1912, in order to pursue a court case. His interactions with other Muslims in London made him aware of the disused mosque building in Woking. He wrote a letter to the leader of his movement that stated, “I had heard that there is a mosque in London and it is in Woking. Dr. Leitner had collected donations for the mosque.” On instruction Kamal-ud-Din began efforts to resurrect the mosque.

Kamal-ud-Din was able to take formal possession of the Shah Jahan mosque on 12 August 1913, during the month of Ramadan. He also established the Woking Muslim Mission, gave lectures, wrote Islamic literature and hosted many important gatherings, meetings and celebrations.

It was widely reported that Kamal-ud-Din promoted Islam over and above the controversial sectarian doctrines. He chose an Islam that could flourish in Britain, bringing together converts and foreign Muslims resident in the UK. Much of the literature printed at the time includes the statement: ‘There are no sects in Islam.’

By the mid-1960s the mosque had fallen into disrepair and care was taken over by the local largely Pakistani Muslim community and was renovated to its former glory. The community followed the Sunni ideology of Islam, and this continues to the present day.

The Mosque & the Early Muslim Community

As the mosque was situated very close to a train line with direct trains to and from London, it quickly become not just a place of worship for the small and dispersed community but also a meeting point for Muslims from all over Britain.

Eid at the Shah Jahan mosque was a popular event which attracted Muslims from across the country, which are documented by British Pathe films. These events were marker points emphasising the Shah Jahan’s Mosque central role in British Muslim life - the Eid celebrations continued as a huge affair right up to the 1960s. Coaches used to come from all parts of the countries, different embassies were invited and during the 1950s and 1960s was attended by up to 3000 people. The Eid congregations were made up of Muslims of all sects, ethnicities and backgrounds, further highlighting the Inclusive ethos of the Shah Jahan Mosque in this period.

Some of the earliest and more well-known Muslims in Britain were very influential in establishing organisations and the representation of the Muslim community to the wider largely white British Christian society. These included people like; Abdullah Quilliam, Marmaduke Pickthall, Lord Headley, Syed Ameer Ali, Duse Mohamed Ali, Irene Aisha Wentworth Fitzwilliam, Khaled Sheldrake and Yahya Parkinson.

They came from diverse professional backgrounds including; barristers, writers, politicians, translator of the Quran, the founder of the first mosque in Britain, publishers and ultimately were all involved in activism in favour of better representation of Muslims and Muslim life in Britain.

Born in 1883, Irene Wentworth Fitzwilliam grew up amongst the elites of the country due to her father being a prominent MP and her mother part of the extended Royal Family. In the early 1930s, Irene made trips to Egypt, embracing Islam in this period where she is quoted as saying: “[she] was a Moslem at heart long before [she] officially embraced Islam.” She became a central and an influential figure in at the British Muslim Society, and through newspaper reports can be repeatedly seen as a core organiser for many events, including the large Eid gatherings at the Shah Jahan Mosque.

Another prominent local figure in early British Islam and the president of the British Muslim Society was Woking based convert, Major J.W.B Farmer M.B.E. After encountering Islam during his deployment In the Middle East during the first World War, including alongside ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Major Farmer became leading voice in early British Islam.

A personal and practical connection with the Shah Jahan Mosque, Major Farmer had his marriage ceremony within the mosque and was an active member of the British Muslim Society. His daughter, Elizabeth Farmer, recalls many distinguished guests from around the country and abroad, from academics and scholars to kings and sultans visiting their family home in Surrey. The last visitor she recalls visiting was; ‘a young man from America called Cassius Clay, more well known as the greatest boxer of all time...Muhammad Ali!’

The author HG Wells moved to Woking, in 1895, to a small semi-detached villa called Lynton on Maybury Road (now 141 Maybury Road) which was not too far from the mosque. One of his most famous works was War of the Worlds, which is set around the town of Woking. It was Woking according to his memoirs, where he ‘planned and wrote War of the Worlds’ and ‘where I wheeled around the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians’.

One such area of destruction selected by HG Wells was the Oriental Institute and the adjacent Shah Jahan Mosque. Their demise is graphically recorded In War of the Worlds:

I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it. One of our chimneys cracked as if a shot had hit it, flew, and a piece of it came clattering down the tiles and made a heap of broken red fragments upon the flower bed by my study window.

This was not his only connection with the mosque as one of Wells’ closest friends was fellow author and convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall. He was famous for his translation of the Quran into English and for his sermons he preached at the mosque at the close of Friday prayers.

The Mosque’s role during the War

The role of the Shah Jahan Mosque during the Great War can be seen through the reportage of the provincial newspapers and the Islamic Review which was regarded as the widest circulated Islamic publication in the world. The Western Daily Press newspaper published in Bristol reported that at a meeting of the British Muslim Society in September 1914, held at Woking Mosque, the following resolution was unanimously carried:

“We desire to offer our whole-hearted congratulation to our Eastern brethren now at the Front, and to express our delight to find that our co-religionists in Islam are fighting on the side of honour, truth and justice, and are thus carrying into effect the principles of Islam,

as inculcated by the Holy Prophet Mohammed.”

The Islamic review later reported that the resolution was distributed to the Muslim troops of the Army Corps, which was a great morale booster. In August 1915 the mosque welcomed 50 wounded soldiers from a convalescent home in New Milton, Hampshire, in celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr. The Surrey Advertiser reported that the soldiers marched from the railway station to the mosque dressed in white traditional clothing. Some had been wounded more than once due to multiple return visits to the front. Together with other worshippers the congregation numbered about 300 people which included Lord Headley, President of the British Muslim Society. The prayers took place outside on the lawns of the mosque to accommodate the large number of men and women in the congregation.

Present Day Muslim Community

Over the years, the mosque has attracted interest from the wider local community too. The most famous being Paul Weller and his long-term friend and colleague Jam drummer Rick Butler. Paul Weller lived In Stanley Road in Woking, while Rick Butler, lived a short distance away in Church street near Goldsworth Road. Paul Weller’s family had a direct connection to the mosque as his mother was cleaner there. John Weller, Paul’s late father and Manager of The Jam worked at the Walker factory which was adjacent to the mosque.

Rick Butler remembers going with Paul to do a photoshoot at the mosque and recalls;

‘it was a lot cheaper than going to India.’ Butler thought that ‘the photos looked great, with the pine trees together with the backdrop of the mosque’ and ‘looked like we could have been in Pakistan or Northern India, and they were fabulous at the mosque’.

“It does attract a lot of people, and it amazes me whenever I drive past the mosque how devote they are, and that they still go in droves to that little tiny mosque, which

is a fabulous looking building.”

There are now a few other mosques in Woking which cater for the growing Muslim community and their chose of ideological beliefs. The Muslim community in Woking, is now largely Pakistani in origin with a smaller Bangladeshi and an established convert community which represents many nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. The community is very active in every aspect of social and civic life with many working in the local council, and other public sector services. The mosque today, is as open to the whole community as it was a hundred and thirty years ago. The mosque is not only open for daily prayers but, is frequented by school visits, private tours (which must be booked in advance) and is open for anyone in the community to visit. The mosque staff are aware of hesitant visitors and therefore host ‘Heritage Open Days,’ and ‘Visit My Mosque’ days inviting the community to look around the mosque, learn the history of the mosque, partake in henna painting and other activities. And above all it is an opportunity to get to know one another over a cup of tea and snacks.

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The views of the interviewees who are featured in Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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