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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 alongsid