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The Shah Jahan Mosque & Islam in Britain

The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking is Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. Established in 1889, it represents the cultural transfer that was taking place throughout the 19th century between Victorian England & the colonies.

The Shah Jahan mosque was the centrepiece of an Oriental Institute created by Dr Leitner, a Hungarian-Jewish linguist. Funded by the female ruler of the Indian Princely state of Bhopal, the Sultan Shah Jahan Begum.

Aged 17, Leitner came to Britain to study at King’s College London University & became a Professor of Arabic & Mohammedan law at the University at just 21. He had a vision of establishing an educational institution in Europe at which Islam & the Islamic world could be studied.

The Oriental Institute was founded in 1884 by Leitner for the intention of creating a centre for oriental learning & literature. His vision for it to become a university never materialised, however it became attached to the University of the Punjab which he had founded earlier.

The land for the mosque was bought with funding from the Nizam of Hyderabad, & the mosque was built with a donation from the Begum Shah Jahan of Bhopal. The Begum made a substantial financial contribution towards the building of the mosque at Woking - so it is named after her.

The mosque was designed by 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 & gold” image.

It is interesting to note that the decorative panels are no longer blue & gold as through the years, it has been painted in a series of different colours. Its current white painted facade is attributed to a film company which featured the outside of the mosque in a 1977 film.

The mosque is an elaborate affair & reflects late-18th century Mughal style in India. Architectural elements of the onion dome, central portico entrance, arched doorways & niches were prevalent throughout the Mughal period, & in later buildings become more sculptural.

The Shah Jahan mosque captures the spirit of late-19th century Orientalism. It was a time when, for curious Europeans, there was a mysterious & fantastical place called ‘the East’. Woking mosque could be considered the architectural equivalent of the Orientalist fantasy.

The Shah Jahan mosque represents the very real cultural transfer that was taking place throughout the 19th century between Victorian England and the countries of the Middle East and India, experienced through colonisation and trade.

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. Queen Victoria, her collie dog Noble, and, Abdul Karim. Taken at Balmoral, 1894.

Leitner died in 1899, ten years after the mosque was completed.

, and the mosque fell into disuse. It was revived and restored by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870-1932), an Indian lawyer who visited the site in 1913 and found the mosque locked, unused for many years Lord Headley with Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din.

The Woking Muslim Trust was set up and Kamal-ud-Din appointed to run the mosque, which is said to have become the focus of Islam in Britain in the early- to mid-20th century.

Eid at the Shah Jahan mosque was a popular event which attracted Muslims from across the country. 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.

Summer of 1953 Young girls celebrating Eid-Ul-Fitr at Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey.

Architecturally, The Shah Jahan mosque is the very first manifestation of the mosque as a building type, and representation of Islam, in Britain. Indian soldiers drinking tea outside Woking's Shah Jahan Mosque in 1941.

During the first half of the 20th century The Shah Jahan mosque was the focus for the development of Islam in Britain & received many important & royal visitors. Now a grade one listed building the mosque welcomes visitors & guided tours for groups Features inside the mosque.

The first recorded mosque in Britain was in fact in Liverpool, this handsome Georgian terrace was converted in 1889 by a British solicitor, known as Abdullah Quilliam after he had converted to Islam in 1887.

In a speech made in Cairo, 1928 Quilliam explained his attraction to Islam “I read the translated Holy Qur’an & the book of Hero’s written by Carlyle & many other books. When I left Tangiers I was obedient to Islam surrendered to its power & confessed it was the true religion”

Quilliam wrote a pamphlet entitled Faith of Islam. The first edition had 2000 copies in 1890. A further 3000 copies were published in 1892. The Crescent, a weekly Islamic newspaper, was created by Abdullah. It represented Muslims in England between 1893 & 1908.

Today the magazine is considered a historical record of Islam in the UK & a growing convert community during British colonial times. It received international attention. Another monthly journal published by Abdullah was the Islamic World, this too, had global circulation.

Abdullah Quilliam purchased the Liverpool Muslim Institute at 8 Brougham Terrace, made possible by Prince Nasrullah Khan of Afghanistan which was established into the first ever recorded mosque in Britain.

Quilliam passed away in 1932, near Woking. He was buried in Brookfield Cemetery in Surrey, England. Abdullah Quilliam left an inspirational legacy to Muslims in Britain who continue his charitable and educational work.


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