I have a keen interest in history, especially Islamic history. The emergence of Islam and Muslim communities in the UK is particularly interesting as I come from a Muslim family who emigrated to this country over 60 years ago. Whilst reading about the history of Islam in the UK I came across some historic Muslim heritage sites that were a short drive away from London and thought it would be great to go and visit them.
Woking is a town in the county Surrey in South East England. Woking has a surprising history with Islam in the UK. It is home to 2 historic sites that were set up for Muslims who first emigrated to England.
One of these sites is the Shah Jahan Mosque which is known as the first purpose-built mosque in Britain (and possibly Western Europe outside of Muslim Spain). There are other places in the UK where Muslims gathered in pray, but Shah Jahan Mosque was the first formal place of Islamic worship in England. It was opened Oct 1889 and built by Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner.
Shah Jahan Masjid
Dr Leitner led a very interesting life. He was born of Jewish parents in Hungary. His father died young and his mother moved to Istanbul where she re-married a Jew who had converted to Christianity. For reasons that are not clear Leitner studied at madrassah schools attached to the mosques in Istanbul and memorised large portions of the Quran. By the age of 15 he could speak 8 languages fluently.
Dr Leitner came to England aged 17 and took a degree at Kings College London, by which time it is said he could speak 15 languages. After his degree he was appointed professor at the same college, in Arabic and Muhammadan Law. At the age of 24 he took up the post of Principle of the Government College Lahore, later the University of the Punjab.
He returned to England with the express purpose of establishing an Oriental Institute. His search for suitable premises brought him to Woking. He established the institute and Masjid with a donation from the Begum Shah Jahan, the Nawab Begum of the princely state of Bhopal. The mosque was designed by architect William Isaac Chambers and was designed in the British Raj style with a dome, minarets and a courtyard.
Leitner died in 1899 and although there is no clearly documented evidence that he himself accepted Islam he was an active supporter of Muslims in England. After Leitner died the mosque fell into disuse til 1913. in 1913 Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, an Indian lawyer re-established the mosque. Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din ran the mosque and founded the Woking Muslim Mission an Ahmadiyya group.
Over the years the Masjid has attracted a number of famous visitors including Abdul Karim, Lord Headlhey, Marmaduke Pickthall, King Faisal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Getting There: Shah Jahah Mosque is located on Oriental Road in Woking. It is about an hours drive away from London, just off the M25. There is plenty of free parking provided by the masjid and also on the near by roads. The Masjid is about a 15 minute walk from Woking Station (South Western Railway).
Today the Masjid is listed as a historical Grade 2 building. The Masjid has added additional prayer and community space which to accommodate the current community. The original Masjid can still be visited and prayed in. The Masjid also has a large garden and various buildings on its grounds including the Imam’s house and learning centre. On the Masjid’s website they have a statement mentioning that the Masjid changed administration in the 70’s and has since been under Sunni/Hanafi/Sufi Islam. For more information about the Masjid and it’s history check out their – website https://www.shahjahanmosque.org.uk/
The original Masjid building
The second site is the Muslim Burial Ground in Horsell Common in Woking. During the First World War the imam of the Shah Jahan Masjid petitioned the UK government to grant nearby land to the mosque as a burial ground for Muslim soldiers. By 1917 the burial ground had been constructed and received the bodies of 19 soldiers. The site was chosen for its proximity to the Masjid. During World War 2 a further five Muslim soldiers were buried at this site. In the 1960s the site was becoming subject to vandalism so in 1968 the bodies were transferred to the Military Cemetery at Brookwood. The monument was restored in the 1990s as a result of financial support from a local resident. In November 2015, this burial ground was made into the ‘Peace Memorial Garden’ dedicated to all the Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army, who died in World War I and II.
Getting There: The Burial Site is only a few minutes drive from the Masjid and has a free car park on site. The site can be found on Horsell Common, a large piece of private land that is open to public access.
Final Thoughts: The Muslim Heritage sites in Woking are an amazing and unique example of the history of Islam and Muslims in the UK. They are
Whilst doing some research for this blog post I came across this really interesting website I wanted to share. It lists and gives information about a range of Muslim heritage sites in the UK, many more that I am hoping to visit in the future Inshallah – http://www.islaminbritishstone.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=158&Itemid=68