Travails Of The Mecca Of Suburbia

Sunday, June 12, 2011 - 16:35

One of northern Europe's oldest mosques - in Woking - has had a chequered history

Of the 1,300 mosques in Britain, the Shah Jahan Mosque stands out. That northern Europe's first purpose-built mosque is to be found in Woking will surprise many; that it is still flourishing today would once have seemed equally improbable. The mosque's 120-year history mirrors some of the complexities in the variable relationship that Britain and Islam have enjoyed in the same period. It was founded in 1889, flourished for a decade, then fell into decay. Twenty years later it was restored and until the construction of the East London Mosque in 1940 it was the only building of its kind in Britain. Now it is protected as a listed building; around 100 people attend the daily after-lunch prayer sessions, and about 3,000 Muslims attend its Eid celebrations each year. The mosque's founder was Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a linguistic prodigy. Born into a Jewish family in Hungary, he was brought up in Turkey and converted to Anglicanism in Britain. At 19 he was appointed a lecturer in Turkish, Arabic and Modern Greek; at 23 King's College appointed him professor in Arabic and Muslim Law; at 24 he became the principal of Government College in Lahore. He returned to Britain 17 years later to set up an educational centre where East could meet West. In 1883 the Oriental Institute opened its doors to teach Asian languages to Europeans who wished to travel East and European languages, culture and professions to Asians. To accommodate the students' religious needs Leitner proposed to build a synagogue, a church, a Sikh temple and a mosque. With funding from the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Begum Shah Jahan, ruler of Bhopal, construction began on the mosque. Leitner so hounded the architect, W.I. Chambers, with his detailed demands that Chambers quipped: “We wish the mosque at Woking had been built at Jericho or some place distant enough never to have troubled us.” Leitner gave the mosque a sumptuous interior, decorated with valuable objects that he had collected on his travels, and part of the building was an oriental museum collection. A visitor to the mosque described it in a letter to The Times: “Dr Leitner has so arranged every department that you can trace at once the influence of Greek art on the art of India. He has done this by bringing within a ‘chair's length' the sculpture, the literature and the coins of the period.” When Shah Jahan was opened in 1889 it quickly became a centre for British Muslims, who would travel from communities as far away as Liverpool, Cardiff and South Shields to take part in social and religious activities. The mosque also played a significant symbolic role. The 60-person prayer room was frequented by the Queen's servants at Windsor and served as a token symbol of tolerance when Muslim diplomats and dignitaries visited Britain. The Shah of Iran occasionally visited for prayer sessions. Britain's relationship with the Muslim world was an old one. By the early 17th century a number of Muslims were living in Britain, having been crew on merchant vessels or servants to East India Company officials. An isolated and generally poor minority, they worshipped in makeshift prayer rooms and established little in the way of significant cultural institutions. By the late 19th century Britain's relations with Islam were marked by a new tension. It was the height of Britain's imperial expansionism and Muslim migrants were associated with the enemy Ottomans; Islam was viewed as a brutal and irrational culture, its believers regarded as exotic and uncivilised. Unsurprisingly, on Leitner's death in 1899 the mosque fell into disrepair, and his heirs sold off the remainder of the Oriental Institute and its collection. Shah Jahan was abandoned until 1912, when a prominent Indian lawyer, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, travelled from Lahore to London for a court case. On his arrival he inquired about a mosque where he might be able to pray. Shah Jahan was suggested. He found it desolate and neglected, being used as a barn for animals. Removing his shoes in the vaulted entryway, he entered the prayer room to find a lone copy of the Koran discarded in the corner. He rescued the sacred text, and then set up the Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust to restore the mosque and re-establish its legacy as a beacon of multicultural learning in Britain's increasingly diverse polity. “People say that miracles don't happen,” says Muslim Salamat, the mosque's current chairman and historian. “But there's a miracle in Woking.” In recent years Woking Borough Council has embraced the history of the site and its message of tolerance. The mosque structure, with its pristine white façade, gold adornments, star-patterned windowpanes and distinctive green dome, is listed. And the mosque has continued its legacy of multicultural learning and interfaith dialogue with an education programme. Visits are welcomed, and schoolchildren receive lessons on Islam from Mufti Liaquat Ali Amod, the mosque's head of education and acting imam, who also attends meetings with adults in the community. “I get questions about things like the women's role, human rights, and people asking about whether terrorism is sanctioned or justified in Islam,” Amod says. “This happens no matter how much we try to do to contain radicalism. No one wants to live in fear.” Imam Mohammad Farogh Quadri seconds this, with assurances that he preaches about integrating cohesively with the wider British community and respecting neighbours and other faiths: “The Government should take action against radical clerics who promote negative versions of Islam and are using it for political reasons. They are not creating harmony in society and should be removed from the UK.” Veiled by the shade of evergreens and set back from the roadside in Woking, Shah Jahan shines as a symbol of multicultural Britain, where East continues to meet West in peace. Source:

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