Built in 1889, the Shahjehan Mosque is a symbol of Muslim history in Britain. Syed Neaz Ahmad traces the history of this mosque and the attached burial ground.
A prison, a lunatic asylum and a crematorium hardly provide an ideal setting for a sacred institution, but the first mosque to be built in Britain in October 1889 was sited against such a background. The actual first mosque was in a converted building in Liverpool, however, the Shah Jehan Mosque in the County of Surrey, soon assumed larger than life proportions in matters of public interest and became a landmark. As a matter of fact, the little known sleepy town of Woking, because of the mosque, became a priority destination for visiting dignitaries and the focus of Islam in England.
The story of the Shah Jehan Mosque is the history of the site and the wanderings of a Budapest linguist Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. In 1886 he went to India to take up the post of the principal of Government College in Lahore, later to become the University of Punjab. During his stay in India, he became interested in Islam and the various cultures of the subcontinent. On his return he came to England looking for suitable land to set up a Centre for Oriental Languages, Culture and History.
Dr Leitner's main aim was to establish an oriental university in Europe and although he succeeded in establishing an institute, his hopes that Woking would one day become a university town, were never achieved. His institute in a way was the forerunner of the School of Oriental and African studies at London, which was established in 1916.
As part of the plan to make Muslims living in Woking feel at home, Leitner decided to build a mosque in the grounds of the institute. Work on the mosque began in early 1889 and the cost was largely donated by Begum Shah Jehan, ruler of Bhopal state in India.
The building of the mosque, which stands today as it was then, is in Bath and Bargate stone and was designed by the Victorian architect WL Chambers. The design is based on drawings in the Art Arabe, a rare work lent by the India Office and from the details of other oriental mosques; the style could be described as Indo-Saracenic.
In a trade journal of 1880s, the mosque is described as a dignified building comparing favourably with the mock oriental buildings of the same period. The parapets of the walls are relieved by minarets and the onion dome, once blue and gold, is surrounded by a gilt crescent. The mosque rises from a courtyard in the front of which was once a fine mosaic pavement leading to a reservoir for ablution (wudu).
Within a few years of its establishment, the mosque naturally became a centre for British Muslims, and was the only venue for religious and social festivals. It attracted visitors from distant places. Among the worshipers in the 1880s were Her Majesty's Indian attendant at Windsor.
After Dr. Leitner's death in 1889, the mosque remained deserted for many years but later came under the leadership of Khwaja Kalam-ud-Din, who came to England in 1912 as the first Muslim missionary. This was known as the Woking Muslim Mission. The Mission published the first English translation of the Qu'ran in 1917 and the influential Islamic Review until the mid-sixties.
Woking's heritage would be a lot poorer without the mosque, as its surroundings have played and would continue to play an important part in the town's sizable Muslim community.
For decades now, the affairs of the Woking Mosque have been managed by a trust with ambassadors from Muslim countries taking a keen interest in its day-to-day running. Woking's Muslim community grew, many from Pakistan, and in 1968 Sunni Muslims took over the running of the mosque, appointing the President of Pakistan as Chairman of its Trust.
Today, with more than two million Muslims and some 1,200 mosques in Britain with the University of Reading claiming to have the only on-campus purpose-built mosque.