Exploring Woking’s Shah Jahan Mosque as it celebrates 130 years

The Muslim Burial Ground Peace Garden at Horsell Common, Woking

The Muslim Burial Ground Peace Garden at Horsell Common, Woking - Credit: Archant

Built in 1889, The Shah Jahan Mosque was the first purpose-built and first Grade I listed mosque in Britain. As it celebrates its 130th birthday, Steven Roberts takes a look back at the history of this Surrey wonder

An estimated 400,000 Muslims fought on the Allied side during the First World War. We should never forget this massive contribution to both our overall manpower and our ultimate victory. Between 3,000 and 4,500 of them perished on the Western Front, many with no known grave, but remembered on the memorial at the Menin Gate.

These facts were very much in my mind as I headed into Woking, which a couple of decades before the Great War, became home to the nation's first purpose-built mosque (there was an older one in Liverpool, by a few months, but not purpose-built), and its largest. It was also the first purpose-built one in Europe, excepting Muslim (or Moorish) Spain.

The Shah Jahan Mosque was founded by Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840-99), a respected linguist and Orientalist. Leitner was born in Hungary to Jewish parents, acted as an interpreter for the British during the Crimean War, when he was still an early-teen, then came to this country to study at King's College, London, aged 17, before becoming a lecturer there, aged 19, then professor in Arabic and Muslim Law, aged just 21. Leitner was abroad from 1864, firstly in India, then in Europe, returning to England in 1881 with an ambitious project in mind.

Leitner wanted to establish a European centre for the study of Oriental languages, history and culture and was on the prowl, looking for a suitable site, which he came across in 1883, in the guise of the former Royal Dramatic College in Woking, a onetime retirement home for pensioned-off actors. It was here that Leitner duly opened his Oriental institute (1885). Woking, at this time, was still a rather 'under-developed' commuter town, despite its railway impetus. The idea was that visiting dignitaries from India could stay at the Institute and study in congenial surroundings and extensive grounds. It was also a place where Europeans heading the other way could swot up on the language and culture before they departed these shores. The Institute would go on to award degrees under the auspices of the University of the Punjab.

A few years after that, Leitner set about erecting a mosque in the grounds, which was designed by the architect W. L. Chambers, and intended for the religious needs of his Muslim students. After Leitner's death (March 22, 1899), the institute ceased to operate, however, the mosque project continued and was all-but finished by the August, with its date of opening, although seemingly not recorded anywhere, assumed to have been in October-November of the same year. This is the time indicated by the Woking Muslim Mission ('Lahore Ahmadiyya'), which became established at the mosque from 1913, and has carried out most of the historic research on the subject. That October-November approximation is borne out by an article in the Illustrated London News, dated November 9, 1899, which features the mosque and an engraving of it, so it's a fair assumption that it was open by this date. There seems to have been a hiatus, however, caused by the death of Leitner, which led to the newly-opened mosque also falling into disuse between 1900 and 1912.

The mosque's fortunes took a turn for the better when the neglected building was spotted by an Indian lawyer, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870-1936), who gave up a lucrative legal practice, purchased the site and established the Muslim Mission at the mosque, whose purpose was to spread the message of Islam to the people of Great Britain. Khwaja saw Woking as the 'Mecca of the West'. Among the early converts was Rowland Allanson-Winn, Lord Headley (1855-1935), a peer of the realm, which gave the mosque and its Mission additional kudos.

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Headley was a great campaigner for the rights of Muslims, arguing that there were more Muslims in the British Empire than there were Christians. Under Khwaja's stewardship, the Mission published a quarterly periodical, the 'Islamic Review'. The mosque, once re-established, would set about fulfilling its prime role, becoming a centre of Islamic life and religion in this country, and would remain the pre-eminent centre of Islam in the UK, certainly up to the 1950s-60s.

The mosque is Grade I Listed (the only Grade I Listed mosque in the UK) and is presented in a 'Persian-Saracenic Revival' style (or 'Indo-Saracenic') and is built of Bath and Bargate stone and adorned with geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy. Persia was the former name of Iran and 'Saracen' was a term widely-used by Christian writers of the Middle Ages to describe Muslims, so we're looking at something that is a throwback (revival) of a Persian/Iranian, or Indian Muslim style of the past. It has one large dome, miniature minarets, plus a courtyard, and has capacity for 600 worshippers, with five prayers held each day. The 'Shah Jahan' name comes from Sultan Shah Jahan, the Nawab (ruler) Begum (female) of Bhopal (1868-1901), who made significant contributions towards the cost of building the mosque.

The inspiration behind the mosque (Leitner) and its main benefactor (Begum of Bhopal) were both dead within 18 months or so of its opening, but the Shah Jahan's foundations were strong enough to guarantee its survival and future prosperity. Leitner would be buried locally, in Surrey's Brookwood Cemetery, as would Lord Headley. During the First World War meanwhile, the incumbent Imam, Sadr-ud-Din, petitioned for a nearby plot of land to be used as a Muslim burial ground for Indian soldiers, and, by 1917, the bodies of 19 Muslim soldiers had been interred here, at a site on nearby Horsell Common. Some, at least, of those brave Muslim servicemen, had found a permanent home.

The Shah Jahan promotes understanding, peace and harmony through interfaith activities, which sounds like the kind of tolerant, open-minded thinking that we need today. The Shah Jahan, which is today a 'Sunni' mosque has recently completed its own heritage project, which explored the history and influence of the building, and of the wider Muslim community, in Woking. It has also recently undergone a renovation, restoring it back to its former glory and continues to act as the local mosque for Woking and neighbouring areas. The mosque is open to visitors all year round and is also a registered charity.

The Shah Jahan Mosque, 149 Oriental Road, Woking, GU22 7BA; shahjahanmosque.org.uk

An archive collection has been created and is available to search at the mosque by appointment, and at the Surrey History Centre, and via the website everydaymuslim.org. A free anniversary exhibition devoted to the mosque will be at the Lightbox from November 5 to 28 2019


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