Shah Jahan Mosque: Britain’s first purpose-built mosque
Although named Shah Jahan Mosque, Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, has nothing to do with the eponymous Mughal emperor. It was built by Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner in Woking in 1889. The same year in which Abdullah Quilliam opened a mosque in the Liverpool Muslim Institute. It was partly funded by Shah Jahan Begum, who was the begum of Bhopal, a princely state in India. Located about 50 Km southwest of London, Woking is a town in northwest Surrey.
Who built Shah Jahan Mosque?
Leitner was a renowned British orientalist. He was born in Hungary in 1840 in a Jewish family. He got his surname from his stepfather Johan Moritz Leitner. Leitner went on to become one of the foremost linguists of his times. He had a knowledge of 50 languages. He taught Arabic and Muslim Law at London’s King’s College. Besides, he had very strong ties with the Indian subcontinent as later in his life he became the Principal of Government College University, Lahore. And he was also instrumental in establishing the Punjab University in 1882. He retired from Indian Civil Service in 1886. On return to England he felt that Muslim students would greatly benefit from a mosque in or around London.
Litigation around it
Thus, Britain’s first purpose-built mosque came into being. It was designed by William Isaac Chambers and constructed with donations. Much of which came from the Begum of Bhopal, Sultan Shah Jahan, after whom the mosque was named. It went out of use shortly after Leitner’s death in 1899. His son, Henry Leitner, wanted to dispose of the property. However, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, a prominent Kashmiri Muslim, and the founder of the Working Muslim Mission, made plans to repair and reopen the mosque.
He took Leitner’s son to court. Arguing that a mosque was as much a consecrated ground as any church. Therefore, rights to a property on which a mosque was located must be limited in the same way as rights to church-properties are. Kamal-ud-Din won the litigation. He bought the property at a token price from Leitner’s son and reopened it in 1913.
Active Islamic centre in Britain
On its reopening the mosque became more popular and active than before. It became a centre for Islam in Britain. Between 1914 and the middle of the 1960s, members of the Lahore Ahmadiya Movement managed the affairs of the mosque. It published a journal titled Islamic Review. Popular English translations of the Holy Quran done by Maulana Muhammad Ali were also published by the Shah Jahan Mosque during these years. Many important British personalities who had converted to Islam were regular visitors to this mosque.
These included Lord Headley. Who on conversion to Islam became Sheikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. There was Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who is known for his book The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. This apart noted Muslim leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan visited the mosque. There were personalities like King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Salar Jung III, the prime minister of the Indian princely state of Hyderabad, and Tunku Abdul Rahman, who is regarded as Malaysia’s ‘founding father’ have been visitors to the Shah Jahan Mosque. It continues to be an important Islamic centre to this day.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)