Britain’s First Mosque

Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking
ID 148869344 © Amanda Lewis | Dreamstime.com

The Shah Jahan Mosque epitomises Woking’s long-established connection with Islam. Built according to an Indo-Saracen style and decorated with Arab calligraphy, its dome and minarets stand tall over Oriental Road.

It was built in 1889 by an Orientalist named Gottfried Leitner, Hungarian by birth and of Jewish parentage.

A polyglot with extraordinary academic credentials, he was appointed to a professorial post at King’s College London in his early twenties before becoming Principal of the University of the Punjab.

In 1883 he established an Oriental Institute in what used to serve as the Royal Dramatic College. With funding from the Begum Shah Jahan, he constructed Britain’s first mosque. Designed by the architect William Isaac Chambers, the Mosque was built of Bath and Bargate stone.

The institute was designed for the use of visiting foreign dignitaries as well as the education of diplomats and other Europeans sent to work in India. The institute was linked with the University of Punjab and was certified to award degrees.

Following a brief period of neglect and disuse after Leitner’s death, the mosque was revitalised by an Indian lawyer, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din. It was the Khwaja who saved the mosque from being sold to developers.

Upon entering the disused mosque, the Khwaja encountered the Quran on its stand. Opening it, his eyes fell upon the following ayat: “Most surely the first house appointed for men is the one at Bekka, blessed and a guidance for nations” (3.95).

With tears in his eyes he prayed: “O Creator of Nations and All-Powerful God, Thou madest Mecca the holiest place in the East, and did nations in multitudes to that city. Make this mosque, I pray Thee, in like manner the Mecca in the West.”

Despite the scepticism he received from his compatriots in India, his newly-founded Woking Muslim Mission had considerable success in gaining converts including Lord Headley who became a good friend and a fellow champion of the cause. Out of 10,000 practising British Muslims in 1924, 1,000 are estimated to be converts. Headley would make a powerful case for government support for a mosque and Islamic centre in London, pointing out that the British Empire had a greater number of Muslims than Christians.

The mosque became an epicentre of tolerance and social justice, with converts ranging from the aristocracy to working-class men. The mission’s message was one of peace and kindness, unadulterated by cultural baggage. The Khwaja also started a periodical known as The Islamic Review, which would become the most important Muslim publication across all Western countries.

The mosque’s influence has declined following the postwar influx of Muslim immigrants from all over the British Empire, however, it continues to serve the neighbouring population. It takes great pride in engaging in interfaith activities, promoting teachings of peace for all irrespective of faith, culture or race.