British Muslim Heritage
Muslims of London: A Brief Historical Overview
The Tudor to the WW2 Period

Sharing somethings in common, that being no love lost for the Spanish monarchy (which was a common threat) and an interest in trade, formal relations had existed between Morocco and England certainly since the 1550s. As England started its Age of Discovery, Queen Elizabeth I cemented the alliances her father had made with the Ottoman Empire, even making an arrangement for a military expeditionary force of Janissary Marines, if the Spaniards had managed to land from their Great Armada in 1588, to be dispatched in 1589 help dislodge them. Tudor England not only saw the influx of luxury goods from the Mediterranean basin, but soon the merchants began to come with them. London was built up as the main point of reception, and the Docklands area has been used for the receipt of trading vessels until relatively recently.

It was through a London-Marrakech alliance that any Muslim galley-slaves rescued from Spanish vessels would be repatriated to the Muslim world and would be guaranteed asylum in England in the interim. A similar arrangement also existed in return among the Moroccans and Ottomans, who would ship any English seamen rescued from the Spaniards back to England. This meant that the Londoner would have come across Muslims on the city’s streets quite early on.

In fact, much of this trade can be attributed to the famous English “sweet tooth”. The first shipment of goods from Morocco in 1574 contained 300 tons of refined sugar, 220 tons of molasses, 1400 pounds of sweetmeats, 600 pounds of marmalade, 6 tons of dates, and 30 tons of almonds.

The docks of London became a busy area quickly, not least with the appearances of such companies as the East India Company, the Levant Company, the Turkey Company, and the Barbary Company. The Turkey Company was established as early as 1581 and the Barbary Company in 1585, set up to strengthen the trade with Morocco. The East India Company, which received its first Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1600, expanded rapidly and eventually it became so powerful that it became the effective means of British rule in India. However, these companies also brought home many sailors – Lascars (from al-‘askar, “[ship’s] company”)– who worked the ships. By this means people came to London from all over the Orient, most of them initially from the Malay Archipelago and the shores of Canton, and later also from India, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and the Americas. The Lascars, if they did not settle permanently, were obliged to stay in London for at least six weeks before even hoping for a return passage. There was a steady through-flow of vessels, so much so that commentators of the period claim that the docks were literally teeming with ships. (See The East India Company)

It is clear, therefore, that during this period there would have been a very real presence of Muslims in London, and it is possible that they had some sort of accommodation arrangement, if not actually a zawiyyah. Indeed, historian Nabil Matar mentions in his book Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 that, “… eight years before the appearance of Ross’s translation of “Alcoran” [1649], a sect of “Mahometans” had been discovered “here in London”, along with twenty-eight other “Divelish and Damnable sects”.” Matar further quotes from the 1641 document entitled Discovery of 29 Sects: “This sect is led along with a certaine foolish beliefe of Mahomet, which professed himselfe to be a Prophet, and this was his manner of deceiving: He taught a pigeon to pecke a pease from forth his eare, bearing the ignorant in hand that the Holy Ghost brought him newes from Heaven”. Matar considers that this might refer to possible converts to Islam in London during that time, although more likely it refers to a community of settled sailors, married to local women, with a smattering of converts (as happened later in Liverpool, Cardiff, and South Shields).

The Muslims who came to London were primarily sea-farers and merchants, but when diplomatic relations were not so good there could also be found Muslim prisoners held captive and tried for piracy. Queen Elizabeth’s successor, King James VI and I, was not pro-Muslim and popular opinion had an active imagination, dreaming of barbarian and licentious hordes conquering the Christian mind with coffee, the Qur’an and the turban, among other such infidel agents. Ironically it was during the more negative period that the Ottoman-inspired “Coffee House” started to take London society by storm. (See The London Coffee House)

The ups and downs of diplomacy at this time also brought many an ambassador to London, mainly from the Ottoman Empire and Morocco, and they were often accompanied by English converts to Islam, or “renegados” from Christianity. The Diary of John Evelyn notes that a “Renegado English man” escorted Moroccan ambassador Mohammad bin Hadu to London in 1682. Depending on the fashion of the time, these envoys were either welcomed at Court with pomp and celebration, or never had the pleasure of an initial meeting. Either way, “moors”, “saracens”, and “Turks” found themselves inserted into the plays and novels of the day, and were mostly portrayed as colourful and fairly evil characters.

To some extent the Slave Trade would have brought Muslim slaves to English shores directly from West Africa, however most of the slaves were taken to the Caribbean to be further abused there. Many accounts show Muslim slaves keeping records in Arabic, but it is difficult to connect these directly to London. There was an influx of escapees from the West Indies, who sometimes found their way to employment in one of the coffee-houses, if they were young enough to suit the “Blackboy” sign outside (See The London Coffee House). From as early as the Civil War Period, slaves were granted asylum and freedom in Britain if they could find their way to these shores. After the early nineteenth century Abolition of Slavery Act, this was extended to all the British dominions (although the Royal Navy and United States Navy had been collaborating to interdict “blackbirders”- slave ships - from 1785). It is likely that at least some of these slaves would have been of Muslim origin, but given the tendency of the slave-owners and slave-traders to completely suppress any former identity of their captives, it is not easy to put a figure to a number or a nation of origin, although it is likely that many of them were Wolof and Mandinka.

An example that does appear a bit later, however, is that of Edward Doulan, formerly Abu Bakr Siddiq of Jenne (in the Empire of Mali). He was an ‘alim taken as a slave and sent to Jamaica, where, because he was literate, he eventually became the estate stock-keeper recording everything in Arabic. He was discovered there by an Anglican vicar. It is not clear whether the vicar bought him from the plantation-owner, or whether he simply facilitated his escape, but either way Abu Bakr Siddiq returned to England with him. On reaching English soil, he was legally a free man. Eventually, having been paraded round London society for a while as a bit of a curiosity, he was aided in his return to Mali. Little is heard of him thereafter, but most hope that he lived happily ever after. 

Following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the founding of the Bank of England in 1694, came a period of consolidation of trade with the Muslim world, which included at this time not only the Ottomans and North Africa, but also the Mughal Empire by way of Bengal. The Dutch had previously been Britain’s rivals in trade with the Muslim world, but with the union of the kingdoms came a very powerful consolidation period. The Dutch had good relations with the Florentine and Venetian ports, which received goods from the Muslim world and sent them on their way over-land into the Continental markets. Prior to this, Britain had relied mainly on their sea-born connections, but the Prince of Orange brought the possibilities of Continental trade to London.

There followed the Age of Empire and the British Naval domination of the rest of the world, which brought the British contact with the Muslim world to a whole new dimension, and which tended to involve Britons going eastwards rather than the other way around. However, the British Court still held a fascination with the exotic, and many of the colonialists brought back with them servants and “ayahs” to show off their travels. Meanwhile the ambassadors and merchants continued their visits.

Diplomatic relations also played a part in bringing to London a number of the great treasures and monuments for which it is famous. For example, Cleopatra’s Needle, now sitting on Victoria Embankment, was gifted to Britain in 1819 by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, and is one of the two obelisks from 1475 BC Heliopolis. Something that will annoy London’s Greeks is the fact that the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles were legally bought by Lord Elgin from the Ottomans and legally gifted to the museum.

It is in the nineteenth century also that most of the identifiable figures turn up. Mr Sake Dean Mahomet, a merchant from Bengal, settled eventually in Brighton with his Irish wife, Jane Daley, but by way of running a curry house in London. (See The London Coffee House; Blue Plaques of Muslim London). He was so renowned for his therapeutic remedies, that he became King George IV’s “shampooing surgeon”. Another notable individual was Queen Victoria’s “munshi”, a certain ‘Abdul Karim, who became so powerful at Court that they never ceased in trumping up charges against him to try to curtail his influence.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were both great Orientalists, in the sense that they were impressed by the attractions of the Islamic World. Empirical politics aside, this drove Prince Albert particularly to a number of inspired endeavours, such as the Great Exhibition of the Works and Industry of All Nations in 1851, which by all accounts displayed wondrous things from all over the World. Although on the one hand it was supposed to be a celebration of all that the Empire had to offer, on the other hand it could also be viewed as one of the first multi-cultural exhibitions as it opened the minds of London Society to the rest of the world. Conscious that she now ruled more Muslim subjects than the Ottoman Emperor, it was also Queen Victoria who co-ordinated with the Caliph, Sultan ‘Abdul Hamid II (jannat makan), that the position of “Shaykhu-l Islam of the British Isles” be bestowed on a Manx convert and Qarawiyyin alumnus, ‘Abdullah Quilliam Bey.

Amongst Bryant Lillywhite’s list of London’s Coffee Houses, can be found another anomaly. Madame Tussaud’s is not, in fact, London’s first wax museum. Housed in St. George’s Gallery of Knightsbridge in 1854 could be found “The Oriental and Turkish Museum”. The figures were crafted by James Boggi and offered, “models from Eastern life, with costumes, arms and implements. Set scenes of Turkish baths, coffee-shops, and bazaars; a wedding, repasts, and councils; the palace, the harem, and the divan; street scenes…”.

It was in the nineteenth century, too, that the Orientalist movement in art and literature came into its own. The likes of Lord Leighton, Sir John Everett Millais, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and many others put onto canvas and other media their fascination with the Islamic and Neo-Classical worlds. Though not always Islamic in content, these paintings were often Islamic in influence and style. This circle of artists, who also congregated in coffee-houses, produced John Frederick Lewis and his inspired paintings of Ottoman scenes. Lewis’s works were far more sensitive and true to life than his French contemporaries such as Delacroix, who tended to let their salacious imaginations run riot (Lewis’s wife actually sketched the scenes of the women’s quarters for him).

Lord Leighton, in fact, designed and decorated his whole house in a heavily Islamicised style, with the help of William Morris’ wallpaper, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and William de Morgan. His close friend, Sir Richard Burton, the explorer about whom there is confusion as to whether he was actually Muslim, brought back original Iznik and Damascus tiles to Lord Leighton for use in his Arab Hall. The Arab Hall is itself typical of the over-elaborate Victorian house, and combines in one niche the Andalusian, Mughul, Mamluk, Syrian-Byzantine, and the Turkish styles for which the Islamic tradition is known. His house has been preserved in its original state, and can still be viewed by those interested (See Things to do in Muslim London).

Orientalist masterpieces can be found on display in a number of London’s famous museums (many of them, like the Victoria and Albert Museum, built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition), and in the more specialised Mathaf Gallery (See Things to do in Muslim London).

One of this elite circle, a Drury Lane theatre artist by the name of Hedley Churchward, actually took the plunge and converted to Islam, eventually settling in Cape Town with his Egyptian wife, where he is still famous to this day (See Famous Muslims of London).

Hedley Churchward was not alone in his conversion and among his contemporaries was Lord Stanley of Alderley, who was the first Muslim Member of the House of Lords as far as is known. The late nineteenth century also saw the “conversion phenomenon” coming into its own. Previous converts to Islam had tended to convert and settle in foreign climes. In this later period, however, converts started either to convert to Islam in Britain itself, or if they had converted whilst abroad they tended to return home eventually. Often they were viewed as the eccentrics of the Raj; and it was accepted that this was the kind of thing the Upper Classes would do for want of anything better to occupy their time. In fact, converts were tolerated in the Victorian and Edwardian periods to a greater degree than in the modern day, particularly in the diplomatic and military circles where it was seen as an advantage to have a Muslim sympathiser to build bridges.           

The convert period of the turn of the twentieth century also coincided with another type of Muslim coming to London, that of the student, and mostly from India (the Malay Peninsula was at this time still considered part of British India). Many of the noblemen and princes of the Muslim world sent their sons to British public schools in the hope that they would become “civilised” and refined. Students started to come over to study in the universities too. Considering the international politics of the time, there could thus be found in London diplomats and students from all over the Muslim world and in quite large numbers. They tended to congregate either in the famous Shah Jehan Mosque of Woking, or in a long-forgotten Notting Hill Mosque and Islamic Centre, which was run by the British Islamic Society. The British Islamic Society seems to have been run almost exclusively by the high-profile converts of the day, including among others Muhammad Pickthall and Lady Khalida Buchanan-Hamilton.

Other organisations that appear in the accounts of Edwardian Muslim London include the Western Muslim Association, of which Dr Khalid Sheldrake – an Esperanto enthusiast and sometime Emir of Kashghar - was President; the Islamic Information Bureau and the Muslim Literary Society. It is likely that these all either existed under the one roof of the Campden Hill Road Mosque, or that there was a cluster of Muslim-owned buildings in the Notting Hill area at this time. It was from the Islamic Information Bureau that newly-converted Muhammad Pickthall published the weekly journal Muslim Outlook, at it was at the Notting Hill Mosque and Prayer Hall that he was made Acting Imam in 1919. Peter Clark, Pickthall’s literary biographer, also notes that, “An Islamic Society existed from 1907. This was the successor to the Pan-Islamic Society which itself had taken over from Anjuman-i-Islam, founded in 1886”.

Strangely enough, one of Britain’s leading modern organisations, the Union of Muslim Organisations of the UK and Eire, is situated, at No 109, right next door to the former Notting Hill Mosque of 111 Campden Hill Road.

This community maintained strong connections with the Woking Muslim Mission, which also published, among others, the Islamic Review and the Islamic Review and Modern India, and received visitors from all over the Muslim world, including the soon to be created kings and princes of Saudi Arabia. The Nizam of Hyderabad and his sons also maintained a nostalgic connection with the mosque and many a British Muslim family could be found there.

Peter Clark also notes that in 1924, “it was reckoned that thirty regularly attended prayers at the Woking Mosque, that there were a thousand British Muslims scattered about the country and 10,000 Muslims from overseas” (See Bibliography for details).

The opening of the Suez Canal in the mid-nineteenth century had prompted specifically Yemeni and Somali sailors to settle in the Docklands area. However, The Museum of London suggests that as far as London’s Arab community goes, the Iraqis arrived in the 1930s, the Egyptians in the 1940s-50s, and the first Moroccans appeared in the 1950s-60s.

The Thirties also saw the formation of the Muslim Society of Great Britain by Ismail de Yorke, but it is unclear whether this took over from the previous British Islamic Society and the Western Muslim Association, or whether it was simply a new organisation for a new group of Muslims.  

The arrival of the Second World War and the famous Blitz had interrupted much of this progress. The Post-Partition period in 1947 saw the departure of London’s Indian ex-pat community as many of them returned to the sub-continent to assume political or diplomatic posts. The British Islamic Society of 111 Campden Hill Road seems to have disappeared thereafter, and the Woking Muslim Mission was “Islamicised” in the 1970s with the arrival of a wave of post-war migrants mostly of a lower social profile than the existing established Muslim community. Although The Islamic Review continued to be published into the late 1960s (it closed in 1968), the old community had been brushed aside by the migrants and thereupon arrived a New World Order for the London Muslim community. Sadly, little is known about what became of the “thousand British Muslims” and their families. | British Muslim Heritage