London probably has more mosques than any other city in the Western world, save Turkey, although estimations as to just how many can only vary. The first mosque in London that we know of was at 111 Campden Hill Road in Notting Hill Gate. How long this had been established is not known, although an Islamic Society, among other organisations that seem to have functioned from there, had been in existence since 1886 and it is unclear whether the mosque also functioned from that date. It was certainly very active from Edwardian times until the late 1930s. It is not known when the mosque closed, but perhaps it was some time during the Second World War, when so many social institutions were thrown into chaos. Or it may have suffered from the post-war migrations back to the sub-continent, when Independence was imminent, and the consequent loss of so many of its prominent members. This is also what had happened with the London Mosque Trust that was negotiating for building the mosque in Regent’s Park.
Woking Mosque, although just outside London, was the main focal point for the London Muslim community at the turn of the 20th century, and until the late 1960s. And it was through the personalities of the Woking Muslim Mission that land and money was granted by King George VI and his government in 1944 for the building of the Regent’s Park Mosque. These two projects were soon to be followed by the opening of the East London Mosque in 1941, which remains one of London’s oldest and most active community institutions. Until the last two or three decades, many “mosques” were confined to small buildings and were in reality only prayer-rooms. However, the community now enjoys spacious, new buildings with some very good facilities for both men and women, and mosques are being built all the time.
These buildings and their upkeep have been funded by a number of means, some of which include grants from the foreign-interest investors of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, among others. Others have been built by way of a loan and now seek help in paying off the debts. And others, such as the Regent’s Park Mosque, were fortunate enough to receive financial help from the government (but this is a changeable thing).
All of the various mosques reflect the communities that they serve, for the most part. This will be reflected in its activities and services, if any. The architecture, generally speaking, reflects not the community or the local area, but whatever the current building trends may have been in the area of funding. Although a number of mosques also now inhabit old churches and some very attractive listed buildings, and one of London’s most quaint can be found in Soho, a neighbour to a number of vegetarian cafes, and hidden behind the Berwick Street Market flower stall.
A number of mosques are beginning to become very efficient and are responding to the needs of their congregations. Whereas others are still falling foul of Muslim London’s cultural shifts and it is common to find an imam who cannot communicate with his congregation because they both speak different languages.
The question of imams and their effectiveness vis-à-vis those they are supposed to be serving is one that has been raised constantly over recent years. People are beginning to demand home-grown imams in preference to those being sent from abroad. Some educational facilities are now trying to find ways to train imams locally so that they do not have to be sent overseas to study, and so that in doing so their training would actually equip them for the conditions of the society that they are serving. These training courses have yet to strike the right balance in their curricula, as they are, for the most part, trying to turn out ulema better suited to countries of origin rather than competent imams for the United Kingdom; although it is a step in the right direction.
Shah Jehan Mosque, 149 Oriental Road, Woking, Surrey
Woking Mosque is probably not only Britain’s oldest existing, but also its most attractive mosque. It was designed by Dr Leitner, an Orientalist of Hungarian origin, who is said to have taken his inspiration for it from the Taj Mahal at Agra in India. It was named the Shah Jehan mosque after its main benefactor, Her Highness, the Begum Shah Jehan, ruler of Bhopal State. Although completed in the 1890s, it was left unused until Khwaja Kamaluddin discovered it in 1913. Dr Leitner’s son had been on the verge of selling it off, but Khwaja Kamaluddin took the case to court and managed to argue that it was a religious building and therefore not part of Dr Leitner’s estate.
It remains unclear as to whether Dr Leitner was actually a Muslim. He opened an Oriental Institute in Woking’s Royal Dramatic Society building, which role was later taken on by the School of Oriental and African Studies (founded 1911). He had taken a Muslim name, and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
In 1913, the Woking Muslim Mission was established, and through their work gained many souls for Islam. It worked closely with the Notting Hill Muslim group and many of London’s leading Muslims not only attended Woking Mosque for major functions, but contributed to the publications printed there. Likewise, Khwaja Kamaluddin remained a close friend of Muslim activities in London. It was again through Woking Mosque that a great number of important visitors from all over the Muslim world were able to appreciate Muslim life while abroad, and were able to come into contact with the many scholars, activists and enthusiasts of the community at that time.
After Partition in 1947, a large number of the Indian writers, activists, scholars and students that had been living in London decided to return home. At the same time, a wave of new migrants from the sub-continent came over to replace them. Perhaps things started to change at this time, but Woking Mosque remained active as its former self into the mid-1960s, when its publications ceased. The old management of the Woking Muslim Mission was attacked for its “Ahmadiyya” tendencies. A coup d’etat occurred and a new management committee installed. It remains a functioning and busy mosque to this day, though with changed emphasis and different priorities. Situated next to the railway station, it is still one of Woking’s most pleasant local institutions, and all those interested in the history of Muslim London would probably benefit from a visit to the Shah Jehan.
Regent’s Park Mosque, 146 Park Road, London NW8
Regent’s Park Mosque, or “Islamic Cultural Centre and London Central Mosque”, was built on the site of Hanover Lodge granted by King George VI in exchange for land in Cairo where an Anglican cathedral could be built. Although its official opening was in 1944, which was attended by the King himself, it did not become the current mosque until 1977.
The Mosque Trust has always had members from a number of different Muslim countries, and it is to this day used as a work-placement for junior embassy staff. The imams are mainly from Al-Azhar, and its constitution was formulated originally by many interested scholars of the day, mainly Al-Hajj ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali CBE, Sir Syed Ameer ‘Ali, Sir Firoze Khan Noor and Sir Hasan Suhrawardi. The original building, which has since been replaced by the wonders of today, was attended by such personalities as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Rajah of Mahmudabad (who was one of its Directors).
The original design for a new building was put aside, but an alternative Egyptian scheme was not followed up and a competition was instituted. Many architects competed for the job, and among the ideas that were offered were scaled versions of original architectural plans from some of the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul and Edirne. Sir Frederick Gibbert, designer of Liverpool Cathedral and a number of factories, was the architect who was finally chosen to build the complex that can be seen today.
It has been, since the end of World War II, a new focal point for the London Muslims of the area, and also for the many visitors to London who automatically head for it. It has hosted over the years many a conference, exhibition, school tour, advice session, lecture, meeting and, of course, Friday prayer. Sidi Hasan le Gai Eaton (scholar and world-famous author on Islam) has also been a dedicated feature of the Central Mosque until fairly recently. And it has been blessed with the input of a number of other leading figures during this time.
Although the modern Muslim Londoner is spoilt for choice with regard to mosques and so the need to congregate at Regent’s Park has to some extent been reduced, it still remains the most representative assembly of men and women every Friday. Muslims from every community in London can be found there, and if only for this reason alone it still justifies its reputation of bygone years.
Azizia Mosque, 117-119 Stoke Newington Road, London N16
The Azizia Mosque is one of the oldest Turkish mosques in London, although only dating back to the early 1980s, as former examples have now been closed or have become run-down. It attracts most of the Turkish community from the surrounding areas, old and some young, along with a representative mix of Kurds and some of the Asian communities.
The most interesting architectural aspect of this strange building is that it was originally one of Hackney’s historical cinemas, for which the whole Shoreditch area was once famous. Ironically, this particular cinema was previously called, “The Moorish Alhambra”, and the quasi-oriental style of its façade was perhaps an attempt to replicate its Andalusian namesake.
Whether the incoming Turkish community chose the cinema for this reason, or for its very useful space is another matter. Or, as one old-timer puts it, “I think they bought it because it has domes”. However, it has good facilities, including those for women, and is renowned across London for its excellent restaurant, to which people have been known to travel far and wide. It remains the cultural centre of the area and a stalwart religious institution. A neighbouring mosque, Shacklewell Lane Mosque, also inhabits a listed building that was a former synagogue, built in a very Andalusian style indicative of the architectural trends of the nineteenth century.
London Jamia Masjid, 59 Brick Lane, London E1
Brick Lane Mosque is another interesting historical anomaly, and a true reflection of the various communities that have inhabited the area at one point or other. It was originally established in 1743 as a Huguenot Church – at that time the area was inhabited by Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution in France. In 1809, it became a Wesleyan chapel (a Methodist group), and about 90 years later it was turned into the Spitalfields Great Synagogue for the Orthodox Jewish community. Finally, it reached mosque status in 1976 and it is still the main mosque of “Banglatown”, whose congregation is mainly Bangladeshi in origin.
Its exotic history, surrounded by grocery shops, textile shops where clothes can be tailored to fit, and some of London’s best curry-houses, certainly makes Brick Lane Mosque worth a visit.
Suleymaniye Mosque, 212-216 Kingsland Road, London E2
The Suleymaniye Mosque is one of London’s newest mosques. It was opened in the early-1990s, and has been built with Turkish funding. Due to its proximity to Old Street and the City, although the congregation is dominated by the Turkish community, it is also far more mixed than the Azizia Mosque further up in Dalston. The quasi-Ottoman architecture both inside and outside is tasteful, combining the modern down-toning of its exterior with the traditional Iznik tilework around the mihrab. The mosque also has a good function hall, has its own onsite school, and another popular canteen. It has become something of a local land-mark, not least following a visit in 2002 by HRH The Prince of Wales, with whom the old Turkish ladies had a nice chat. It is quickly becoming one of London’s key Islamic centres.