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Surrey’s oriental delight - Lucinda Lambton

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | May 20, 2022

In 1889, Britain’s first purpose-built mosque was erected in Woking – and it’s pure joy. By Lucinda Lambton

The mosque at Woking is the first purpose-built mosque in England, constructed in 1889.

Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘sincere and dignified’ – yet quite dancing with the architectural gaiety of the Indo-Islamic style – it is a very great surprise to come upon when run to ground in Woking! It quite knocks you for six.

Standing in Oriental Road, it was built by Dr Gottlieb Leitner, a distinguished orientalist and linguist from Hungary, and was partly funded by Begum Shah Jahan, the female ruler of what was to become, in our time, the benighted Indian state of Bhopal.

Built in the ‘Art Arabe’ architectural style, it is replete with a wealth of geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy, inspired by decorations from the India Office in the British Library. It has a fine, exhilarating architectural delight at every turn.

In the early 1880s Leitner bought the former Royal Dramatic College building in Woking, where he was to establish the Oriental Institute to promote Eastern literature and learning. He also set it up as the institution for awarding degrees from the University of Punjab in Lahore in India.

The architect he commissioned for what was to become this little eastern jewel in England was William Isaac Chambers – designer of a number of fanciful Irish houses – who chose Bath and Bargate stone for the main body of the building that supports the dome and the minarets.

Drawing by the mosque’s architect, William Isaac Chambers, 1889

The first formal place of Islamic worship to be built in the country, it has been listed Grade I. Important visitors were legion: a berobed Emperor Haile Selassie came here in 1936 and Queen Victoria’s secretary, Abdul Karim, was a frequent worshipper from nearby Windsor Castle.

By 1917, Woking’s Shah Jahan Mosque had become the centre for Islam in Britain, when the incumbent Imam, Sadr-ud-Din, arranged that a nearby piece of land be used as a burial ground for the 19 Indian soldiers who had been in the Indian hospital established in Brighton Pavilion.

Woking’s mosque is still in vibrant working order today. Better still, it has recently been meticulously restored, with umpteen modernised facilities, such as video tours on its extensive, well-informed website, welcoming visitors and worshippers alike.

With a capacity for 600 and five prayer meetings a day, it is a most actively running concern.

There are many Shah Jahan Mosques. One, known as the Jamia Masjid of Thatta, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, displays the greatest triumph of 17th-century decoration. Every inch is smothered in brilliant cobalt-blue tiles, swirled through with turquoise, ‘manganese violet’ and white tiles. They are arranged in stellated patterns to represent the heavens. It is considered to be the finest display of tilework in South Asia. As for the building’s laying of geometric brickwork, your heart races with excitement at its convolutions.

We must, though, return to Woking. The charming mosque’s creator, Leitner, was a Jewish-Hungarian scholar with a remarkable gift for languages, who by the age of ten had mastered Turkish, Arabic and most European tongues.

At only 15, he was appointed Interpreter (First Class) to the British Commissariat in the Crimea, with the rank of colonel. During a tour of Muslim countries, he adopted the Muslim name of Abdur Rasheed Sayyah – sayyah is Arabic for traveller.

By just 23, he was the Professor of Arabic and Muslim Law at King’s College London. Later he became Principal of the Government College in Lahore. He founded many schools, public libraries and literary associations, as well as writing academic journals and umpteen books, including a scholarly work in two volumes on the History of Islam which he wrote in Urdu!

Alongside the architect, Chambers, other equally colourful geniuses were associated with this eastern delight. A Lord Headley was one. A convert, he wrote copiously on Islam as well as laying plans – which sadly never materialised – to build a grand mosque in London. In 1937, a plot was chosen near Olympia, and the foundation stone was even laid, by the heir to the Nizam of Hyderabad. All to no avail.

Headley became a championship boxer and also a newspaper editor, as well as a successful civil engineer with a passionate interest in coastal defence.

Meanwhile, throughout all these activities he was undertaking long journeys to Egypt and India, for the cause of Islam. Elected the President of the British Muslim Society, he was, his obituarists wrote, ‘a true son of Islam … May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon his soul.’

There were many more heroes who brought the Woking mosque into being, including William Henry Gwilliam (1856-1932), who changed his name to Shaykh al-Islam Abdullah Quilliam. He was born in Liverpool, where, thanks to a donation from Nasrullah Khan, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Afghanistan, he bought three adjoining houses which were the first in the country to be converted into a functioning mosque, also in 1889. (The Woking mosque was purpose-built.)

The Ottoman Caliph gave Gwilliam the title Shaykh al-Islam for the British Isles, while the Emir of Afghanistan recognised him as the Sheikh of Muslims in Britain. What an assembly of characters, to be sure!

This Eastern addition to the Surrey countryside in a Persian-Saracenic style, with a dome, four minarets and a central courtyard, is a most marvellous treasure.

Unexpected fame came to the building in 1898, with the publication of H G Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which it is set on fire.

As an added colourful root, the mosque was partly paid for by Sultan Shah Jahan, Begum of Bhopal.

This Islamic place of worship, created by a Jewish Hungarian, funded by a female Sultan, built in the English countryside and patronised by renowned Muslims far and wide, is as strange a discovery as can be imagined.