Woking is British suburbia.
Stepping out from its rail station, past a few convenience stores and fast-food outlets, sightlines are dominated by architecture from the 1930s, a period when London expanded into new suburbs that ringed the city. Woking is still the heart of what is known as the Stockbroker Belt, a string of upmarket communities south of London in Surrey, a county known for golf clubs and horse racing.
A left turn brings on bay-front brick homes with eave roofs, flanking the tree-shaded street. Traffic passes. All is placid. Only the street’s name hints at an unlikely tale: Oriental Road.
I am here in search of a mosque.
On foot is the best way, in part because it’s only a kilometer down Oriental Road. But it also makes sense because the Shah Jahan Mosque is the starting point of Britain’s new Muslim Heritage Trails. Walking is the point.
The mosque’s backstory begins with a child prodigy born 180 years ago in Pest, now part of Budapest, capital of Hungary. By the age of 10, in 1850, Gottlieb Leitner was already fluent in several European languages. His parents sent him to Constantinople—modern Istanbul—to study Turkish and Arabic. By 15 he was interpreting for the British government in Crimea.
In his early 20s, he was made a professor of Arabic at King’s College London. From there he traveled to British-controlled India. As well as directing public education programs in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and founding institutions including the University of the Punjab, Leitner was increasingly drawn to what we today think of as building bridges of cross-cultural understanding—all while advising colonial officials on policy and publishing a history of Islam in Urdu.
This gifted linguist returned to England in 1881 with the goal of promoting public knowledge of Islam and Islamic cultures. He sought to establish a center for the study of what was then termed “Oriental” languages and histories, and he found the perfect site in Woking. A red brick building in neo-Gothic style, put up beside Woking’s rail line in 1862 as a home for retired actors but vacant for several years, became Leitner’s Oriental Institute. Opened in 1884, the institute quickly established a reputation for its scholarship, and it published journals in Arabic, English and Urdu, awarded degrees and attracted students from around the world.
It did not, however, outlive its founder. The years following Leitner’s death in 1899 saw the institute’s collections dispersed and its buildings converted to industrial units that almost a century later were razed and replaced with retail stores.
What has survived is the Shah Jahan Mosque, built in 1889 to serve the institute’s Muslim students and scholars. Leitner oversaw its construction adjacent to the institute. I found the mosque down Oriental Road, almost hidden amid the generous houses and trees. Cuboid with an arched facade imitating Indian Mughal style, it is clad in white and topped by a dome of green.
To Nikolaus Pevsner, Britain’s preeminent 20th-century architectural historian, it was “sincere and dignified.” Historically, it is the oldest purpose-built mosque in Britain. (The country’s oldest mosque was established two years earlier within an existing house in Liverpool.)
Leitner’s own religious life was eclectic. Born into a Jewish family, he spent most of his life studying, teaching and supporting Islam, and he adopted a Christian religious identification from his stepfather.
Thanks to patronage received from Sultana Shah Jahan Begum, the ruler of the Indian state of Bhopal, Leitner named the mosque for her. Like the institute, it fell into disuse after Leitner’s death, but in 1913, lawyer and scholar Khwaja Kamal ud-Din, who arrived in Britain from Punjab, India, gave new life to what he called “this mosque in a non-Muslim land.” It went on to become, in the words of architect Shahed Saleem, “the center of Islam in England,” into the post-World War II decades when migrations from independent India, Pakistan and Bangladesh created new nodes of settlement across Britain.
Today it’s the focus of Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trails.
“History starts somewhere. In 15 or 20 years, this material will be history to that generation.”
“There is very little that preserves the stories of Muslims in Britain,” says Sadiya Ahmed, founder of the Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative, which is backing the project. “We are beginning [to assemble] an archive for the Muslim community here.”
The initiative, Ahmed says, stems from her efforts to help her children connect with their own multiple identities. Searching for resources, she realized that Muslim history in Britain was not being systematically documented.
“I thought if we knew a bit more about our families’ histories, we might have a better foundation. We are so diverse as a community in Britain—Indian Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, Arabs, Black Muslims who are African or Afro-Caribbean, converts to Islam—but we have different foods, different cultures, different languages. These stories are a way of learning about each other as a community,” she says.
Other projects launched by Everyday Muslim, run by volunteers and funded almost entirely by national heritage grants, include examining patterns of 20th-century migration in London’s East End and preserving stories from London’s Black Muslim communities.
“The base foundation of everything we do is collect oral histories,” she says, noting that the archival material is then digitized and made public.
Ahmed recalls that in 2012 she caught wind of discussions in Woking among academics, historians and the Shah Jahan Mosque community about ways to showcase the town’s unique Islamic history.
“My research and examination of these three sites told me immediately their stories had the potential to change Britain’s popular historical narrative.”
She credits a visit to the mosque by journalist and travel writer Tharik Hussain, who specializes in Islamic heritages, especially across Europe. After his visit, Ahmed says, he called her and said, “I’ve made this discovery. They’ve got all this archival material!”
Hussain was a child when his family moved in the early 1980s to Britain from Bangladesh. Recently, his 2016–17 BBC Radio series on mosques in the US won top honors at the New York Festivals Radio Awards.
“Given my personal and professional interest in British Muslim heritage,” he says, “I was left astounded by the [depth] of history.”
It turns out that it wasn’t just the mosque.
In 1884, while establishing the Oriental Institute, Leitner also created Britain’s first Muslim cemetery, a plot for Muslim use within Brookwood, then the largest cemetery in Europe and on the edge of Woking. The Muhammadan Cemetery, as it was known, waited until 1895 to record its first burial: Sheikh Nubie, an Indian juggler who died while on tour in London.
In 1915, amid the cataclysm of World War I, the British government—advised by the mosque’s imam—commissioned another burial ground, this one dedicated specifically to fallen British Muslim soldiers. On a wooded site at Horsell Common, the Woking Muslim War Cemetery, as it was known, was designed in Mughal style to match the mosque, with a domed archway entrance and ornamental minarets at the corners of a brick perimeter wall. Eighteen servicemen were laid there to rest. Later, they were joined by others who perished fighting for British and Free French forces in World War II.
“My research and examination of these three sites told me immediately their stories had the potential to change Britain’s popular historical narrative,” says Hussain. “It made sense to use [Everyday Muslim’s] expertise to develop a project that would make this heritage more visible.”
“I’m a travel writer,” he says. “I’ve always loved the way walking trails around the world allow visitors, regardless of age, background, education or otherwise, to really immerse themselves in the local history and heritage of a place in an interesting, fun and accessible way,” he says.
While Hussain developed the idea of creating a Muslim Heritage Trail to link the sites around Woking, Ahmed reached out to donors. In addition, she says, the partners recruited volunteer researchers from all over the world to gather historical information and write it up in the format of the trails. Locally, oral histories too became a way to “leave a legacy with the Woking community, to say, ‘You are part of that history,’” Ahmed says. “We wanted to show that their stories are just as important to wider British history.”
The first part of the Muslim Heritage Trail leads north from the mosque for about a kilometer to the former Muslim War Cemetery. The site had lain forgotten since 1969, when the remains of all those interred were moved to the Brookwood Cemetery. In 2015, community organizers and volunteers revived it as a Peace Garden, a haven for contemplation overlooked by a commemorative stone carved with the names of those once buried there. It is a tranquil, wooded spot with a central reflecting pool.
But the main research focused on the Muhammadan Cemetery within Brookwood, which lies west of the mosque by about 7 kilometers.
There, Hussain walks with me between the graves that cluster around the stone placed by Leitner to mark the qibla, or direction of prayer toward Makkah. It is also inscribed with instructions on Muslim burial practices. Among the dozens of memorials, I rest my hand on the gravestone of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), novelist, journalist, Muslim convert and the first native English-speaking Muslim to publish an English interpretation of the Qur’an.
Pickthall was one among several British intellectuals, explorers, imperial officials and aristocrats who chose to become Muslims in the decades preceding and following World War I. Others included William Quilliam (1856-1932), who took the name Abdullah and, in addition to opening the mosque in Liverpool, was also appointed leader of Britain’s Muslims by Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II. Hussain explains that while we know Quilliam was laid to rest in Brookwood, the location of his grave remains unknown.
Not far from Pickthall’s headstone is that of Lord Rowland Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley (1855-1935), who became a Muslim at the age of 58 and took the name Rahmatullah al-Farooq. In his later years, he founded the British Muslim Society and made the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Makkah, as noted on his headstone by the honorific al-Haj inscribed in Arabic below his family’s crest.
There are also more recent burials: world-renowned British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016); writer and teacher Idries Shah (1924-1996); Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali (1936-1987); the last king of what was in his time called North Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr (1926-1996); and Hayriya Aisha (1914-2006), Ottoman imperial princess and princess of Berar in central India, a campaigner for women’s education and civil rights.
In a far corner, Hussain leads me to a small stone marked “Sherefa Musbah Haidar, died January 1977.”
There, he told me a story.
Years before, browsing in a bookstore, he happened upon a used volume titled Arabesque, authored by Her Royal Highness Princess Musbah Haidar. Curious, he bought it. Haidar was born in 1918, the second daughter of Ali Haidar, whom the Ottoman imperial authorities had appointed in 1916 to lead Makkah, replacing the instigator of the Arab Revolt against the empire, Sharif Husayn ibn Ali. Like Husayn, Haidar traced his family lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. Musbah’s mother was of Irish descent, and as an adult Musbah moved to England and married a major in the British army. He died in 1966, she in 1977. They were buried here together, but the story, Hussain says, had been forgotten. Although her lineage is not greatly unusual—many families and tribes around the world claim descent from the Prophet—Hussain was fascinated by this “real-life British—or British-Irish-Turkish” descendant of the Prophet, the only known sharifa in Britain.
Leitner’s qibla stone is now fronted by a circular blue plaque, the familiar device in Britain marking sites of historical interest. The library at the Shah Jahan Mosque, which already held substantial records of the Woking community since its foundation, now also holds the oral history recordings, transcripts and images gathered by Ahmed and her colleagues in 2017 and 2018.
“History starts somewhere,” says Ahmed. “In 15 or 20 years, this material will be history to that generation.”
At the formal opening ceremony for the trails in July 2019, Sir Laurie Magnus, chairman of the government-funded preservation organization Historic England, declared “Muslim heritage is very much a part of Britain’s heritage.”
To Di Stiff, an archivist at Woking’s Surrey History Centre, “It’s really important for the local community to know that their Muslim heritage is accessible. And these trails are popular,” she adds. After the opening, “our stock of trail leaflets went in a few days!”
“It’s really important for the local community to know that their Muslim heritage is accessible.”
Further projects beckon. Everyday Muslim is seeking to create another Muslim heritage trail linking sites around Britain visited by US activist Malcolm X in 1964 and 1965. Hussain says that in Liverpool there is potential for trails focusing on the legacy of Quilliam, and that on England’s north-east coast, in South Shields, future trails may trace sites significant to the long-rooted Yemeni communities there.
As for Leitner himself, he was laid to rest in Brookwood too, but in a Christian section almost a kilometer from the Muhammadan Cemetery. His monument, grandly carved, tops the ferns and grasses, and it is inset with a bust of the man sporting stylishly 19th-century whiskers.
At its base, under the inscriptions in English, runs a single line of Arabic: al-ilmu khayrun min al-maali—knowledge is better than wealth.