Exploring the rich history of the UK's 'miracle mosque'

Shah Jahan is a vibrant hub of community and cultural exchange

Take a look at the UK's oldest mosque

Take a look at the UK's oldest mosque
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Fifty kilometres from London the Shah Jahan Mosque stands as a beacon of historical and cultural significance.

It holds a remarkable place in history as the first purpose-built mosque in the UK and Northern Europe.

The mosque in the town of Woking embodies a rich tapestry of history, spirituality and community unity.

The Grade I listed building was built in 1889 and is fondly known as the Miracle Mosque due to the multi-faith nature of its establishment at a time when there were few Muslims in the UK.

Though often celebrated as the oldest mosque in the UK, the Shah Jahan was actually preceded by the establishment of the Liverpool Mosque and Muslim Institute in 1887.

A monument of interfaith harmony

Mohamed Habib, the manager of the Shah Jahan Mosque, told The National: “The person who built the mosque, Dr Leitner, was actually Jewish, the man who designed the mosque, William Chambers, was Christian, and the prince who paid for it was Muslim. So it shows all three Abrahamic traditions worked together."

Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a Hungarian-British Orientalist founded the mosque as a place of worship for students.

“The reason why he built the mosque is he set up something called the Oriental Institute of Learning and he built the mosque as a place of worship for students that were coming to study at the college from India,” Mr Habib said.

This institute, founded in 1881, was dedicated to promoting Asian literature and awarded degrees from the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan.

The mosque's construction was partly funded by Sultan Shah Jahan Begum of Bhopal.

Designed by William Isaac Chambers, it incorporates elements of late Mughal style, featuring a dome, minarets and a courtyard.

Built from Bath and Bargate stone, its alignment with Makkah was established by a ship's captain brought in for this purpose.

The architecture of Shah Jahan was described by Pevsner Architectural Guides as “extraordinarily dignified”.

Queen Victoria's British-Indian employees, such as her secretary Abdul Karim, frequented the mosque during her visits to Windsor Castle, which is a mere 25km from Woking.

More than just a place of worship

After Dr Leitner's death in 1899, the mosque fell into disuse until 1913. During this period, the London Mosque Fund, established in 1910, formed the Woking Mosque Trust, which took over the title deeds and the management of the building and related properties in 1912 and 1915, respectively.

A revival of the mosque's significance came with the appointment of Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, a prominent Kashmiri lawyer, as the imam.

Under his leadership, the mosque gained prominence, attracting royal visitors and notable converts such as Lord Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall.

During the First World War, the mosque played a vital role in the Islamic community, petitioning the UK government to grant nearby land as a burial ground for British-Indian Muslim soldiers, leading to the construction of a Grade II-listed burial ground that received the bodies of 19 soldiers.

In 1922, the mosque hosted a public celebration on the occasion of Eid Al Fitr.

It was during this event that Kamal-ud-Din announced the naming of the mosque after its benefactor Shah Jahan.

Until the 1960s, before many Pakistani immigrants began arriving in the UK, the Shah Jahan Mosque was considered the centre of Islam in Britain.

It was a hub for Islamic literature and scholarship, where The Islamic Review and Maulana Muhammad Ali's popular English translations of the Quran were published.

The mosque has welcomed distinguished visitors including Faisal bin Abdulaziz, former king of Saudi Arabia, former governor-general of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and former emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie.

It became a pivotal centre for Islam in Europe.

Hafiz Hashmi, the current imam, highlighted the mosque's role in fostering community spirit and interfaith dialogue.

“The Muslim-Christian Forum, Muslim-Jewish Forum and people of non-faith interaction bring different communities together, and we work for the commonalities,” he said.

The mosque provides sporting projects for youth and programmes for the elderly, reflecting the UK's evolving multicultural landscape.

As the UK continues to embrace multiculturalism, the Shah Jahan Mosque remains a symbol of unity and co-operation.

“The community and the imams take part and we will keep taking part and continue our interfaith activities,” Mr Hashmi said.

Updated: December 22, 2023, 10:39 AM