Humayun Ansari
Professor of Islam and Cultural Diversity and the Director of the Centre for Minority Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London

Muslim engagement with British society in the 20th Century: the Woking Mosque

In the late 19th Century, a small mosque ‘of considerable beauty’ was built in the small and sedate town of Woking, Surrey.  Located in a very English rural setting, it surprisingly became the symbol and centre of Muslim activity in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century.  For many decades it attracted great interest from Muslims, high and low, in Britain and abroad.

That the first purpose-built mosque in Britain was constructed in Woking in 1889 can with some justification be put down to an historical accident. G. W. Leitner, an ex-Registrar at the University of Punjab in Lahore, fascinated by ‘Oriental’ religions, cultures and languages wanted to promote their learning. Short of money, he found a willing sponsor in the ruling Begum of Bhopal, and organised the building of the mosque.

After Leitner’s death, the site fell into disuse and his heirs were on the point of disposing of it when Khwaja Kamaluddin, a barrister from Lahore, answering ‘a call from within’, arrived in England in 1912 to take up missionary work.  In the summer of 1913 he visited the deserted mosque and decided to stay.  When Leitner’s heirs tried to have him evicted he refused to go, had its disposal stopped and proceeded to lay the foundations of the Woking Muslim Mission.  The mosque acquired symbolic and organisational centrality in the inter-war period for British Islam. Muslim dignitaries from abroad, including Amir Feisal of Saudi Arabia, invariably made a point of attending prayers at the mosque on their visits to Britain.

One of the Mission’s objectives was to build a viable Muslim community in Britain, in part at least through conversion. It was apparent that in order for Islam to prosper in Britain, it would have to be ‘indigenised’ as it had been elsewhere; and this would not happen if it continued to be perceived as an ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ religion practised by people who were attributed by the majority population with traits that made them inferior in their eyes. The Muslims connected with the mosque trod delicately. Contentious polemics were carefully avoided.  Nothing was said that could possibly offend anybody’s religious sensibilities.  Common ground was consciously sought.  Audiences were encouraged to do their own thinking.

Through the journal of the Woking Mission, The Islamic Review (distributed widely and free of charge), the Mission’s leading lights elaborated their views on the position of women in Islam, polygamy, prohibition on drinking of alcohol and eating of pork, usury, gambling, circumcision, fasting, zakat, prayer, and many other issues which aroused controversy or seemed at variance with Christian practice.  Instead of highlighting the differences between Christianity and Islam, they emphasised the commonality of the Abrahamic tradition of which the two religions, along with Judaism, they claimed, formed an important part.  Quoting from the Quran, they claimed that, unlike any other religion, Islam recognised that ‘every nation had an apostle’. Invoking the Quran, they preached tolerance stating that there was ‘no compulsion in religion’.

These Muslims were equally accommodating in their social behaviour. Much of their work was conducted with a light touch in a convivial atmosphere with due regard for the social etiquette, conventions and customs, modes of conduct and practices current at the time.  British cultural forms were adopted to give as little an impression of ‘strangeness’ as possible. Festivities were celebrated at prestigious hotels and restaurants. Every year Prophet Muhammad’s birthday was celebrated in London with festivities to which Muslim and non-Muslim luminaries were invited from all over the country. After the formal proceedings, which invariably included speeches, entertainment took a semi-religious or non-religious culturally diverse form. Fundamental to their strategy was the view of these Muslims that no culture has existed as an isolated whole.  To prosper it has always had to borrow and graft elements from other cultures.  Cultures have never been transplanted wholesale and this process will continue.  Following on from this understanding of cultural evolution they believed that nations can change dress, discard customs, supplement ideas and conceptions, improve social institutions and the rest without incurring the charge of ‘Westernization’ themselves. Their persuasive efforts resulted in the conversion of some notable figures of the British establishment.  These included the Cambridge-educated peer, Lord Headley; ‘translator’ of the Quran, Marmaduke Pickthall; Deputy Surgeon General in the Royal Navy, Sir Archibald Hamilton; and Lady Evelyn Cobbold, probably the first English woman to set foot in Mecca, whose vivid account of the hajj itself excited much interest at the time.

Throughout the inter-war period, the Woking Mission developed the notion not just of inter-faith dialogue but also that the religion of all reasonable people was the same. It is fascinating to see how they addressed some of the fundamental issues on which they might have felt vulnerable and under attack. On the question of apostasy, they categorically denied that the punishment was the death penalty.  They called for the disestablishment of the Church of England.  Purdah (veiling) in the British environment was deemed to be quite impracticable.  Public gatherings organised by the Mission and its offshoots were generally mixed affairs, as were the religious festivals and the larger congregations. Similarly, on the question of halal meat, the fatwa of Muhammad Abduh, the rector of Cairo’s famous Islamic seminary Al-Azhar, allowing the consumption of meat that had not been properly ritually slaughtered, was accepted (Abduh had sanctioned this in line with the Islamic principle of necessity ordarura). In these ways, we can observe an on-going engagement with wider society. The aim was to integrate Islam and Muslims organically into the fabric of British society.

Their key purpose was to remove the misunderstandings about Islam that had dogged relations between Muslims and Christians in Britain for centuries.  In practice, the Mission based at Woking remained utterly non-sectarian.  Aware of the dangers inherent in allegations of any kind of doctrinal bias, Kamaluddin and the later imams consciously rotated those who led the congregations in order to represent a diversity of Muslim nations and followers of different schools of thought including, among others, the Hejaz Minister Hafiz Wahba, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, and Marmaduke Pickthall.

The Woking Mosque is still flourishing today – it now serves a local Muslim community of over 5,000.  Friday congregations regularly run into several hundreds.  What is remarkable is that the kinds of issues debated by the earlier Woking Muslims have re-emerged:  ‘swine and wine’, the original ‘Satanic Verses’, apostasy and the Blasphemy law, loyalty to the British state versus the umma, and the thorny question of identity.  All these issues continue to be of as much concern to contemporary British Muslims (if not more) as they were to those in the first half of the twentieth century, and while the approaches of the present generation may have changed in addressing these matters, these issues, among others, undoubtedly continue to shape British Muslim engagement with wider society.