Britain has a little-known but long and rich Islamic history; here are the places to glimpse it.
There’s only one place to start a tour of British antiquity, at London’s British Museum, home of the The Albukhary Foundation Gallery Of The Islamic World, where items from across the Muslim world are on display, including a 13th-century Persian astrolabe like the one invented by Muslim geographer Al Idrisi, and the original zamzam (holy water from Mecca) flask of Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, a non-Muslim Brit who performed the Hajj.
But the real gem is in Room 68. Offa’s Dinar – one of the museum’s best-kept secrets – is a gold coin minted in the 8th century by Anglo Saxon King Offa of Mercia with the Islamic declaration of faith (shahadah) inscribed on it, making it the oldest physical evidence of Islam and the earliest example of Arabic writing in Britain.
The shahadah is written around the words ‘Offa Rex’ and the back of the coin mentions Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur and the Islamic date 157AH, just like the coins minted in Baghdad at the time. This, along with minor discrepancies in Arabic, suggest the coin was ‘copied’ from Islamic ones to be used for trading with Muslims, though the exact reason it was made is not known. One thing is certain: Offa’s Dinar proves that England had encountered Islam within a hundred years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death.
Modern British Muslim history
To experience Britain’s modern Muslim history, take a short tube ride from the British Museum to Aldgate and start at the East London Mosque, where the British Muslim community’s first-ever professional archives centre opened recently. The East London Mosque Archives hold manuscripts and documents related to the community, including letters written by the English convert and celebrated Quran translator, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Visitors can see the archives by appointment.
Around the corner from the mosque is Brick Lane, home to one of Britain’s pioneering Muslim communities, the British Bangladeshis, who migrated here from the 1960s onwards and opened many of Britain’s earliest Indian restaurants, helping to make curry Britain’s most popular food. To this day, Brick Lane remains one of the best places for South Asian Muslim food. The lane is also home to the Brick Lane Mosque, which has a wonderfully stylish, glowing minaret and sits in a building that used to be a church and a synagogue.
Centre of British Muslim Heritage
A short train ride southwest of London is the town of Woking in Surrey, which makes the biggest claim for being the centre of Britain’s Muslim heritage – it is home to no fewer than three of the country’s most important Islamic sites.
The most famous is the Shah Jahan Mosque, known as Britain’s ‘little Taj Mahal’. This piece of classic pseudo-Mogul architecture was built in 1889 by the oriental scholar Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner and was the U.K.’s first purpose-built mosque.
The beautiful snow-white building with a large green dome, faux minarets and a water feature was part of an education complex called the Oriental Institute. Leitner also wanted to build a synagogue and Hindu temple on the site but died before this was realised.
To fund the building of the mosque, Leitner reached out to the Begum of Bhophal in India, the Sultan Shah Jahan and the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, Sir Mir Turab Ali Khan (Salar Jung I). With the money he received, Leitner constructed the mosque and a building in the style of an Indian colonial villa called the Sir Salar Jung Memorial House.
After Leitner’s death, the mosque and memorial house were acquired by an Indian lawyer named Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din. He, with the help of several influential converts, slowly made the mosque the centre of Islamic activity in Britain and Europe.
Several British lords, ladies and knights converted to Islam at the Shah Jahan, which was visited by famous Muslims, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s Muslim servant. The mosque is also reportedly where the name ‘Pakistan’ was conceived, and it was ‘destroyed’ by aliens in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, set in Woking. Today, the mosque and memorial house are open to visitors.
A 10-minute walk from the mosque is the site of the Woking Muslim War Cemetery, built in 1915 as a burial ground for British Muslim soldiers. The cemetery’s design was also inspired by Mughal architecture and featured a beautiful domed chattri (pavilion) over the entrance and ornamental minarets on each corner of its red-brick perimeter wall.
The site became the final resting place of 27 Muslim soldiers: 18 who died in World War I, one at Sandhurst barracks, and eight in World War II – three of these were actually soldiers of North African origin fighting for the Free French Forces.
After the war years, the site was badly neglected and fell into disrepair. Eventually, the bodies were moved to the nearby military cemetery at Brookwood. The area remained forgotten until locals pushed for its renovation in 2011. Today, renamed the Peace Gardens, it has been turned into a serene space for contemplation and remembrance.
Woking’s third and final British Muslim heritage site is also the oldest recorded piece of ‘Muslim land’ in Britain. The Muhammadan Cemetery, a plot inside Brookwood Cemetery, was set aside exclusively for Muslim burials by Dr Leitner in 1884 – a fact recorded on a small stone marker still on the plot called the Kibla Stone.
The cemetery is the final resting place of many important British Muslims as well as several from abroad. These include Abdullah Quilliam, founder of Britain’s first mosque in Liverpool; Lord Headley, an influential early convert and peer; Muhammad Pickthall and Yusuf Ali, two of the most famous English translators of the Quran; and more recently, Dame Zaha Hadid, the celebrated British-Iraqi architect. The cemetery is also the final resting place of one of the last Ottoman princesses, the last King of Yemen’s Mutawakkilite Kingdom, and the famous Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali.
Woking Heritage Trails
Grab free trail maps for the three Woking sites at the Shah Jahan mosque or Brookwood cemetery’s office (you can also download them from everydaymuslim.org). These contain maps, historical information and the background to each site, as well as a cemetery walk identifying many of the famous burials at the Muhammadan Cemetery.
London Muslim History Tours
One of the best ways to get to know London’s hidden Muslim heritage is by joining the tours run by the Muslim History Tours company. Passionate tour guide and founder AbdulMaalik Tailor wanders through central London unveiling Islamic secrets few people know.
Britain’s First Mosque
If you have time, head to the city of Liverpool and visit the country’s very first mosque opened in a house on Brougham Terrace by Abdullah Quilliam in 1889 (est. 1887). Today, it is known as the Abdullah Quilliam Mosque and is a functioning mosque and visitor space.
**Cover photo: Alamy