The little town of Woking in Surrey, England, sits just outside London’s motorway belt, the M25, surrounded by thick woodland with an idyllic canal running through it. It is a town noted neither for its beauty nor its cultural sway and is probably the last place anyone expects to find a monument that brings to mind one of the great wonders of the world. And yet the minute visitors lay eyes upon Woking’s tiny Shah Jahan Mosque, the Moghul architectural influence leads to inevitable comparisons with the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Not because the two are comparable, but because of the echoes; a large onion dome, Indian minarets, the arabesque archway and water feature, so out of context with the rest of this quiet English town, bring to mind the obvious. But this isn’t actually the reason Woking’s mosque is one of the most important to England and the wider English speaking world.
Built in 1889 by Gotlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a talented linguist and educator of Hungarian Jewish origin, Woking Mosque is the very first purpose-built mosque in Britain and the whole of northern Europe. Leitner built the mosque as part of what was supposed to be an extensive Oriental complex, centred around the now demolished Oriental Institute – formerly the Royal Dramatic College – for the institute’s Muslim students who needed somewhere to pray.
“There is evidence to suggest the mosque was meant to be part of a group of oriental spaces of worship including a synagogue and a Hindu temple. A local historian recently told us that one of the early published guides to the region (Surrey) mentions the mosque and a temple, though nobody is sure whether this was in the guide because they knew of a temple actually being here, or simply because they knew it was being planned,” explains Muhammad Habib, the mosque manager who leads most of the regular tours and heritage events.
“The mosque went on to become home to some of the most famous early British Muslims including Lord Headley, Abdullah Quilliam, the founder of Britain’s first mosque in Liverpool and the Qur’an translators, Marmaduke Pickthall and Yusuf Ali.”
Some sources say Pickthall, a classmate and friend of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, may have even been an imam here. His translation, published in 1930 was authorised by Egypt’s Al-Azhar institute after Pickthall pointed out the potential for da‘wah across the English-speaking world. Pickthall is buried in the nearby Brookwood Cemetery.
Unlike Britain’s first mosque, established by Quilliam in 1887 – a repurposed Victorian terraced house on Liverpool’s West Derby Street – Woking Mosque was designed by W. I. Chambers to look and function as a mosque, and may have even been modelled on the Taj Mahal. The mosque takes its name from its main benefactor, the Begum Shah Jahan of Bhopal, with whom Leitner had a close association following his time teaching in India, where he also founded the University of Punjab.
The mosque was only in use for a brief period before falling into disrepair after his death in 1899. In 1912 it was rescued from demolition by Kashmiri lawyer, Khawaja Kamal-Ud-Din, who reopened it as a mosque the following year and founded the Woking Muslim Mission. This saw Shah Jahan’s influence grow as it slowly became the centre of British Muslim activity. It was from Woking that the push was made for a mosque to be built in central London, and according to some sources, where the name for Pakistan (derived from the term ‘pakeesgi’ to mean purity) was first proposed for the Muslim country yet to be carved out of India.
Fittingly, these days the mosque is under the stewardship of the Pakistan High Commission, and is run by the descendants of migrants from Pakistan who settled in the vicinity from the 1960s onwards.
Where in the world: The mosque is on Oriental Road in the town of Woking, Surrey, just south west of England’s capital London.
In and out: The easiest way to get to the mosque is via train to Woking Station from where it is a 15-minute walk to the mosque.
Top tips: Book a free guided tour with the mosque manager and you will not only get a historical tour of the mosque but also a visit to the nearby cemetery and memorial gardens where many of the illustrious members of the early community reside.