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The Muhammadan Cemetery, Britain’s First Muslim Space

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe with travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

The very first plot of British land exclusively for the use of Muslims was not a space set aside for a mosque. In fact, it wasn’t even set aside for the living. Long before the famous Manx solicitor, Abdullah Quilliam openedBritain’s first mosque in Liverpool at 8 Brougham Terrace in 1889, the founderof Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, didsomething even more pioneering, and now almost completely overlooked.

In 1884, five years before he built his iconic mosque, the Shah Jahan in Woking – also completed in 1889 – Dr Leitner, of Hungarian Jewish ancestry, founded the Muhammadan Cemetery in Brookwood. It was Britain and northern Europe’s very first recognised Muslim space, and the region’s very first Muslim burial ground.

Dr Leitner was born in Pest, one half of modern-day Budapest – the capital of Hungary – but grew up in Istanbul, in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. There he studied several of the eastern languages, the Qur’an and the Islamic sciences.

It was soon apparent the young Leitner was a gifted linguist, reportedly able to speak 50 languages, including Arabic.

Leitner’s career thereafter went on an impressive upward trajectory that included helping to found the oriental faculty at King’s College London aged only 24and going on to teach in British India, serving as Principal of the GovernmentCollege in Lahore, modern-day Pakistan.

It was around this time, whilst in colonial India, that Leitner began to seriously contemplate establishing his own institute dedicated to the study of the east somewhere in Europe. To fund this ambitious plan, Leitner began using his influential connections across the sub-continent. He soon convinced the likes of the Begum of Bhopal, the Sultan Shah Jahan (who his mosque is now named after) and Sir Salar Jung, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, to financially support his grand vision.

Leitner Tomb

Leitner decided he wanted to build his new educational institute in England, and around the 1880s began looking for a suitable location. He soon came across the beautiful neo-Gothic Royal Dramatic College building in Woking, Surrey, which has fallen on hard times, was now up for sale complete with 11 acres of land.

Leitner purchased the building and the surrounding land and set about putting into action his grand vision. Leitner’s Oriental Institute began awarding degrees underwritten by the University of Lahore and publishing journals in Urdu, Arabic and English. This was all done nearly four decades before the School of Oriental Studies (modern-day SOAS) was inaugurated by King George V in February 1917 in central London.

As part of his grand vision, Leitner also wanted to build suitable places of worship for all the major eastern religions for both educational and practical purposes. He envisioned this to include a mosque, Hindu temple, synagogue and a church. These would be used by the students who were coming from the east to study at the Oriental Institute and also become a source of education.

But even before he began constructing what would become Britain and northern Europe’s first purpose-built mosque, the Shah Jahan (the only one he would get to build during his lifetime), Leitner, who was highly conscious of the importance of respecting these cultures in death as much as in life, secured a plot at what was then Europe’s largest cemetery, the Brookwood Cemetery – a mere 6 miles from his Oriental Institute.

In 1884, Leitner began paying the sum of £550 a year on a plot inside the cemetery located between Pine Avenue and the main railway line. To identify the plot, he placed a stone on it facing the direction of Makkah, which he called the ‘kibla’ stone. The stone also identified the plot officially as the ‘Muhammadan Cemetery reserved by the Oriental Institute’. Beneath this, he inscribed a detailed explanation of how ‘Muhammadans’ (Muslims) should be buried according to Islamic funeral rites. The stone is still visible today.

The first known burial on the ground was actually that of an Indian juggler called Sheik Nubie, who had come to perform at the Victorian imperial extravaganza known as the Empire of India Exhibition in Earl’s Court in 1895. In July of that year, Nubie and his fellow performers were invited to go and meet the Empress of India herself, Queen Victoria, at Windsor Castle. Sadly, Nubie fell ill en route and died from pneumonia. His body was brought to Brookwood where he was buried observing Islamic burial rites. Nubie’s gravesite has been long forgotten, but the Muhammadan Cemetery went on to become the final resting place for many of Britain’s most famous early Muslims – most of whom were converts from high society.

These include the famous baron and peer, Lord Headley (1855-1935), illustrious Qur’an translators, Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936) and Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1935), a relative of the royals, Sir Archibald Hamilton (1876-1939) and even Abdullah Quilliam himself (1856-1932).

Today, the Muhammadan Cemetery is identified as plot ‘M1’, which stands for ‘Muslim 1’, as there are numerous other Muslim plots in Brookwood Cemetery now, including those exclusively used by followers of several Muslim sects, such as the Ahmadiyyas, Ismailis and the London Jamaat.

The founder of Britain’s very first Muslim space and the purpose-built mosque is not buried in the Muhammadan Cemetery himself, despite some unverified suggestions he may have converted to Islam during his lifetime – Leitner often used the pseudonym Abdu’r Rasheed Sayyah. Leitner’s impressive tomb is actually in the Anglican section of Brookwood Cemetery, beneath a large oak that backs onto the modern Ismaili Cemetery. His tomb is also the only one we know of in the Anglican section to bear an Arabic inscription, which translates to ‘knowledge is better than wealth’.

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