London’s First Mosque – A Study in History and Mystery – Part 1 of 2

4 Comments | June 2012

The morning of the 3rd of October 1926 dawned upon London as another regular Sunday morning, but for the residents of Putney, it had been long awaited. The construction of an unusual building on Melrose Road SW18 had been ongoing for two years now, and had been of great interest for the local residents of Putney and Southfields. It had also attracted immense press attention ever since its foundation was laid in 1924, by Hadhrat Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad(ra), the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community at the time. The residents had witnessed famous architects such as T H Mawson visit the site[1] during the planning phase and then members of the local community voluntarily taking part as labourers in the construction phase.[2] Now, on this morning, it was ready for its inauguration – an event that was scheduled to occur later that afternoon. What made the event historically so important was the fact that it was set to be the opening of London’s first ever mosque.[3] There had long been a Muslim presence in Britain; organised communities, such as that of Abdullah Quilliam had emerged (and dispersed). Various houses had been what Muslim Londoners later called the East London Mosque, but the need for a purpose built mosque in London was long felt by Muslims in Britain. This gap was to be filled by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community,[4] adding a new dimension to the historical importance of the mosque.

During research, the author obtained original drawings of the Fazl Mosque, discovered at the Kendal Record Office. T H Mawson (1861-1933) lived by the Windermere Lake and his works were passed on to the Cumbria County Council following the closure of Thomas H Mawson & Son. These plans of the Fazl Mosque are part of the 14,000 plans and drawings that comprise the T H Mawson Archive.

London being at the crossroads of the world – both geographically and sociologically – meant that this event was important, not only for the history of Islam, but for the history of Great Britain also. Having ruled India for an extensive time period, the British Government was fully aware that a mosque for Muslims was not only a place of worship, but also a place of much more social and political value. The community which built this mosque was none other than the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The community was known for its zealous missionary activities, and for its members who boldly professed their faith and strove to proselytise their beliefs. The question was, how would they be received? Would it be similar to how Muslims had received the Christian missionaries in India, or would they be welcomed? While local residents were excited merely by the thought of a mosque being built in their neighbourhood, the authorities as well as citizens with a greater sense of history and sociology were considering more seriously the avenues that would open with the establishment of the mosque.

The Fazl Mosque under construction, 1925

At this juncture, it would be quite appropriate to provide a background to the community that was behind the building of this mosque. The Ahmadiyya Community is a sect of Islam founded by Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as) in 1889 in Qadian,[5] a small town in the Gurdaspur District of Indian Punjab. It is known among religious circles, apart from many other aspects, for the heresy attributed to it by the mainstream orthodox Muslims, who believe that Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as)’s claim of being the Promised Messiah and the Imam Mahdi is not in accordance with the doctrine of the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad(saw),[6] the Prophet of Islam. This stance is self-contradictory as all Muslims await a person to fulfil this role, while still claiming to believe in the finality of Prophet Muhammad(saw).[7] There is, however, a difference in the understanding of the nature of the Second Advent – other Muslims taking it to be literal and physical and Ahmadis take it to be metaphorical. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as) claimed that the traditions of the Prophet carried metaphorical meaning and that he himself was the personification of the awaited Messiah.[8]

A newspaper report one day before the mosque opening. The caption under the photo of Prince Faisal reads: ‘THE FIRST MOSLEM MOSQUE IN LONDON, which is to be opened to-morrow by Prince Faisal.’

This allegation of heresy by the Muslim orthodoxy has led the community to being declared outside the pale of Islam[9] by other Muslims, and hence a non-Muslim minority for the Muslim world. This again contradicts the teachings of Prophet Muhammad(saw) who, in many traditions, is said to have defined a Muslim as one who believes in the Oneness of Allah, in Muhammad(saw) as His messenger.[10] The Ahmadiyya Community claims to believe in exactly this and a study of their literature is ample proof of the claim.[11] Having been declared heretics by the Ulema[12] of the orthodoxy, it is thought by many orthodox Muslims as legal to drive Ahmadis out of Muslim majority neighbourhoods, boycott them socially, and in some circles, even kill them if the state fails to do so.[13] Extremist Muslim groups, for this reason alone, have killed many Ahmadis in Pakistan[14] and other parts of the Muslim world.[15] However, this is not supported by the practice of Prophet Muhammad(saw) or the Sunnah, which is claimed by the orthodox Muslims to be of a prime source of guidance, only second to the Qur’an. Despite all this opposition and persecution, Ahmadis are renowned for conveying the peace-loving message of Islam to all accessible inhabited parts of the globe.[16] By 2011, they officially claimed to be established in 200 countries.[17] The post 9/11 world has seen a rise in the trajectory of Islamophobia, as never witnessed before.[18] While Islam is seen to be synonymous with terrorism, the Ahmadiyya Community has been at the forefront among the few Muslim sections that promote Islam as a peaceful faith and demonstrate this in their practice.[19]

Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia is received at Paddington Railway Station in London. On the extreme left is Maulana Abdur Raheem Dard(ra), the first Imam of the Fazl Mosque and a Companion of the Promised Messiah(as).

With this being the background, Muslims could not have been too happy with the fact that the Ahmadiyya Community was going to take credit for establishing a mosque, especially one of great socio-geographical importance. The extensive and widespread attention this mosque had gained even before it was built is evident from the press reports on the foundation stone laying ceremony in October 1924.[20] What had sent a very strong message of goodwill across the religious sections of Britain was a result of the message of the Khalifa, or the spiritual Head of the Ahmadiyya Community, that was inscribed on a slab that was erected as part of the foundation laying ceremony. The message was in Urdu language, rendered in English, and read:

‘I, Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih II, Head of the Ahmadiyya Community which has its Headquarters at Qadian, Punjab, India lay the foundation stone of this Mosque to-day, the 20th Rabiul Awwal 1343 Hijra, to seek the pleasure of God so that His name be glorified in England and that the people of this country may also partake of the blessings which have been vouchsafed to us. I pray to God that He may accept this humble and sincere effort of all the members of the Ahmadiyya Community, both women and men, and that He may provide means for the growing prosperity of this mosque; and may He make it for ever and ever a centre for promulgating the views of purity, piety, justice and love, and may this place prove a sun of spiritual light radiating forth in this country and in all the countries around the blessed beams of the heavenly light of the Holy Prophet Mohammad the Chosen one of God and the seal of the prophets and of Ahmad the Promised Messiah, the prophet of God, the Vicegerent, and the reflection of Mohammad (may peace and the blessings of God be upon them both). Amen.’ 19-10-1924

Local onlookers vie for the best view at the opening of the mosque in 1926.

It was against this backdrop that the opening of the mosque was to be staged. The Ahmadiyya Community, honouring him as the guardian of the Islamic Holy Places, had requested King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Hedjaz to open the mosque.[21] The King had replied that he would not be able to attend, but would send his son, Emir Faisal, the Viceroy of Makkah (who later became King Faisal of Saudi Arabia) to inaugurate the mosque on his behalf.[22] The mosque’s administration had very happily accepted this and the following months were spent in making arrangements for the Royal visit on this grand occasion.

Only half an hour before the ceremony, a message was received from the Foreign Secretary of the King of Hedjaz, that the Prince would not be able to attend. The Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community at the time, Hadhrat Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad(ra), Khalifatul Masih II, requested Honourable Khan Bahadur Shaikh Abdul Qadir, the Indian Representative to the League of Nations, to officially open the mosque instead. Photo: Hadhrat Abdur Raheem Dard(ra) handing the silver key of the mosque to Sheikh Qadir.

All the aforementioned events were incidentally taking place at a time of great political importance for Hedjaz. The conquest of Hedjaz by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud had recently taken place and Great Britain, for diplomatic reasons,[23] was among the nations that accepted his regime. The Political Agent of Great Britain to Hedjaz, S R Jordan, wrote to Whitehall in London to report that one of the reasons King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud was sending his son Prince Faisal to Britain was to show gratitude to His Britannic Majesty, the King of England, for having accepted the King’s Government. The same letter also carried the indication that ‘it is also rumoured locally that whilst in England, Emir Feisal will inaugurate a Mohammedan Church’.[24]

With all arrangements in place, the Prince arrived at London Paddington station on 23rd September 1926. As the major purpose of his visit was to inaugurate the mosque,[25] he was received by A R Dard, the Imam of the London Mosque and other members of the mosque administration[26] and then led to Hyde Park Hotel. The event was of great excitement for the Ahmadiyya Community whose simple, and mostly poor members in India had raised the money to fund the building of the mosque;[27] the majority of the voluntary contributors being the women of the Ahmadiyya community. A vast majority of the women, being typical Indian homemakers, had sold whatever form of jewellery or valuable assets they possessed to attain this goal.[28] The inspiration behind this huge step of voluntary resolve, to raise this large sum of money, is said to have had its roots in the sermons of the Khalifa,[29] who had expressed how important the opening of a mosque in London could be.[30] London newspapers confirmed that this event was taken to be a huge turning point in the story of ‘East meeting West’.[31] However, the propaganda about the opening had sent a wave of excitement amongst the residents,[32] as well as the government authorities in London.[33]

Around thirty members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords were due to attend and India Office records reveal that members of the Royal Family were also invited to the occasion.[34] The press had been covering the progress ever since the foundation was laid, but news stories highlighting the opening became more prominent in the national mainstream press as the big day approached. The Times covered the story closely on October 2nd 1926 and mentioned that Prince Faisal would arrive at the ceremony and how the series of events was due to unfold in course of the schedule,[35] the following day. The arrival of the Prince was to mark the commencement of the opening ceremony,  followed by the Prince formally opening the doors of the mosque with a silver key, and then the company would assemble in a marquee erected in the grounds of the mosque to present an address to the Prince, who would reply to it. The keynote address was to be the message of Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih(ra), the Head of the Ahmadiyya Community, which he was to send from Qadian, as he himself had not been able to make it for this occasion.[36]

Hadhrat Malik Ghulam Farid(ra), a Companion of the Promised Messiah(as), calling the first Adhan (call to Prayer) at the mosque.

The day had started with the buzz and excitement that one would expect at such a historic occasion. Alongside Prince Faisal, who was designated as the chief guest, other dignitaries were also expected to attend. To watch this unique moment of historic importance, a crowd had gathered from early afternoon to catch a glimpse of the dignitaries who were to attend the opening[37] of the first ever mosque in London.[38] Dignitaries had arrived at the mosque by three o’clock in the afternoon, among whom were members of the British Parliament, members of the House of Lords, members of the Anglican Clergy, delegates from foreign embassies in London and dignitaries from other walks of life. Also attending on invitation were: Sir Harry Brittain MP, Sir P J Hannon JP, the Mayor of Wandsworth and Khan Bahadur Shaikh Abdul Qadir,[39] the Indian Representative to the League of Nations, to name but a few of the dignitaries. It deserves special mention that realising the importance of the occasion, Muslims from around London are also reported to have attended the opening.[40]

It came with a sense of shock and disappointment when only half an hour before the ceremony, the Imam of the London Mosque received a telegraphic message from the Foreign Secretary of the King of Hedjaz, which said that Prince Faisal would not be attending the ceremony, and hence would not be able to inaugurate the mosque. The telegraphic message read:

‘I very greatly regret having to inform you that his Highness the Emir Feisal Ibn Abdulla Aziz Al Saud will not be able to attend. This is a matter which occasions his Highness very great regret, and both his Highness and myself wish all success to yourself and all prosperity and blessings to the great Mosque. And we pray God to grant your work that success.’[41]

As one can imagine, this disruption at the eleventh hour, must have been difficult to take. Had it been an ordinary occasion, the Imam could have taken a spontaneous decision, but the grandeur of the occasion demanded thorough consideration and guidance from the Khalifa.[42] A telegraphic message was immediately sent out to Qadian seeking guidance as to what could be done in light of the new circumstances. The Khalifa, Hadhrat Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad(ra) wrote back immediately to say that the opening should go ahead as planned, and directed that Khan Bahadur Shaikh Abdul Qadir be requested to open the mosque. Thus, in the absence of the Prince, London’s first mosque was opened by Khan Bahadur, the Honourable Shaikh Abdul Qadir, a former Minister in the Punjab Government, and then a member of the Indian delegation at the League of Nations.[43] The rest of the evening went according to schedule. It was, indeed, a turning point in the history of both Islam and London. The Times, in its report the day before viewed this occasion in the following words:

‘The occasion is one of great importance in the history of religious movements outside Christianity in this country, for the mosque, situated in the Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth (whose Mayor will be present at the ceremony) is the first building erected in London for Islamic worship.’[44]

The Daily Chronicle report on the same evening read:

‘It was a formal ceremony in an atmosphere curious even for London.’[45]

The Westminster Gazette described it as ‘an occasion of great importance in Muslim circles.’[46]

The event, unique in its nature as it was, received a high presence of the national press and media with ‘a battery of cameras and kinematograph machines’[47] in and around the compounds.

The Honourable Shaikh, although making it clear that he did not belong to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam himself, emphasised the importance of the opening of this Mosque. He said in the course of his address that:

‘…he was not in favour of ceremonies, but in these days they could not ignore the value of publicity, and that mosque, which was the beginning of the missionary movement of Islam in London, would sink into obscurity were it not for the publicity which would be given to that ceremony.’[48]

Messages were read out from all over the world and from many well-known dignitaries who were not Muslims.[49] After this, the keynote address by the Khalifa was read out; this was received by cable from Qadian, India. This message is an important document in understanding the intention behind the building of this mosque in London. It shows how important a turning point this mosque was in the history of London, the metropolis famous today for its religious and cultural diversity. The message of the Khalifa read:

‘We do not cherish feelings of enmity towards Christianity, but look upon Jesus Christ (peace be upon Him) as a true and great prophet of God…’.

It went on to say that the objective of the mosque:

‘…will be to spread the worship of the one living and powerful God in this centre of unity with love and sincerity, and to establish the love of the Creator in the hearts of men. We will try to remove the feelings of hatred and enmity from betwixt the followers of different religions and will do our best to create the true spirit of search. We will try to reform morals and efface wrongs and transgressions. We will try to create feelings of sincerity and true equality, which recognises the legitimate differences of grades, and engender feelings of brotherhood and mutual sympathy and cooperation.’

‘And I avail myself of this opportunity by appealing to the Christian people that they also should not look upon Islam with feelings of enmity, and instead of trying to find faults with the Islamic teachings should search for its beauties, because the truth of a religion is not manifested by finding faults with others, but by proving the excellence of it own teachings.’

‘Brethren, the world of today is a sorrowful scene of polytheism, irreligiousness, hatred between nations, tension between classes. Hence it is the duty of every honest man who loves his God to wake from his sleep and make houses consecrated in the name of God strongholds of His unity and centers of union, instead of making them places of irreligiousness and means of disunion.’[50]

With the messages read out, the Imam of the Mosque gave a silver key to the Hon Shaikh Abdul Qadir, who formally opened the Mosque.[51] The fact that Prince Faisal, at the last minute, declined to attend despite the fact that he had travelled a long way with the intention to open the mosque is interesting to consider. What led to the Prince pulling out from attending at the eleventh hour?

Asif M Basit is on the Board of Directors of Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International, the official 24-hour satellite television station of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (www.mta.tv), where he also produces and presents the weekly religious discussion programme, ‘Rah-e-Huda’ (The Right Path). To contact author email abasit@mta.tv

 

CONTINUES IN NEXT EDITION WITH THE FINAL PART – ‘MYSTERY OF THE PRINCE’ AND ‘FIRST MOSQUE IN LONDON?’

Endnotes

  1. Thomas H Mawson, “Details for Ahmadiyah Mosque, Southfields, London”, n.d., WDB 86/A, Mawson Archives.
  2. “Mosque for a London Suburb,” The Daily Graphic, September 29, 1925, 8.
  3. “The Muezzin of Putney,” London Evening Standard, October 1, 1926, 1.
  4. “First Mosque in London,” The Times, October 2, 1926, 7.
  5. Friedman, Y, “Ahmadiyah,” in Encyclopedia of Religion (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005), 200–201.
  6. David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, eds., Islam Outside the Arab World (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999), 8.
  7. Friedman, Y, “Ahmadiyah,” 200–201; Ishtiaq Ahmed, “South Asia,” in Islam Outside the Arab World, ed. David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999), 5–7.
  8. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Nishan-e-Asmani, 5th ed. (Surrey: Islam International Publications, 2009).
  9. SE Brush, “Ahmadiyat in Pakistan,” The Muslim World 45 (1955): 145–171.
  10. Narration of the Holy Prophet(saw) from the Hadith.
  11. Hadhrat Mirza Bashir-Ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad, Invitation to Ahmadiyyat, 5th ed. (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications, 2007), 6–11.
  12. Literal meaning being ‘scholars’ but commonly used as a term that refers to religious especially Islamic scholars. History of Islam bears witness that they have always tried to indulge in Islamic politics. Qasim Zaman, (2002) in his book ‘The Ulama in Contemporary Islam, refers to their self styled role of custodians of change.
  13. AS Pirzada, The Politics of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Pakistan 1971-1977 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ishtiaq Ahmed, “South Asia,” 235.
  14. Pakistan: Massacre of Minority Ahmadis (Human Rights Watch, June 1, 2010), www.hrw.org/news/2010/06/01/pakistan-massacre-minority-ahmadis.
  15. E Rauhala, “The Other Indonesia,” Time, 2012, www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2099185,00.html.
  16. “The New Mosque for London,” London Evening Standard, September 23, 1926; Cragg, Kenneth, Call of the Minaret (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 223.
  17. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, “Friday Sermon: Blessings of Financial Sacrifice by Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”, November 4, 2011, www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2011-11-04.html.
  18. Amardeep Singh, We Are Not the Enemy (Human Rights Watch, November 2002).
  19. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, The Blessed Model of the Holy Prophet and the Caricatures (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications, 2006), 22–23; ibid., 33; Ahmadiyya Muslims, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, n.d., http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/january-20-2012/ahmadiyya-muslims/10124/.
  20. Mainstream British newspapers like The Times, Evening Standard, Daily Chronicle, Daily GraphicDaily Express and The Daily Mirror covered the story of the foundation stone laying in great detail.
  21. The Daily Telegraph, October 4, 1926.
  22. “The New Mosque for London,” 4.
  23. Correspondence regarding the Prince’s visit held at the India Office Records in British Library clearly establish the diplomatic reasons behind British accepting the regime of King Ibn Saud. Political and Secret Department IOR/L/P/11/270
  24. India Office Records, British Library Political and Secret Department File IOR/L/P/11/270
  25. “The New Mosque for London”; “Mystery of the Mosque,” Westminster Gazette, October 4, 1926; “First London Mosque and Sect Dispute,” The Yorkshire Post, October 4, 1926, 11.
  26. Daily Express, September 24, 1926.
  27. Mir Muhammad Ismail, Tareekh Masjid Fazl London, 1st ed. (Qadian, India: Book Depot Taleef-o-Isha’at, n.d.), 11.
  28. Ibid., 20–21.
  29. Khalifa literally means ‘Caliph’ and is taken to mean successor of the Prophet Muhammad and leader of the Muslims. However, as the issue of Caliphate fell into grave disputes after Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims have never again been able to agree upon various claimants of Caliphate. Ahmadiyya however take this word to mean ‘successor’ of Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Community and the supreme leader of the worldwide movement, [online], available at: www.alislam.org/khilafat [20 March 2012]
  30. Mir Muhammad Ismail, Tareekh Masjid Fazl London, 20.
  31. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” The Daily Chronicle, October 4, 1926.
  32. “Mystery of the Mosque.”
  33. “Mosque in London,” Bristol Evening News, September 24, 1926.
  34. India Office Records, British Library Political and Secret Department File IOR/L/P/11/270, a hand written note by a Foreign Department official next to the paragraph that carries information that the Prince was to inaugurate the mosque reads: ‘Prince Henry is also invited to attend the ceremony’
  35. “First Mosque in London.”
  36. Ibid.
  37. “First Mosque in London,” The Northern Echo, October 4, 1926, 1.
  38. “Mystery of the Mosque,” 7.
  39. “First Mosque in London.”
  40. “Mystery of the Mosque,” 7.
  41. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” 9.
  42. Mir Muhammad Ismail, Tareekh Masjid Fazl London, 50.
  43. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” 9.
  44. “First Mosque in London.”
  45. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” 9.
  46. “Mystery of the Mosque,” 7.
  47. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” 9.
  48. “First Mosque in London.”
  49. “London Mosque Mystery,” The Morning Post, October 4, 1926.
  50. “First Mosque in London”; “London’s First Mosque,” The Manchester Guardian, October 4, 1926.
  51. “London’s Voice from the Minaret,” 9.

 

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4 comments
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  1. Excellent article detailing this very important history. Looking forward to part II.

  2. Excellent piece of information, gathered with honest intention and tireless efforts. Here I feel we are in the making of glorious history of True Islam, which generations to come will be proud of. JazakAllah

  3. Really impressive article by Mr. Asif, containing a lot of research. Keep it up! Part 1 is such an inspiring masterpiece. What will part 2 be.

  4. A very impressive and nice piece of work by Mr Asif M Basit to understand the true meanings and true intention to build a mosque.
    This historical study helps much to define the concept of constructing mosques in Islam.

    May Allah bless Mr Asif M. Basit

    Ahsan
    France

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