The Woking Muslim Mission
by Dr. Ashiq Husain Batalvi
Note: Dr Ashiq Husain Batalvi was a well
known author, journalist and biographer. He obtained his doctorate
from the famous School of Oriental and African Studies in the University
of London. He was very active in the Muslim League and devoted his
early life to the struggle for Muslim independence in pre-partition
India. He worked with the Founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah,
in the later years of the efforts for the creation of Pakistan.
For many years he was the permanent correspondent of the famous
Pakistan newspaper ‘Dawn’ in England.
In a chapter in his Urdu book Chand Yadain,
Chand Tasirat (‘Some Memories, Some Impressions’), he has given
an accurate description of the history and work of the Woking Muslim
Mission as well as his opinion and estimation of its work. This
was written in 1963, fifty years after the founding of the
Mission. The extract below is translated from this book, published
in Lahore in 1992 by Sang-i Meel Publications (this book was also
published earlier in 1969 by A’inah Adab in Lahore).
The name of the Woking Muslim Mission has reached more or less
every part of the world. It has done so much work of propagation
of Islam in Europe as no other organization has probably done. Woking
is a pretty town 25 miles from London. From Woking railway station,
the mosque is situated at a walk of about 15 to 20 minutes and is
set in a green plot of two acres. Its green dome is visible from
afar. Inside there is a carpet on the floor. Above the mihrab,
directly in front, are affixed inscriptions bearing verses of the
Quran, and the minbar is close to it. Adjacent to the mosque
is a spacious house where the Imam resides. It is this mosque which,
for the past half a century, has been the centre of the propagation
activities of a Muslim mission.
It seems pertinent to explain first how this mosque came to be
built on British soil and who was its founder. The interesting history
of the Woking mosque is that the name of the man who built it was
Dr Leitner, who at one time was employed at the University of the
Punjab [Lahore, present-day Pakistan]. Upon relinquishing his post
and returning to England he came up with a plan to establish an
institute for the dissemination of Islamic culture. For this purpose
he applied to the ruler of Bhopal, the lady Shah Jehan Begum, for
financial assistance, and she gave him a substantial sum of money.
With this money, Dr Leitner purchased this two acre plot of land
in Woking and built the mosque in 1889. The ruler of the state of
Hyderabad, Salar Jung, also gave him financial help, with which
the residential house was built.
Dr Leitner died before he could complete his plan and this property
came into the hands of his son, who had little interest in his father’s
project. Gradually the mosque became entirely derelict. Now look
at this fortunate coincidence that in 1912 the late Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din
came to England. He was a highly successful lawyer in Lahore, but
he had a boundless love for Islam. Leaving his practice, he devoted
his life for the propagation of Islam and came to England for this
That was the time when the British nation was at the peak of its
world rule. Its empire was spread east and west, and it was said
that the sun never sets on the British empire. Muslims everywhere
were subjugated and dominated, and this subservience and servitude
had created in them extreme feelings of inferiority. When the Khwaja
sahib decided to propagate Islam in England, many people advised
him that he was destroying his legal career for no reason because
the British had no inclination for Islam, and if they were interested
why should they accept the religion of a subject people whom they
were ruling over? But these disheartening comments did not weaken
the Khwaja sahib’s resolve.
After coming to London, he initially settled in the Richmond area
and began to preach the message of Islam by speech and writing.
For this purpose he also started his famous magazine Islamic
Review. However, he required a place which he could make the
permanent centre of his activities. At this stage he learnt about
the existence of the Woking mosque and that this house of God was
lying deserted. The Khwaja sahib went to Woking and took possession
of the mosque. The heirs of Dr Leitner attempted to evict him from
there but the Khwaja sahib told them that according to Islam a place
once designated as a mosque remains forever a mosque, and no person
can prevent Muslims from praying in it. In this connection he was
helped greatly by the late Mirza Sir Abbas Ali Baig who in those
days was a member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India.
The result was that the mosque came into the control of the Khwaja
Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din was a lawyer. So he created a Trust for the
guardianship of the mosque which initially had three members: (1)
the Rt. Hon. Sayyid Ameer Ali who was a member of the Judicial Committee
of the Privy Council, (2) Mirza Sir Abbas Ali Baig, and (3) Sir
Thomas Arnold who had been Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s teacher in Government
College Lahore. This Trust appointed the Khwaja sahib as Imam. Since
that time the Woking Mosque has been the biggest centre of the propagation
of Islam in England.
Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din faced great difficulties at first. There were
many strange stories and unfounded myths about Islam prevailing
in the country. To remove this barrier of prejudice and ignorance
was not an easy task. But the Khwaja sahib possessed an extraordinary
mind and heart. He was extremely intelligent and hard working. He
had enviable command of both writing and speech. Above all, he had
the most perfect conviction in the truth of Islam, and it was this
that sustained his courage. Consequently, in his own lifetime he
saw this Mission make tremendous progress.
He wrote some twenty books on Islam in English. Through his efforts
the English translation of the Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali of
Lahore was published from Woking in 1917. This was undoubtedly a
great achievement because before that no Muslim in the world had
translated the Divine Word into English. Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din died
in Lahore on 28 December 1932. Before his death he made over his
property, including his writings and the magazine Islamic Review,
to the Woking Mission.
Apart from the Khwaja sahib, other people who have served as Imams
of the Woking mosque from time to time included Maulana Sadr-ud-Din,
Maulana Muhammad Yaqub Khan, Maulana Abdul Majeed, Maulvi Mustafa
Khan, Dr Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah and Maulvi Aftab-ud-Din Ahmad,
whose good names deserve great honour and respect. Except for the
late Maulvi Aftab-ud-Din Ahmad, I have personally known all these
gentlemen. In fact, the first three mentioned above were my teachers
during my days as a student.
To realize the importance of the activities of the Woking Mission
it is necessary to review the past fifty years, during which the
workers of the Mission have rendered the most valuable service to
the cause of Islam in Europe. Leaving aside the other countless
writings and publications produced by the Mission, just the issues
of the Islamic Review are testimony to that service. There
cannot be any aspect of Islamic teachings, history, civilization,
culture, traditions and social life on which there have not appeared
scholarly and learned articles in this journal. This magazine is
read all over the world and it has undoubtedly done great work in
presenting the true picture of Islam.
Besides propagation work, the Woking Mission has become the centre
for the gatherings of those hundreds of thousands of Muslims who
live in Britain. They include Muslims of every country from Morocco
to China. On ‘Id occasions, the scene at Woking is worthy
of view. There are Muslims gathered from Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Malaya,
Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Arabia, Nigeria, Algeria, in short,
every race, colour and nation. There are also many British converts
to Islam who take part. In this international gathering, despite
the differences of language, dress, colour and custom, there runs
a tremendous wave of brotherhood that removes the difference between
east and west, and black and white, and binds all Muslims together
as members of one community. The ‘Id prayers are held in
a very large marquee and after the prayers lunch is served there,
which is provided as hospitality by the Mission. We are all guests
of the Woking Mission on ‘Id day.
What has impressed me most is that the Woking Mission is doing
the service of Islam while remaining entirely away from sectarianism,
and indeed above it. I have seen in the last ten years that the
‘Id prayers are led by different Imams [of different sects].
They include the Iranian Shia religious leader, the ambassador of
Indonesia, the famous British convert to Islam Dr Cowan and Dr Abdul
Aziz Khulusi of Iraq.
There is a Muslim Society established under the auspices of the
Mission. Its head office is in the area of Victoria in central London,
where there are very interesting gatherings every week, in which
people of all beliefs and views participate. Usually someone gives
a talk on a religious, social, academic or literary issue concerning
the Muslims, and this is followed by a reasoned discussion.
The Imam of the Woking mosque is especially busy. Many societies
and organisations in Britain hold meetings at which representatives
of different faiths are invited to speak. Most often the Imam of
Woking has the honour to represent Islam at these functions.
Today, by the efforts of the Muslims, there are mosques in other
cities in Britain as well. In England there is not the same unawareness,
ignorance and prejudice regarding Islam that existed half a century
ago. Despite that, there is no decline in the pivotal position of
Woking, and today too Woking is the chief centre of the renaissance
of Islam in Britain.