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An interview about the Woking Muslim Mission

The following article was published in The Light — U.K. edition, in its issue for May 2007. The entire issue is available at this link of our sister website.

It is an interview given by Dr Zahid Aziz, the creator and developer of this website, to Amy Waldman.

An interview about Woking

by Zahid Aziz

Amy Waldman, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly magazine (based in Washington DC) and a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, contacted our Woking Muslim Mission website in January to say that she was doing research on the history of British Muslims and wanted to learn more about the history of the Woking mosque. Specifically, she was interested in the takeover of the mosque by migrants from Pakistan in the 1960s, as mentioned on our website. I responded with some brief information and later she told me that she would be coming to London and wished to interview me to collect further material for her research. It was due to her interest in the topic of the takeover that in the April issue of this magazine I reproduced the statement by B.A. Misri and published my response to his account (see link).

Amy Waldman met me on 31st March to conduct the interview, which lasted for two hours. I first explained the background to how the Woking Muslim Mission started, as follows. From the time that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad started his mission, he expressed a deeply-held wish to propagate Islam to the West, and he was convinced that if Islam was presented in the light in which he was expounding it, then it would attract the people of the West. He wrote, in 1891, of the vision he had been shown by God, in which he saw himself making a speech in London, after which several birds fell into his hands. His interpretation was that his message would reach the West and capture the hearts. Many young Western educated Muslim men in India were attracted to his message and through him were filled with the same passion and conviction. Two prominent among these were Maulana Muhammad Ali and Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din.

I went on to say that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad started an English language magazine, the Review of Religions, with Maulana Muhammad Ali as Editor. Through this magazine, and in fact even before, contact was maintained with converts in the West, for example Abdullah Quilliam in England and Russell Webb in America. Shortly after the death of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din had occasion to visit England in connection with a court case before the Privy Council. That was concluded quickly and he then started his real work, that of presenting the teachings of Islam to the public here

Dr G.W. Leitner (d. 1899), who had been Principal of Government College Lahore and the first Registrar of the University of the Punjab in Lahore, had built a Mosque in the town of Woking in 1889, with funds from Indian Muslims, chiefly the Begum (Lady Ruler) of Bhopal. When Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din came to see the Woking Mosque in 1913, he found that it was generally disused and was private property. The Khwaja sahib, with the help in particular of two eminent Indian Muslims in England, Mirza Sir Abbas Ali Baig and Syed Ameer Ali, had the Mosque placed under a Trust for Muslim use. This Mosque Trust then allowed the Khwaja sahib to establish the Woking Muslim Mission there and appointed him Imam of the Mosque.

The Woking Mission and Mosque were the chief centre of Islam in the U.K. for more than fifty years, and were acknowledged by all sections and persuasions of Muslims. The Mission’s propagation of Islam was what was called “non-sectarian”, which meant it did not make direct reference to the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. However, the interpretation of Islam it presented was based on Lahore Ahmadiyya views and it promoted the literature of our Jama‘at. And, of course, it was largely financed and staffed by Lahore Ahmadiyya members. This state of affairs prevailed as long as the Muslims who used the services of the Mosque and Mission were, in general, fair minded, enlightened, and free of the narrow ideas and sectarian bigotry taught by the common mosque mullas of the Muslim world. When religious leaders of this ilk started to come to Britain during the 1960s, in the wake of the large scale immigration from the Indian subcontinent, they immediately launched a campaign organized under a “Woking Regeneration Committee” to wrest the Mosque from the Ahmadiyya-influenced and sponsored Mission. In this they succeeded literally by physical means due to the support from the last Imam B.A. Misri, as he himself has written. Moreover, as the Mission was housed at the Mosque by permission of the Mosque Trust, an independent body with the Pakistan ambassador as its chairman, this Trust yielded to pressure to expel the Mission from there.

I was also able to give Ms Waldman my own personal recollections and observations of the Woking Mission as the Muslim national centre in the U.K. in the 1960s (as a teenager at the time). At Eid functions we saw some three to four thousand people arriving for prayers at Woking by train and coach from all over the country. The national press and television would also be there to report and interview people. Then I also recalled the news that began to appear in the Urdu weekly newspapers of those days in Britain about the campaign to take the Mosque out of Ahmadi hands.

To illustrate the work of the Mission, I showed Ms Waldman some copies of the first series of The Islamic Review, from the earliest ones in 1913, to some from the 1920s, and on to 1940, and then a few copies of the large-size magazine from the 1950s and 1960s, when it was more inter­national, with news and features from all over the newly independent Muslim countries. I presented her with a copy of the book Eid Sermons at the Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking, compiled by Mr Nasir Ahmad.

I also gave her a copy of an item in the December 1964 issue, which gave a glimpse of the situation that was developing. A supporter of the Mission wrote to the Editor saying that when he approached his friends to become subscribers to The Islamic Review they refused on the grounds that the magazine and the mission are “Mirza’i”. The Editor replied that while it was true that the Founder of the Mission, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, was a follower of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, he had created this as a non-sectarian mission and it had always been operating along the same lines. He acknowledged that the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement had been providing funds for the Mission without which “this magazine could not possibly have survived for so long” but this did not mean that The Islamic Review was the organ of this Movement. The appearance of this letter shows that the campaign against the Mission was gathering pace in 1964.

The ousting of the Woking Muslim Mission and takeover of the Mosque can now be seen as part of the whole trend towards intolerance among Muslims, which is why it would be relevant to Ms Waldman’s subject of research. Pakistan itself underwent a similar takeover. The political movement which brought Pakistan into existence believed in a non-sectarian, enlightened Islam. It had a similar view of Islamic governance and polity as that of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. Its leading figures held Maulana Muhammad Ali, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and other Lahore Ahmadiyya leaders in high regard. But these principles were overthrown and abandoned by governments from the 1970s onwards following pressure from the rising orthodox religious parties preaching a programme of intolerance and bigotry.

I also said to Ms Waldman that the Islamic values of inter-Muslim unity, steadfast propagation of Islam, tolerance towards our non-Muslim neighbours and local British friends, and respect for the law of the land, for which the Woking Mission stood, are still held high by the U.K. Lahore Ahmadiyya Jama‘at. We thank Amy Waldman and look forward with interest to any research paper or publication she produces with her conclusions.

This website is created and published by:
Ahmadiyya Anjuman Lahore Foundation (UK charity, no. 1176126)
Successor of the Woking Muslim Mission