Monday, 5 September 2011

Britain's oldest purpose-built mosque

In the week of the anniversary of 9/11, and amid continuing controversy over the siting of a mosque near New York's Ground Zero, I find myself reading about France's oldest mosque in a beautiful book, Paris Between the Wars (Thames & Hudson). Author Vincent Bouvet writes about the Paris Mosque, construction of which began in 1926: 'The building was intended as a symbol of friendship between France and the Islamic world and as a homage to the Muslims who died fighting for France in the Great War. The city provided the land and the architects drew their inspiration from the mosques in the city of Fez, designing a structure in reinforced concrete decorated with traditional materials from the Maghreb.'

Britain's oldest purpose-built mosque was constructed nearly 40 years earlier, in 1889, by the Hungarian-born Orientalist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking was commissioned by Shah Jahan, the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, alongside the Oriental Institute Leitner had established six years earlier. Leitner's parents were Jewish; when his father died his mother moved to Istanbul where she married a Jewish convert to Christianity. Leitner studied in a madrassa in the city and is said to have spoken eight languages fluently by the age of 15; he was made a professor at King's College London six years later and, aged 24, was appointed head of the Government College, Lahore. His mosque is Grade II-listed and still in use.

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