East London Mosque archive illustrates shared history

Sunday 26/11/2017
Central presence. A general view of the East London Mosque in the London borough of Tower Hamlets between Whitechapel and Aldgate. (East London Mosque)

The recent opening of the East London Mosque archive revealed histori­cal gems that go back more than 100 years.

From minutes recorded at its first fund-raising meeting in 1910 to pictures of its grand opening and first Friday prayer sermon from Saudi Ambassador to the UK Sheikh Hafiz Wahba in 1948, the archive charts the evolution of an idea.

Through many incarnations, that idea has led the East Lon­don Mosque to become a central presence in the heart of London today.

This archive also points to a few other things of resonance. A Church Times article from 1911 talks of the attempts to build a mosque in London and asks whether an overly sympathetic understanding of Islam might prompt a rush to convert.

Conversion on a scale that would change society never materialised and most Muslims in the West are migrants or their descendants. In the UK, Mus­lims make up around 5% of the population, even though the right-wing media often make it sound like the numbers are much higher.

The concern expressed in the Church Times more than a century ago puts contemporary developments in context. Issues to do with Islam and Muslims in the West are not new. Ignorance and fear go hand in hand.

In the UK, most of the local population would probably not know of the debt owed to Mus­lims who fought in both world wars. In the first world war, up to 400,000 Muslims fought on the side of the British. Even the simplest counterfactual account suggests that without those Muslim soldiers, Britain might have found it harder to win that war.

Muslims also feature earlier in English history. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I built economic and military alliances with Islamic empires because they helped her fledgling Protes­tant kingdom in the face of the Catholic challenge from Europe.

There are many other exam­ples of the role of Islam and Muslims in British life. Any visitor to London would ben­efit from a trip to Woking, a 30-minute train ride away. There is to be found the Shah Jahan Mosque, the first purpose-built Muslim house of worship in England. There is also the Brook­wood graveyard, where many early British converts to Islam are buried. These include Mar­maduke Pickthall, whose English translation of the Quran was authorised by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. And Abdullah Quil­liam, who established Britain’s first functioning mosque and was granted the title of Sheikh al-Islam for the British Isles by the last Ottoman caliph.

The East London Mosque archive, just as much as Woking, illustrates a shared history that suggests the relationship be­tween the West and Islam does not have to be negative. Any nar­rative that celebrates this joint past helps enormously. Like the mosque archive, the Muslim soldiers’ memorial garden in Woking and an exhibition on the history of Bengali restaurants in Birmingham show that Muslims have been in Britain for much longer than many imagined.

Crucially, they underline the role of Muslims and Islam in Britain’s darkest hours.

The message of history can halt the growth of ignorance and fear. By incorporating it in textbooks and in popular entertainment, the rising tide of Islamophobia may yet be turned. Especially because it’s not spin but very real.