I love exploring Islamic presence on my travels, especially in the West where the influence of Muslim culture can be observed in the most curious ways.
Whether it be the ubiquitous kebab shop run by a migrant Turk or the adoption of shemagh scarves by trendy teens.
But the most obvious statement of the ‘western Muslim’ presence are the mosques. Waves of Muslim immigration and conversions across the western hemisphere mean Islamic places of worship are literally everywhere.
Some of these have been well-documented, such as the iconic Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Central London Mosque, whilst others not so. This photographic journey brings to light eight lesser known mosques, I have stumbled upon whilst wandering through the western world, each one reveals something different about the Muslims living in the West.
Bath, England: The Bath Islamic Society’s mosque stays true to the very first mosques seen in the west, or indeed anywhere in the world, by converting an existing building is converted into a community prayer space. An approach that is the most faithful to the very first mosque – a simple conversion of one part of the Prophet Muhammad’s house in Medina was what became Islam’s first place of worship. In this case, it happens to be in a beautiful Georgian building, typical of this stunning west country city.
Rhodes, Greece: The Suleiman Mosque was built in 1808 on the site of an older mosque to honour the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Having conquered vast swathes of Europe, it will come as no surprise to learn that many corners of Europe hide a little bit of the Turkish-Ottoman influence.
Brooklyn, New York, USA: The Masjid al Farooq, like the Bath mosque, makes use of an existing building. Sitting on a busy high street in an overtly Muslim area of the Big Apple, it is surrounded by Islamic book shops, libraries, clothes stores and halal shops. The users are mainly local converts.
The Hague, Netherlands: Al Madinah Mosque is purpose-built and like so many purpose built mosques across Europe, draws upon the cliched ‘onion-dome’ seen in many classic Arabian nights tales, from Aladdin to Ali Baba. The mosque’s design has been quite obviously influenced by the Prophet Muhammad in its use of green for the dome – said to have been his favourite colour. The name of the mosque, ‘The Medina’ mosque is also a direct reference to the city in Saudi Arabia where Muhammad and his followers were first given refuge – often known as the ‘Prophet’s city’.
Vienna, Austria: The Islamic Center, on the bank of the Danube in Vienna takes inspiration from the Ottoman mosques of the past. Built in 1975 using funds donated by Saudi Arabian ruler King Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz, The Islamic Center’s design, like it’s Dutch counterpart, has been influenced by the ‘Prophet’s’ colour green. Funds from Saudi royalty have helped to construct a number of mosques and centre’s of learning across the globe.
Sofia, Bulgaria: The Banya Bashi Mosque is believed by some to have been built by that great master of Ottoman architecture, Mimar Sinan, who worked under Suleiman the Magnificent. The Banya Bashi was built in 1576 and the name means ‘a lot of baths’, a reference to the numerous Turkish baths nearby.
Mangalia, Romania: Built in 1573, during the height of the Ottoman rule, the Esmahan Mosque is believed to have been constructed by order of an Ottoman Princess. The tiny little mosque has a humble and quaint appearance yet offers huge clues about Romania’s hidden Islamic past.
This final mosque is a symbol of much hope for the UK and was the country’s first purpose-built mosque. It’s constructor, Orientalist, Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was born to Jewish parents in the city of ‘Pest’, now part of Budapest, Hungary.
A gifted linguist from an early age, the young Leitner went to Istanbul to study Arabic and Turkish at a madrassah and even memorised large sections of the Qur’an. By 10 he was fluent in both languages and had already mastered every major European one. His talents didn’t go unnoticed, and at the tender age of 15 he became the official ‘First Class’ interpreter to the British Commissariat of the Crimea, with the rank of Colonel.
When the war ended Leitner decided to pursue divinity studies at King’s College London, where aged only 21 he became Professor of Arabic and Muslim Law. He went on to spend a large chunk of his life in the Punjab region of India as Principal of Government College in Lahore and is one of the key founding members of the University of the Punjab.
Leitner returned to the UK determined to establish a college for Oriental studies and found his way to Woking, where through his contacts in India, he convinced Begum Shah Jahan, the Nawab Begum of the princely state of Bhopal, to make a considerable donation towards the building of the The Shah Jahan Mosque in 1889 – honouring the Begum by naming it after her.
The Woking mosque, as it is often called, has become the symbol of a ‘British’ Islam, not just as the first purpose-built mosque, but also because many of the earliest known English converts were among its users, including Lord Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall, the famous Quran translator who began life as the son of a Cambridge Reverend. Pickthall went on to serve as Imam at the mosque, which is now listed a grade II building.
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