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The Mosque in Britain

English Heritage has commissioned architect Shahed Saleem to produce the first authoritative survey of the British mosque. The result, to be published in 2014, will reveal the story of a building type which has had a major impact on the urban landscape in recent decades.

View looking down a steeply sloping street of terraced houses amongst which is a mosque complete with dome and minarets. A group of muslim women are crossing the road in the foreground, dressed in hijabs.

The Masjid e Tauheedul Islam, Bicknell Street, Blackburn.
© Alun Bull, English Heritage

Changing Community Make-Up of the UK

Perhaps better than any other building type, places of worship trace the complex story of the changing community make-up of the UK. Mosques are one among many crucial elements in this story and to address a gap in our knowledge English Heritage has commissioned architect Shahed Saleem to research the subject. The result, The British Mosque: An Architectural and Social History, will be published in 2014.

Religious affiliation has often been used in place of ethnic origin as a key signifier of immigrants’ identity, especially since the 1980s. This can provide a misleading impression as the Muslim community is by no means ethnically nor ideologically homogeneous. This is a network of distinctive communities, and it has created varied and fascinating places of worship.

The first mosques in Britain date from the late 19th century, though there had been a Muslim community in the country for two hundred years before that. Inextricably linked to the spread of the British Empire, and at first to the shipping trade in particular, Muslim immigration was initially focused on ports, only later spreading to other urban centres.

The impact of migration on urban landscapes is of course far from a 20th-century phenomenon. The population of Liverpool expanded from 7,000 in 1708 to 376,000 in 1856; 80 per cent of this growth was due to migration. These migrants, mainly from Ireland, Wales and Scotland, brought their own forms of religious life.

A variety of Nonconformist and Roman Catholic buildings stand testament to the multi-denominational nature of Christianity at this period. Liverpool is also the home of the first recorded mosque in Britain. In 1889, 8 Brougham Terrace, a handsome Georgian terrace house, was converted into an Islamic place of worship. The leading light of this foundation was Abdullah Quilliam (d 1932), a British solicitor who had converted to Islam in 1887. By 1896 there were 182 converts to Islam in Britain.

Front-on view of a yellow-bricked house mosque.

The Jamia Masjid, a typical house-mosque and the first mosque in Bradford.
© Alun Bull, English Heritage

House Mosques and the Expansion of Mosque Building

Mosques provide a congregational prayer space, orientated towards the Ka’ba in Mecca, a hollow rectilinear structure described by the Quran as built by Abraham. The Ka’ba is the physical and spiritual centre of the Muslim world. A mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca), and a mimbar (from which the congregation could be addressed), were installed at 8 Brougham Terrace. The call to prayer was made from a first-floor balcony.

The significance of this foundational site is reflected in the decision, in 1985, to list the building at Grade II. Such house-mosques remained popular. The buildings were easy to come by and could be divided up into appropriate spaces, which included both prayer and washing facilities. Later house-mosques were not so much the foundation of an individual as the creation of a community. They were often, as mosque committees grew in resources and confidence, a stepping stone to the creation of more ambitious buildings. This model – from house-mosque to later new-build mosque – is not universal, however, as the largest proportion of mosques remain in adapted houses. Only a minority are purpose-built.

The first such purpose-built mosque, listed Grade II*, was built by Dr Leitner (d 1899), a Hungarian-Jewish linguist who had worked in British India. It was funded by the female ruler of the Indian princely state of Bhopal, the Sultan Shah Jahan Begum. The mosque, in Woking, is a masterpiece of Victorian Orientalism, designed by William Chambers in 1889, and the centrepiece of its founder’s short-lived Oriental Institute. The late Mughal-inspired design was influential in making the dome a key element in British mosque design thereafter.

Only a handful of other mosques were built before the 1960s. Those that were, such as the Fazl Mosque at Southfields, south-west London (1926) showed signs of influence from contemporary Modernism.

The partition of India in 1947 led to new waves of migrants, often including women and families.

Mosque building thus expanded rapidly between the 1960s and the 1980s, and many such structures were highly localised expressions of new and developing social networks, frequently re-using existing historic buildings. Whilst some continued to be in houses, over a third of all mosques are housed in other existing buildings. A significant number gave new life to places of worship that were no longer required by their previous users, and for which no planning permission for change of use was required. Buildings with large hall-like interiors in particular lent themselves to conversion. The main architectural challenge arose from a desire to align the building on Mecca, often resulting in the reorientation of its internal spaces.

A now well-known example of this process of recasting and reinvention is the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid (listed grade II*), a building which embodies the rich migration history of East London. The Neuve Eglise was constructed for the refugee French Huguenot community in 1743. Before becoming a Weslyan Methodist chapel in 1819 it housed the London Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews.

By the end of the century the chapel and its adjacent school had been occupied by the London Hebrew Talmud Torah Classes, who as well as running educational facilities let the chapel to the Machzikei Hadas Society which existed to promote the stricter observance of religious orthodoxy.  The society established a synagogue here, carrying out internal alterations that enabled the creation of a halakhically acceptable building.

Just as had happened with the preceding French and Weslyan communities, the congregation fell into decline and the building was abandoned. It was purchased in 1976 for use as a mosque, and a series of alterations have taken place, culminating in the erection of a 29m minaret on Brick Lane itself.

Looking up at a silver-coloured minaret disappearing into the sky.

Jamme Masjid, Brick Lane, east London.
© Alun Bull, English Heritage

The Minaret and the Dome

Alongside the dome, the minaret, despite being unknown at the time of Muhammad, is the most well-known symbol of the mosque. On 29 November 2009, after a public referendum, Switzerland banned the building of these structures. There is no more potent indicator of the importance of architectural symbolism than this censorship of architectural design purely as a result of its cultural association. It is just these strong associations that account for the near-ubiquitous use of minarets and domes in the proliferation of new-build and converted mosques in Britain in the 1980s.

It has been suggested that in 1961 there were seven mosques in Britain; there are now approximately 1,500, the vast majority of which were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. It was from this period that new mosques building became part of the urban and suburban landscape of Britain. The buildings of these, in places such as Wimbledon, Gloucester, Manchester, Birmingham and Preston, provided an opportunity for Muslim communities to express their identity through architecture. It was also the era when landmark buildings were created in the country’s capital, such as the East London Mosque, Regent’s Park Mosque and the Ismaili Centre, Kensington.

Before Shahed Saleem’s work no authoritative narrative existed for the architecture of mosque building in this country. These important buildings constituent a key part of the narrative of faith, identity and architecture in Britain.

Looking downwards over the golden-dome and white minaret of the Regent's Park Mosque.

Regent’s Park Mosque, London.
© Alun Bull, English Heritage

The Author

Dr Linda Monckton FSA is an architectural historian who has worked for English Heritage since 2003 as a Senior Investigator and then as Head of Research Policy for Places of Worship. She is currently an Analyst, considering social impacts on the historic environment, and leading the National Heritage Protection Plan Activity Team for places of worship.

Dr Linda Monckton

Dr Linda Monckton.