Lonely Planet Writer

Why I created Britain's Muslim Heritage Trails and why you need to visit them

Last month, Britain's first ever Muslim Heritage trails were launched in Woking, Surrey by the chairman of Historic England, Sir Laurie Magnus.

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A map of the Muslim cemetery walk. Image courtesy of Tharik Hussain

I created these trails, known as Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trail #1: The Woking Trail and Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trail #2: The Muslim Cemetery Walk, and this is why everybody needs to visit them at least once.

Britain actually has a surprisingly long relationship with Islamic culture. One that goes all the way back to the 8th century. This is confirmed by a gold coin in room 68 of the British Museum called Offa’s Dinar, which was minted by the Anglo-Saxon, King Offa of Mercia around the year 773, with the Islamic declaration of faith inscribed on it in Arabic.  Yet, most people in Britain assume Muslim culture only arrived on these shores with mass immigration from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Algeria and Somalia towards the latter part of the 20th century.

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Shah Jahan Mosque, the first purpose-built mosque in Britain. Image courtesy of Tharik Hussain

Trail #1, The Woking Trail makes it clear that in fact there was an indigenous British Muslim community flourishing long before that, towards the end of the Victorian period. By leading visitors to three of the country's most important sites of Islamic heritage, the Shah Jahan Mosque (1889), the Woking Muslim War Cemetery (1915) and what was originally known as The Muhammadan Cemetery (1884), the trails reveal how the country’s first truly flourishing Muslim community was founded and led by many white, British converts. It also reveals how two of these sites, the mosque and the civilian cemetery – both 'firsts' in Britain and northwestern Europe – were founded by a man of Jewish roots, and financed by major Muslim dynasties of India, the Begums of Bhopal and the Nizams of Hyderabad. This trail also takes visitors to the site where many Muslim soldiers who died fighting for Britain's freedom during WWI and WWII were laid to rest.

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A marker showing Britain's first Muslim cemetery. Image courtesy of Tharik Hussain

Trail #2, The Muslim Cemetery Walk, allows visitors to ‘meet’ some of these individuals by visiting their graves on a walk through the beautiful 19th century Brookwood Cemetery.  The trail lists 46 graves that include the final resting place of the mosque and Muhammadan Cemetery founder, Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. It also identifies the graves of two of the first British barons to convert to Islam, Lord Headley and Sir Archibald Hamilton, as well as that of the famous Quran translator, Marmaduke Pickthall. All of whom were pivotal in the establishment of this early British Muslim community.

At the launch of the two trails, Sir Magnus revealed to the attendees that Pickthall had in fact been a great maternal uncle of his, helping to bring the seemingly dead heritage into the present day.  The cemetery walk also reveals the historic British Muslim community’s amazing international links around the world. The walk takes visitors to the graves of the last Ottoman princess and her mother, the ex Sultan of Oman, the last Mutakkilite King of Yemen; several Malaysian royals, murdered Palestinian activist and cartoonist, Naji al-Ali and celebrated British-Iraqi architect, Dame Zaha Hadid.

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Inside the Brookside mosque. Image courtesy of Tharik Hussain

This glittering list, along with the documented visits to the Shah Jahan Mosque by the likes of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the founder of Pakistan, Ali Jinnah, the Aga Khan, HIH Emperor Haile Selasse, and maybe even boxing legend Muhammad Ali, make clear why the Shah Jahan Mosque was dubbed the 'Mecca of Europe' in the early 20th century.

However, probably the most intriguing discovery made on the trails was the grave of HRH Musbah Haidar el Hashimi, whose father was the ex-Grand Sherif of Mecca and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Musbah’s mother was a British subject of Irish descent, making the forgotten princess an actual British descendant of the Prophet.

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A gravestone in the cemetery. Image courtesy of Tharik Hussain

The two trails combine to make visible this long forgotten, hidden and rich alternative history of Britain, one that rewrites the popular assumptions about Britain's Muslim heritage. But most importantly it does so in a fun, interesting and accessible way.

I developed these trails as part of a heritage project for the Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative. They routes are not marked out on the ground, so be sure to pick up the free maps of each trail from either the Shah Jahan Mosque, the Brookwood Cemetery Society office, the Surrey History Centre or the Lightbox. They can also be downloaded from here.