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A history of mosques in Britain

The British mosque is a teasingly unrestricted archetype: onion-domes and minarets are cultural, not religious

We’ve seen them popping up on the streetscape of every major town and city in Britain, but few people who are not Muslim know anything about the British mosque.

Recent high profile mosque controversies have brought this building type to wider attention, but the mosque in Britain has a little-known 120-year history. Current research commissioned by English Heritage is now bringing this history to light, and an architectural narrative of the British mosque is emerging that is entwined with a century of Britain’s architectural movements, from Victorian Orientalism, to Modernism through to Postmodernism and Historicism. This article provides a glimpse of that narrative for the first time.

There is no definitive figure for how many mosques there are in Britain today, although the best estimate is in the region of 1,500. Of these, approximately 200 are purpose-built, the rest being either converted houses or other non-residential conversions. The Muslim population of Britain grew incrementally in the years after the second world war, and the spiralling number of mosques reflected this population increase.

It’s important to see the mosque in context of other religious architecture in Britain, which tends to be dominated by the church. The English church emerged in the 7th century AD, and until the 16th century acknowledged the authority of the pope in Rome. In the 17th century, dissenting Christian groups emerged outwith the law, until the Toleration Act gave them legal existence in 1689. The Church of England remains the established church with various privileges, but grants religious and civil rights to other Christians and those of other faiths. It is within this aegis, that the mosque in Britain exists today.

Apart from Christianity in its various forms, the other religious group to make a substantial impact on the religious architecture of Britain has been Judaism. The mosque in Britain, therefore, picked up on this tradition of community-led religious buildings, often built against concerted opposition and through the determination of religious communities, which has been a characteristic of British social and architectural life for some three hundred years.

A mosque has an exceptionally simple programme, needing only an open space that is clean, in which people can face Mecca and offer their prayers. Along with running water for ritual ablution before prayer, there is no other spatial, liturgical or sacred requirement. This means that every formal and architectural representation of the mosque we see beyond this is a cultural accretion accumulated across time and culture.

This also means that the mosque is a teasingly unrestricted archetype. In theory, it can take on any architectural form and express almost any visual language. What we generally see, however, and especially in the post-war era of mosque building, is the continuous return to known architectural motifs, domes, minarets and pointed arches. One explanation for this is that the mosque in Britain is relied upon to represent the religious and cultural identities of its commissioners in an immediate and assertive way.

Post-war Muslim immigration to Britain predominantly brought workers to supply labour to industries across the country. Muslim communities, therefore, emerged in the inner-cities of towns and cities and it is here that Muslim social and religious institutions were subsequently established. As industry declined, these Muslim communities suffered spirals of unemployment, deprivation and discrimination. As grassroots community projects within this context, mosques, apart from serving a primary religious function, have come to represent a certain empowerment of marginalised working class communities who have bypassed the establishment to fashion part of the city in their image.

The mosque, therefore, perhaps more than any other building type in our cities today, is intimately connected to social and cultural identities, and presents one of the most nuanced and layered architectural readings around. Furthermore, mosques are perhaps the most contested building type in the city, provoking debate – sometimes fierce – on issues of identity, social change, race, politics, style and taste.

This architectural narrative of the mosque offers insights into the genealogy of these debates, shows them to be historical, and suggests where they may go next.

Woking, Surrey 1889

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Britain’s first purpose-built mosque was commissioned in 1889 by Jewish Hungarian academic, Gottfried Leitner, in the grounds of an educational institute he established in leafy Woking, Surrey. The architect was William Chambers, a local and little known architect, who is said to have referenced every element of the building from an Islamic source.

The mosque is an elaborate and expressive affair, and reflects late-18th century Mughal style in India. Architectural elements of the onion dome, central portico entrance, arched doorways and niches were prevalent throughout the Mughal period, and in later buildings become noticeably more sculptural. Such buildings were familiar in late-19th century England through popular engravings and exhibitions.

The Shah Jahan mosque almost perfectly captures this spirit of late-19th century Orientalism. It was a time when, for curious Europeans, there was a mysterious and fantastical place called ‘the East’. It was a place of strange customs, flamboyant dress and exotic women. Woking mosque could be considered the architectural equivalent of this Orientalist fantasy. It sits alongside similar examples such as the Brighton Pavilion, 1825 and Leighton House, 1864, both examples of exotic flamboyance. However, to simply categorise these buildings as stylistic oddities would be to miss an important point about how they actually represent the very real cultural transfer that was taking place throughout the 19th century between Victorian England and the countries of the Middle East and India, experienced through colonisation, trade and conflict.

Woking mosque has the longest and one of the most significant Muslim histories of any mosque in Britain. It represents the cultural transfer that was taking place throughout the 19th century between Victorian England and the colonies. Architecturally, it represents the very first manifestation of the mosque as a building type, and representation of Islam, in Britain.

Fazl, Southfields (1925)

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The second mosque in Britain came 36 years later in the expanding suburbs of south-west London at Southfields. Officially named the Fazl mosque, it also came to be known as the London mosque.

Built by architects Thomas H. Mawson and Sons, who were better known for landscape designs, the mosque is simple and carefully proportioned. It comprises a single prayer hall, which measures 7 x 10m and stands 5.4m high, with the apex of the dome approximately 10m-high. On the side elevations, tall, narrow windows with rounded arches are located within each bay between vertical piers. At each corner of the building are simple cupolas, which are a characteristic element of Indian Mughal architecture.

The London mosque, however, treats these elements in a way that starts to depart from the Oriental imagery that characterised its predecessor at Woking. From here the idea of the London mosque as a British Islamic building influenced by contemporary trends in Modernism and Art Deco can be explored.

The dome sits on a square base with a square buttress at each corner, following the work of Edwin Lutyens whose work in New Delhi was seminal in modernising traditional Mughal styles. And indeed, Lutyens’ Presidential Palace in New Delhi, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, carries a dome that is perhaps a more direct formal reference for the dome and base at Southfields. The language of a stripped back Classicism fused with Mughal influence that Lutyens explored is evident in the architecture of the London mosque.

Fazl mosque is architecturally significant in that it marks a departure from the high Victorian Orientalism of buildings such as Woking, the Brighton Pavilion and Sezincote House, and presents instead a restrained Islamic language infused with a sense of contemporary 1920s Art Deco. Fazl was therefore a radical and progressive departure that helped mark the end of exotic architectural representations of the ‘East’, and so the end of the Orientalist genre in British architecture.

Peel Street, Cardiff (1946)

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The first settled Muslim communities in Britain emerged in the port cities of South Shields, Liverpool, east London and Cardiff from the mid-19th century. These communities were made up of Yemeni, Somali or Bengali seamen, who worked the coal ships that plied the shipping routes from Britain across its empire. By the early 20th century these seamen had formed settled and thriving communities, which in Cardiff were located in the Tiger Bay area along the docks, renowned at the time for being vibrantly multicultural.

The mosques established here were the next to be built in Britain after London’s 1925 Fazl mosque. The Peel Street mosque started life as three terraced houses that were initially converted to serve as the mosque. Eventually, as funds allowed, the houses were demolished and a purpose-built mosque built in their place.

Flanked on each side by small terraces of Victorian workers’ housing, the mosque stood out as an oddity. It comprised a single-storey white-washed wall on the street front, with an arched entrance door and cuboid two-storey mosque behind, emphasised on each corner with small domes and square turrets.

Peel Street mosque was designed by the Cardiff architect Osborne V Webb, and presented a simple and formal building, with hints of traditional Islamic motifs, without being dominated by them. Its arrangement of front wall with building set back, is perhaps a reference to the urban typology of traditional Islamic cities, bringing this alternative urban arrangement to a very British terraced street. It is also a variation on the mosque themes explored at both Fazl and Woking, coming at a time when Modernism had not yet taken hold in Britain, and with Ornamentalism past, it in some way captured this period of ambiguity before the post-war building boom.

The Peel Street mosque stood until 1988, by which time Tiger Bay had been redeveloped and its terraces replaced with post-war apartments, when it was replaced by a new mosque, which is little more than a brick box.

Alice Street, Cardiff (1967)

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A few hundred metres from the Peel Street mosque, another Yemeni mosque was established at a site in Alice Street. The former warehouse was pulled down and here Britain’s fourth purpose-built mosque was erected in 1967.

This building was also designed by Osborne Webb, some 20 years after his mosque at Peel Street and was a radical departure from that earlier mosque in the way it embodied the stylistic shift that had taken place in contemporary architectural design, as well as the architect’s own evolution.

The Alice Street mosque was determinedly contemporary, reflecting the design influences of post-war British Modernism that had been emerging since the early 1950s. The plan was a simple arrangement of a circular prayer hall, with an offset rectangular two-storey residence linked back to the prayer hall with a single storey entrance lobby. The prayer hall was topped with a concrete shell roof with glazed side panels and glazed flat roof infill sections. This was a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional dome, and draws from the heroic Modernist architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. The prayer hall and lobby were rendered, and the residential block brick-faced. The only concessions to traditional Islamic styles were in the detailing of the entrance doors and lobby windows, which had ogee-arched framework. A series of smaller windows in the lobby were triangular, neither strictly traditionally Islamic nor Modernist, but cleverly acceptable to both.

This casting off of tradition shows a great deal of confidence, and while it seems the experiment did not pay off – the building being demolished 10 years later – it nevertheless stands as the first modernist exploration of the mosque in Britain and remains to this day one of the most contemporary examples of a British mosque.

Regent’s Park, London (1977)

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This was Britain’s first monumental landmark mosque, and was built to represent Islam in Britain on a world stage.

An international competition was held in 1969 to find a suitable design and was won by Sir Frederick Gibberd, one of the first generation of British Modernist architects and very much a member of the architectural establishment at the time.

Gibberd won the competition just two years after completing Liverpool Cathedral, a radical and avant-garde expression of the Catholic Church in the city centre. Regent’s Park mosque, therefore, was Gibberd’s second monumental religious building and completed just over a decade after Liverpool. It received criticism at the time for reverting to traditional Islamic elements of the dome, minaret and pointed arch. However, Gibberd’s argument was that these symbols gave the building near universal meaning for Muslims, and were an important element, especially as this was the first major mosque in the UK.

The mosque incorporates and interprets these traditional Islamic motifs in a way that is neither traditional, nor overtly abstract. The forms are recognisable, but contemporised mainly through their materiality, which was thoroughly of its time. The facade units were precast concrete panels mixed with Derbyshire spar aggregate and white cement, giving a smooth, deep-ground finish. The minaret also rises as a thick concrete column alongside a copper dome. Internal floors are polished terrazzo.

Gibberd’s design was required to sit comfortably with John Nash’s Cumberland Terrace on the south-western edge of the park, as well as represent Islam in Britain, and respect the majestic setting of Regent’s Park. This complex context required the mosque to dance to a set of differing tunes and the result is a stately building that rises from mature trees on the park’s edge, as both an Islamic icon and an encapsulation of the tail-end of Britain’s Modernist era.

Wimbledon, London (1977)

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This quirky building at the end of a terrace of suburban houses in south London was one of the first generation of post-war purpose-built mosques, and it strikes an incongruous note in an otherwise sedate London street.

The mosque started life in a converted house nearby. It then moved to this site, once a car garage, which was demolished to make way for a simple two-storey plain building erected to serve as the mosque. Soon the adjacent house was purchased, also demolished, and the mosque extended over the site. Later, six short minarets were added and the building was clad in white tile. The roof extension was added within the last year.

The building was designed by local Wimbledon architect Jack Godfrey-Gilbert, who probably had no experience of Islamic architecture before this time. It is a plain building except for the short minarets along each face, which give it an exotic air and sense of ‘otherness’.

This mosque represents an early example of a newly emerging post-war Muslim community establishing a mosque incrementally, from house-mosque to purpose-built, which is a pattern that would be repeated across the country over the following decades.

With Wimbledon mosque, the visual language of the minarets can be seen to replicate traditional Islamic architecture of the late Mughal period in India. This is the first time such ornate and literal translations of Islamic ornament had been seen in Britain since the Woking mosque of 1889. Unlike Woking mosque, where the design was influenced by its Victorian Orientalist context, Wimbledon has no such wider cultural scene. As such, it could be identified as the forerunner of a pastiche style, the indiscriminate lifting and applying of traditional Islamic motifs that would become the conventional approach of almost all mosques built in Britain for the next 40 years.

Preston, Lancashire (1984)

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The Lancashire mill towns were the destination of a significant number of migrants arriving from Pakistan and India in the 1960s and 1970s. Preston, Bolton and Blackburn consequently acquired large Muslim populations, who quickly established religious institutions. Today these towns have some of the highest concentrations of Muslim residents, and mosques, in the country.

The Preston mosque was designed by Thomas Hargreaves, who ran a successful northern practice with George Grenfell-Baines before the latter went on to found BDP in 1961. Hargreaves was in his later years at the time, and had said that if there was one building he would like to design, it would be a mosque. Like many mosques of the period, it started life as two converted houses on the same site, which were subsequently demolished to make way for the new building.

There is no dome and no single minaret; the Islamic identification is contained in four small spire-minarets along the front facade and a crescent motif over the main entrance. Hargreaves has explored language and materiality, layering the front facade with forticrete blockwork, a recessed layer of which is riven. The building carries overtones of a medieval castle with its square turrets, stepped buttresses and battlements.

Completed in 1984, Hargreaves’ mosque came at the high point of Postmodernism and this may have influenced the metaphorical strategies he employed, mixing references of English medieval revival with an Islamic twist. However, he implemented this not with irony, but with a certain level of articulation and sobriety.

With post-1960s Muslim migration and the mass mosque building that followed, this mosque stands out as one of the few that continues the tradition of Regent’s Park and the Alice Street mosque in Cardiff and does not rely on literal translations of Islamic architectural history, but instead explores the idea of what the mosque is and could be in a new British context.

Burnett Place, Bradford (1988)

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This is a small house mosque in Bradford which represents the way in which most mosques were first established in Britain, and indeed a significant number of mosques remain in converted houses to this day.

The house conversion was the easiest and most direct way in which a mosque could be established. A local community would raise funds among themselves, purchase a house and make rudimentary alterations to enable the building to function as a mosque. Usually this would mean adapting existing bathrooms to create ablution facilities, and combining rooms to create prayer halls. Usually the house would be incrementally extended and adapted over time to improve or increase facilities as the congregation grew. In some cases, the house would be demolished to make way for a larger purpose-built mosque, or the community would move to another larger site where new mosque could be established.

The house at Burnett Place was converted to a mosque in 1988 and the rear extension added in 2004. The form of the extension follows a traditional closet wing of a Victorian terrace, but in this case it has been marked out with a dome and a pair of stunted minarets. This shows the enduring significance attached to such symbols, where even the slightest opportunity on a restricted site was exploited to reinscribe domestic architecture as religious.

This process of very private and local establishment of religious sites was typical of the way in which migrants had been creating their religious infrastructure in Britain for centuries. Catholics communities in the 18th century, and Jewish settlers in the 19th had been through exactly the same trajectory of piecemeal development as communities grew. Non-conformist Christians had also been through similar processes of self-initiating religious sites across the country. The process of establishing Muslim places of worship that has expanded since the 1960s is simply a historical continuation of the emergence and institutionalisation of religious communities in Britain.

Ghamkol Sharif, Birmingham (1993)

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Birmingham’s inner-city district of Small Heath has a Muslim population of 62 per cent, predominantly originating from the northern regions of Pakistan. Small Heath was an industrial heartland and therefore attracted migrant settlers from the 1960s who were required for cheap labour.

The Ghamkol Sharif mosque is a landmark building situated on a prominent road network that bears the hallmarks of having been created through the clearance of Victorian streets. Indeed, the mosque itself stands on the former site of 40 derelict houses purchased by the Muslim community from the council in 1990. The mosque is typical of grassroots community projects that evolved incrementally from house mosques, to larger converted premises, then to the final destination of a large landmark mosque. This mosque was initiated by a spiritual leader from north Pakistan who came to Birmingham in the 1960s and established his first mosque in the converted house where he still lives.

Ghamkol Sharif is representative of many mosques of the 1980s and 90s, which we can call the heyday of mosque building in Britain, as over this time the number of mosques across the country increased exponentially. The building embodies a conjoining of vernacular and Islamic architectural languages, creating a new hybrid of somewhat uncomfortable relationships. A pitched, tiled roof is topped with a brown GRP dome, while a brick minaret starts with a large hexagonal base with narrower sections as it rises in a seemingly stunted mixture of local red brick and green pointed arches.

This is a substantial building on the urban landscape, playing a significant social and religious role in the Muslim community. It is an example of the way in which Muslim space and institutions have been re-inscribing the landscape with new combinations of architectural typologies. Through mosques such as this one, in inner cities that may otherwise decay, are injected with considerable community investment and so continue to serve as important and vibrant centres for many generations of residents.

Jameah Mosque, Leicester (2010)

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Over the last decade the number of new build mosques appears to have been declining after its rapid rise through the final 30 years of the 20th century. This could point to a saturation point, where Muslim religious infrastructure had begun to meet the needs of the population. The mosques that have been built since, however, indicate a new direction in mosque architecture.

In the 1980s and 90s mosques, were typified by their combination of seemingly incongruous architectural languages welded together in often piecemeal and iterative ways, resulting in buildings that struggled to hold themselves together. This was partly a result of the practical reality of limited funds, which only allowed for buildings to be assembled over time.

Within the last few years, a series of mosques, both completed and in progress, have been emerging that are designed as coherent spaces. This represents a maturing of Muslim communities, where buildings are professionally designed and procured and where funding streams have improved.

What results is a trend towards a more complete historicism, a move away from earlier pastiche as the mosques no longer borrow a series of Islamic motifs from different sources, but present one particular historic language and express it fully and logically.

The Jameah mosque is one such building, designed by architects from the UAE as the mosque felt there was no UK architect with the requisite specialism in Islamic design. The building is highly ornate, articulating the language of Islam’s architectural past. Through the increase in human and financial resources within Britain’s Muslim community, a style that had few roots or connections to local architectural traditions was sought. The building encapsulates an architectural ‘otherness’ and, perhaps through this, represents some of the cultural differences that constitute one of the valuable dialogues within contemporary British life.

The British Mosque: a social and architectural history, by Shahed Saleem will be published later this year by English Heritage

Readers' comments (3)

  • Interesting article. The fact that the only modernist mosque that was built was soon torn down say a lot about the inadequacies of modernism. The comment on the last mosque is interesting, treating the importing of foriegn architects and architectural
    culture in a positive light as a furtherenhancement of 'successful' multculturalism. As a Muslim convert myself, I know that Islam is not an Arab or Pakistani religion but claims and puports to be a universal religion. This universality was expressed much better in the early years of Islam when the faith was exported to places like China which adopted it whilst retaining their own culture. For us in the UK the question remains, what does British Islam look like? This article could have addressed that question, but the author seems happy with the current state of affairs whereby Islam remains a pastiche 'curiosity' however full and logical. HAving said that, it is possible to go too far in the other direction. The fate of the modern cardiff mosque shows that in developing a language for a new culture, you have to take people with you. The proposed Mangera Yvars Mosque was a step too far along the path of 'modernity' in my view.

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  • Yasmin Shariff

    Shaheed's survey is very well done and informative. She is right to point out that there is more to Islamic architecture than the caricature of domes and minarets. There is also more to Muslims and Islam than mosques. Islam does not separate the spiritual from the worldly and the concept of treating the earth and all its creatures responsibly is fundamental in the teachings of the Quran.

    If Muslims really want to be true to their faith then their homes, offices, mosques and community buildings should be designed with the highest environmental standards. Look at any typical Islamic building from Zanzibar to Granada and beyond and you will see many of the features we are struggling to incorporate into our Code 6 houses or Passivhaus buildings. There are a whole spectrum of environmental techniques including rainwater collection tanks; courtyards which form an integral part of the passive heating and cooling systems; hydroscopic finishes which temper humidity and temperature; sun-shading screens , waterless toilets, gardens with fruit and shade trees etc etc. There is also a very clever use of water and water features and a strong geometry and inspiration from nature resulting in a timeless beauty. The sound of gently running water, birds and bees is just as important as the call to prayer.

    Much to reflect on!

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  • A much needed study that will help position the architecture of British Muslims firmly part of British architectural history. As a typology, the mosque is much more than its architecture. It is a sacred space laden with meaning, memory, and a sense of belonging to a local community as well as the umma, the wider global community. Metaphorically, the mosque transcends space. Yet, the way mosques had been designed during the heyday of Muslim expansion from Arabia in the 8th-16th century, showed a growing ambition and pride to create a visible reminder of Islam. This confidence exemplified in the strength and creative genius of detailing, ornamentation, form, and use of indigenous materials and building traditions. The UK picture lacks the confidence of the predecessors of historic mosque building. Is it politics and Islamophobia, is it lack of leadership and architectural vision, or is it a lack of creativity? For whatever reason, the authentic, indigenous British mosque has yet to blend together its unique context with its specific identity in a new vernacular that is not associated with pastiche or imitated styles. True inspiration should be sought from the Aga Khan Award for Architecture where the best examples of the architectural dialogue between the local and universal nature of Islam is recognised.

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