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The begum’s footprint in UK


Shahjahan Begum of Bhopal

The begum’s footprint in UK

Nasir Kamal

The Battle battle of Dunkirk in the Second World War between the Allies and Germany was the defence and evacuation of British and Allied forces in Europe from May 24 to June 4, 1940. More than 3.3 lakh Allied troops were rescued. Among them was the British Expeditionary Force that included “7 Animal Transport Regiment” of the Indian Army Service Corps. The Indian contingent included Muslims soldiers also.

After the rescue, some of them reached Dover and then were taken to Stoney Castle Camp. The following day, they were told that they would offer Friday prayers at Woking, Surrey. Least did they expect that a mosque existed there and even a small Muslim community in those distant parts of Britain.

Shah Jahan Mosque, UK

Next day, they were taken by surprise by a small but beautiful mosque. What perplexed them more was its name—Shahjahan Mosque. Surely, Mughal Emperor Shahjahan could not have built it. Inquiris revealed it was built by none other than Bhopal’s Shahjahan Begum! The war-weary soldiers thanked the Almighty for saving them in the battle and prayed for the Begum who built the mosque in those distant parts.

The incident was narrated by a soldier named Chowdhary Wali Muhammed (who had survived Dunkirk and offered prayers in that mosque) to Muslim P. Salamat of Britain who wrote a book on Woking’s cultural history.

It was the first purpose-built mosque in the UK and listed as Grade II heritage site. It was completed in 1889 and its architect was Dr Gottleib Leitner (1860-1899). Some say it was fully funded by the Begum who ruled from 1865 to 1901, and some say it was partly funded by her. In any case, the contribution by her must have been significant enough that the mosque was named after her. It is perhaps the only mosque funded by any of the Muslim princely rulers of Bhopal.

The mosque attracted royal visitors and many famous British converts including Lord Headley, who founded the British Muslim Society, and Marmaduke Pickthall who provided one of the most eloquent English translations of the Quran. Woking’s Muslim Burial Ground was built during the First World War as the only designated place of burial for Muslim soldiers who died at the Indian Army Hospital in Brighton Pavilion.

So, what if heritage buildings are facing neglect in Bhopal, at least one such building survives in a distant land and has been provided protection.

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