Why I Created Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trails and Why We Need More of Them

by Tharik Hussain

On July 25th this year, the sleepy suburban town of Woking in Surrey, England, witnessed a historic moment as Britain’s first ever Muslim heritage trails were launched by the chairman of Historic England, Sir Laurie Magnus.

The trails were something I developed for the Everyday Muslim Archive and Heritage Initiative on a project called ‘Archiving the History and Heritage of Britain’s First Purpose Built Mosque’.

This was a project with several objectives: creating a professional archive system at the Shah Jahan Mosque - Britain’s first purpose-built mosque; recording and archiving the oral histories of the mosque’s congregation - past and present; developing a mobile exhibition and educational resources about the local heritage, and publishing a one-off edition of the now defunct magazine, The Islamic Review, Britain’s longest running Muslim journal, first published from the Shah Jahan Mosque in 1913. The special edition, launched in October 2018, contained articles written by British Muslim heritage experts, practitioners and activists from across the UK.

Yet for me, none of this felt as important as creating the trails, and this is why.

One of the many hats I wear is that of a Muslim travel writer who scours the globe trying to unearth forgotten Muslim narratives and histories, and when I discover them, I attempt to make this heritage visible and accessible. I do this in a variety of forms. Most often I write articles about them or try to feature them in a guidebook or website for the area. If possible, I try to collaborate with local heritage and tourism initiatives and explore other avenues for better engagement with this heritage - like creating self-guided trails as with the Woking example.

My work and travels over the years have shown me firsthand just how ‘invisible’ important Muslim heritage can be in diverse and unexpected places like Britain, the USA, Lithuania and Thailand. This is often in spite of the heritage in question being rich, highly relevant to the wider cultural discourse, and most bizarrely, lying in plain sight.

For Muslims across Europe and the western hemisphere, making this heritage visible is really important today for a number of reasons that I am probably not qualified to discuss at length, but they relate to issues of Islamophobia, ‘othering’, alienation, detachment and the widely held assertion that Islam and Muslims are something new to the European, and thereby, western cultural landscape.

What I am qualified to tell you is that this is complete and utter nonsense, and one of the ways to prove this is to ensure the said ‘invisible’ Muslim heritage of places like Britain is made visible.

Just imagine if you will for a minute, how different Muslims and non-Muslims across Britain and the western hemisphere might feel about notions of belonging and identity if that was the case, and how differently they might perceive the role of Islam and Muslims within the European cultural landscape.

It is for these reasons I developed Britain’s Muslim Heritage trails, and why I believe we need more of them.

Self-guided trails are easy to access as usually there is no cost to the visitor (except maybe purchasing, or downloading a map), and no need to hire a guide. The better ones are interactive and engaging, demanding users to physically move between places. Most trails have a permanence about them thus helping to firmly establish the heritage in that physical place. Trails can also be designed to differentiate and therefore be highly inclusive. They also allow various sites of interest to be connected through a common narrative or theme and after the initial investment, trails generally require very little maintenance and upkeep.

To understand their impact better, it’s worth looking at a parallel and relatable example.

Only a few decades ago, Europe’s Jewish heritage - at least within the popular domain - was similarly neglected. Colleagues in the field tell me it was either limited to dark, macabre heritage at best, or not accessible at all.

Today, following the gargantuan efforts of a number of Jewish heritage activists across the western hemisphere, visitors can turn up to cities like the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and embark on easy-to-follow Jewish heritage trails that educate them about great medieval Lithuanian-Jewish personalities and show them the sites of former synagogues, in an area now dubbed the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’.

Yet in this same country, there is no way for the average tourist to access Lithuania’s ‘invisible’ Muslim heritage - no way for them to learn about the pivotal role (Baltic) Muslims played in the very survival of Lithuania (and Poland and Belarus) as a nation, when they arrived in 1398 to help save the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from virtual extinction.

The Muslims in question were Crimean Tatars who at the behest of Lithuania’s Grand Duke Vytautas came and fought by his side against the aggressive threat of the Germanic Teutonic Knights. After helping to successfully defend the Duchy, they were invited to stay and set up home in small villages south of its medieval capital, Trakai, and went on to make considerable cultural and social contributions to their adopted nations.

In fact many of their descendants still live in the very villages that first generation of Muslims came and settled in. Villages so untouched, they remain laid out as they would have been when they were originally just Tatar military encampments. Three of these Lithuanian villages as well as two in Poland and two in Belarus are home to wooden mosques, so wonderfully, indigenous in their look, it as if they were borne from the Baltic earth.

Today, the Jewish heritage of Vilnius is widely celebrated and a normalised part of the Lithuanian cultural narrative, yet very few people in Lithuania or elsewhere are even aware that the country has mosques, let alone Muslims and a 600-year-old Islamic history.

Again, imagine if you will, how visitors - domestic and foreign - to the Baltic might view the Muslim contribution and presence in Europe if they had access to the narrative and heritage sites of the 14th century Tatars. What would they think of Muslims in Europe, if they could go and visit those beautiful mosques, cemeteries and villages and know the role Muslims played in Lithuania’s survival?

The two trails I created in and around the English town of Woking are called Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trail #1: The Woking Trail and Britain’s Muslim Heritage Trail #2: The Muslim Cemetery Walk. Each one has its own map, which shows visitors how to get around and find the relevant sites and graves. The maps also contain literature to contextualise the points of interest.

Trail #1, The Woking Trail connects three of the country’s most important sites of Islamic heritage for the first time, and reveals that there was a flourishing indigenous British Muslim community in the country towards the end of the Victorian period.

This trail leads visitors between the Shah Jahan Mosque (1889), the Woking Muslim War Cemetery (1915) and a plot of land originally known as, The Muhammadan Cemetery (1884) - located within Brookwood Cemetery - making clear the shared narrative and heritage of all three sites. The map tells visitors that Britain’s first truly flourishing Muslim community was led by a number of fascinating white, British converts, and unveils the interfaith roots to the beginnings of the mosque and civilian cemetery, both of which were founded by a man of Jewish heritage, Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. The map also reveals Leitner was largely financed by major Muslim dynasties of Victorian India: the Begums of Bhopal and the Nizams of Hyderabad.

There is also some light trivia, as visitors learn the mosque first appeared in popular culture when it was ‘destroyed’ by aliens in H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, before learning the tantalising possibilities that the mosque might have been the birthplace of the name ‘Pakistan’, and visited by a young Muslim boxer known as Cassius Clay.

Trail #2, is called the Muslim Cemetery Walk, and attempts to introduce visitors to some of the deceased individuals involved in Britain’s Muslim legacy, as well as those that reveal the country’s far-reaching links to the wider Muslim world.

By taking visitors on a walk through the beautiful 19th century Brookwood Cemetery, the trail lists 46 interesting graves. This includes the final resting places of the mosque and Muhammadan Cemetery founder, Dr Leitner. It also identifies the graves of two of the first British barons to convert to Islam, Lord Headley and Sir Archibald Hamilton, whose support was key to the community’s early success.

Other famous Brits on the list include the Quran translator, Marmaduke Pickthall, whose descendant - it turns out - launched the trail, Sir Magnus, and Britain’s very first Sheikh ul Islam, Abdullah Quilliam, also the founder of the country’s first mosque in Liverpool.

Then there are the graves that reveal Britain’s historic links to the wider Muslim world, such as that of the last Ottoman princess and her mother; the (empty tomb) of the ex Sultan of Oman; the last Mutawakkilite King of Yemen; several Malaysian royals, murdered Palestinian activist and cartoonist, Naji al-Ali and the grave of celebrated British-Iraqi architect, Dame Zaha Hadid.

However, the ‘discovery’ that made clear just how ill-explored Muslim heritage in Britain really is, was that of the grave of HRH Musbah Haidar el Hashimi; the daughter of the ex-Grand Sherif of Makkah, and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Musbah’s mother had actually been a British subject, which meant, the forgotten princess was in fact a ‘British descendant’ of the Prophet.

The two trails combine to make visible this hidden and rich alternative history of Britain - one that has the potential to rewrite the popular narrative of Britain’s cultural legacy, and normalise within it, Britain’s Muslim heritage.

To embark on the trails in Woking, visitors can pick up free maps at the Shah Jahan Mosque, the Brookwood Cemetery Society office, the Surrey History Centre and the Lightbox. They can also be downloaded from the Everyday Muslim website here: https://www.everydaymuslim.org/projects/woking-mosque-project/muslim-heritage-trail-woking/

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Hussain is an author, travel writer, journalist and consultant who specialises in Muslim heritage and travel. He is the creator of Britain’s first Muslim heritage trails and the author of the Lonely Planet guidebooks on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Thailand. Tharik has been published all over the world and has consulted on theatre, arts, heritage and tourism. He is currently working on a narrative book about a journey exploring the Muslim heritage of the Balkans.