A tale of two mosques
The Baitul Fumh Mosque which opened in 2003, boasts a gym, bookshop, library, television studio, homeopathic clinic, soundproof crèche for children (so that women are not disturbed while praying), and Merton’s largest enclosed hall available for hire by community organizations. These and a number of other features certainly make the mosque exceptional among European mosques.6 However, what matters most for the present discussion is not the architectural distinctiveness of the building but the historical continuum and discursive network in which its formation needs to be understood. Had it not been for the refusal by Wandsworth Council to allow planning permission in the 1990s to expand the Fazl Mosque, which also belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, in neighbouring Southfields, the Merton mosque might not have been needed and the community would
Home from home 173 not have had to locate a new site on which to accommodate their increasing numbers in the area. The Merton mosque, therefore, represents the success of a town planning application to regenerate a derelict industrial site on the edge of London as a consequence, in part at least, of the failure to be granted planning permission to extend an already existing Ahmadiyya mosque in a suburban, middle class residential area in the neighbouring inner London Borough of Wandsworth.
These two mosques, the Fazl Mosque in Wandsworth and the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Merton, are only a few kilometres apart, both examples of minority faith construction in the suburbs, and yet their distinct histories mark the dramatic changes that have taken place in London over the last century as it has become a ‘world capital’ by ‘virtue of [its] sizeable immigrant population’ (Cesari 2005:1016). The first of these mosques, and the first purpose built mosque in London, was the Fazl Mosque constructed on orchard land, literally therefore a greenfield site, bought by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in 1920 and officially opened in 1926 (Naylor and Ryan 2002:45).7 In the 1920s, the area around the mosque was not the built-up and populated residential suburban location that it is today, and only a few residential buildings were located in the vicinity. Today it is a Grade II listed building of historic architectural value because of ’its gentle and harmonious fusion of formal and decorative traditions of mosque design with restrained 1920s British classicism, built using modern materials and construction methods; and as a neatly proportioned and delicately composed design by the nationally renowned firm TH Mawson and Sons’ and as a ‘British Islamic building influenced by contemporary trends deriving from the Ails and Crafts movement’ which fused ‘Mughal architectural forms with contemporary British stylistic trends’ (Noakes 2018:13, 15). ‘The Fazl Mosque therefore brought together distinct Indian and British architectural traditions, reflecting established mosque design without creating a structure ill-fitting of its location within a predominantly residential South London suburb setting’ (Ibid.: 15). In historical terms it is now valued as ‘the first purpose-built mosque in London and only the second in Britain and: as an important manifestation of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s missionary activities in the early 20th century and for its significance as the centrepiece of the movement’s international headquarters since 1984’ (Ibid.: 13-14). But in the 1920s the very existence of a mosque in the UK was so unusual that it was reported in the national press and a news film of the opening was screened around the country (Naylor and Ryan 2002:46). As Naylor and Ryan (2002) note, the Fazl Mosque was viewed in explicit orientalist terms by the British, as self-evidently a mosque and an example of the ornamental and exotic in the suburbs at a time when India was still part of the British empire, when the Muslim population of Britain8 was far smaller as a proportion of the population than it is today, and when most Muslims were likely to use private spaces as mosques rather than worship in visible and public religious buildings or, to paraphrase Cesari, when Muslims constituted the private and invisible rather than today’s public and unwanted (2005:1018).
The opening of the mosque attracted not only members of the British social and political elite but also many foreign dignitaries. The mosque was to be
Figure 5.2 Fazl Mosque
inaugurated by Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia and, had this happened, it would have granted the Ahmadis a much sought-after legitimacy among Muslims. In the event, Prince Faisal did not attend the opening of the mosque and alerted the Ahmadis to this via telegram less than an hour before he was due to arrive (Basil 2012). The initial agreement officially to mark the opening of the mosque
Home from home 175 and the last minute failure to attend is significant given the later history of the Ahmadiyya Muslims.
The official exclusion of the Ahmadis from the Muslim ummah is directly relevant to the present discussion. Both these mosques, the earlier of the two billed as London’s first purpose built mosque and the later one as Western Europe’s largest mosque, are clearly by virtue of their domes and (non-functional) minarets, examples of Muslim religious architecture for the local non-Muslim populations. However, some other Muslim groups in the locality and beyond do not consider these buildings to be Muslim places of worship at all, and this perforce connects the two Ahmadiyya mosques to other mosques belonging to different Muslim sects in the area in a sometimes tense and uneasy relationship. It also connects the mosques of southwest London to local and national politics and also to the transnational political situation of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and other Muslim nation states. The mosques and the communities they serve may in this respect be conceived of as a network of interrelated sites. It is to some of these matters that I now turn in order to show how religious and political conflicts which began in colonial India and continued in post-colonial Pakistan, together with the global rise of Islamic fundamentalism have shaped local perceptions and influenced the local practices of Muslim and non-Muslim groups and their efforts to make a home in the diaspora.
Books on British mosques and websites listing Muslim places of worship produced by Muslims do not routinely include Ahmadiyya mosques in their resources or show any hits when ‘Ahmadiyya’ is entered into searches on sites covering Muslim interests, groups and topics in the UK (e.g. Gailani 2000; Salatomatic 2014).9 And while some British newspapers described Baitul Futuh when it officially opened in 2003 as Western Europe’s largest mosque, one quoted a prominent British Muslim, Iqbal Sacranie, as saying the Ahmadis ‘can call their place of worship by any name except for a mosque because that is for Muslims.... they are outside the fold of Islam’ (Petre 2003).
Iqbal Sacranie, was at the time then General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which issued a press release on 2 October 2003 stating:
In the light of much press interest, the Muslim Council of Britain wishes to make clear that the Qadiyani/Ahmadi Centre which has been constructed in Morden is not a Mosque. The Ahmadi community are regarded as non-Mus-lims by all Muslim scholars and groups world-wide because of the Ahmadi's central belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (born in 19th century India) was a prophet and the promised Messiah. Ever since the days of British colonial rule in India, Muslim scholars have been united in rejecting Ghulam Ahmed’s claim to prophethood and regard him as an imposter. ... So, whilst we fully accept the right of Ahmadis to their own religion, it is clearly misleading to describe them as Muslims. They are not.10
This view, that Ahmadis are not really Muslim and therefore their places of worship are not really mosques, echoed the official Pakistani government positionand added both a sectarian and a transnational perspective to the local inauguration of a diasporic faith building. As the General Secretary of the MCB, an organization the British prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, was happy to do business with and consider the voice of acceptable Islam in the UK, Sacranie’s views may have appeared as authoritative and mainstream. Yet, as Aicher (2009:335) shows, Sacranie’s move into national level political circles began some years before the formation of the MCB when he coordinated Muslim protests against Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses and brought ‘sub-continental politics into Britain, particularly the politics of the Pakistani revivalist Jamaat-e-Islami party (JI), founded by Abul A’la Mawdudi in 1941’. Archer further notes that ‘[m]any others within the group, like Sacranie, sympathized with the Pakistani Islamist tendency. . . . and Sacranie has made no secret of the influence of Mawdudi on him, having for instance described him as a “renowned scholar” and an “inspiration” to the BBC’. As already noted earlier in this book, the Maududi-inspired Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami party, together with other anti-Ahmadi groups, led campaigns against the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Pakistan which culminated in riots in 1953 in the Punjab, resulted in many deaths and led to the imposition of martial law to restore order. That same year Maududi published an anti-Ahmadi text, The Qadiani Problem, and later also another text targeting Ahmadi beliefs (The Finality of Prophethood (1978)). As Sacranie and the MCB’s example shows, it is possible to play out old and distant conflicts of faith through legitimate contemporary political channels in the UK and to use access to those in government to advance one’s own causes while impeding those of others. And these causes have their roots in events that began over a hundred years ago in South Asia.
While the influence of the MCB has somewhat waned since its formation in 1997 and heyday in the years that followed, the current local situation with the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in southwest London is one where Sacranie continues to hold positions of local significance as trustee and former chair of the management committee of Balham Mosque and the Tooting Islamic Centre.11 It was while holding this position that Sacranie declared in 2007: ‘I have no problem with Qaderis [sic]. It is their religion they have the right to practice it. But it is offensive to me when they say they are Muslims. They are not Muslims’.12 Both Balham Mosque and Tooting Islamic Centre are located in southwest London and in proximity to the two Ahmadiyya mosques discussed in this chapter. Representatives of both the Balham Mosque Sacranie is associated with, and the London Mosque run by the Ahmadis meet in the inter-faith gatherings organized post-9/11 by Wandsworth Council,13 and the tensions between them can on occasion flare up and become matters that local council officials have to mediate (Balzani 2014:116).