Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

Tower Hamlets and the Establishment of Mosques

The borough of Tower Hamlets adjoins the City of London, the famous square mile of international high finance. Tower Hamlets has until recently been a predominantly working-class area heavily dependent on the docks and associated industries, as well as the garment trade, brewing, paper manufacture, furniture, and other specialized crafts. The borough has been intimately associated with the settlement of overseas settlers—Calvinist Protestant Huguenot silk weavers during the seventeenth century; Irish Catholics during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; Russian and Polish Jews, as well as Chinese, at the end of the nineteenth century. More recently, the area has attracted settlers from Malta, Cyprus, the Caribbean, Somalia, and, most significantly, Bangladesh. Today, Bangladeshis constitute by far the largest ethnic minority in Tower Hamlets—according to the 1991 Census, they comprised 22.9 percent of the population, or 36,900. In some western wards, the proportion of Bangladeshis ranges from 30 to over 75 percent.[1]

The establishment of mosques in the borough has been heavily influenced by these Sunni, Hanafi Bangladeshis. Not surprisingly, the well-established mosques are based in the western and central wards, which form the heartland of the “Muslim community.” The first building to be used for congregational worship, the East London Mosque, was on the Commercial Road near the docks. The mosque served Bengali lascars who had jumped ship during the interwar years and stayed on in Britain, finding work in Midlands manufacturing, traveling as peddlers, setting up the first “Indian restaurants,” and working in London’s major hotels (see Adams 1987).

Like so many mosques across the country, the East London Mosque was initially based in private accommodation. However, during 1965 it moved to a purpose-built construction nearby on Whitechapel Road. The new center provided facilities for a large congregation, as well as a bookshop, school, administrative offices, shops, living accommodation, and funeral service (cf. Haider, Slyomovics, this volume). During the past five years, the mosque’s prominent location and the diverse activities within its walls have enabled its leaders to gain a high profile, at least among non-Muslim outsiders such as central and local government officials, politicians, teachers, and welfare workers.

A second mosque, now known rather grandly as the London Great Mosque (Jamme Masjid), uses a building on Brick Lane, Spitalfields, that symbolizes the area’s intimate association with overseas settlers. The building was constructed by the Huguenots for religious worship and opened in 1742. It was later used as a Methodist chapel, and in 1895 it was leased to an ultra-orthodox Jewish society, the Machkizei Hadtha, which worked among the rapidly expanding population of Russian and Polish Jews. During the 1970s, the no-longer-used synagogue was bought by a group of Bangladeshi businessmen to use for congregational prayers. Inside, the building was still recognizably an eighteenth-century Protestant chapel, with the original gallery and wall paneling intact, although in a poor state of repair.

The two mosques developed contrasting and competing styles, whose origins lay in divergences between religious leaders during the late nineteenth century in British India. The Brick Lane Mosque recruited mullahs aligned with what is known as the “Barelvi” orientation, which emphasized the role of custom and shrines. Religious leaders at the East London Mosque, on the other hand, were influenced by the rival “Deobandi” teachings, which fostered a more self-consciously reformist tradition and criticized devotions around Sufi shrines (Metcalf 1982).

The differences between the mosques were also deepened by political cleavages. The Brick Lane Mosque was closely associated with the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh High Commission in central London—an association celebrated by official visits to the mosque by President Hussain Muhammad Ershad during the 1980s. The East London Mosque, with its more “scriptural” religious style, was more closely aligned with Arab states in the Middle East and with Pakistan. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, for example, contributed £1,100,000 of the £2,000,000 total cost of building the new center, while ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Egypt were members of the mosque’s management committee.

Different strategies toward links with community organizations further sharpened the differences between the mosques. Religious leaders at the Brick Lane Mosque did not establish many ties with Bangladeshi community groups and non-Muslim outsiders partly because that role was performed by the Bangladesh Welfare Association (BWA). The offices of the BWA were in a neighboring building, and its business leaders played a key role in the establishment and the management of the mosque. The leaders of the East London Mosque, with no such community organization as ally, encouraged Muslim youth groups on the one hand and international organizations on the other. The East London Mosque established a close alliance with the Young Muslim Organization (YMO), for example, which rented offices in an adjoining street. The YMO was linked to the Da’wat ul Islam, a missionary organization based in Bangladesh and Pakistan but active across Britain. The East London Mosque’s funeral director and one of its oldest members was involved in another missionary organization, the Tablighi Jama‘at, which occupied a former synagogue in nearby St. Katharine’s ward, while the secretary of the East London Mosque’s management committee was a leading member of the Council of Mosques U.K. and Eire, a national pressure group supported by Saudi Arabia and located in central London.

The organizations and individuals associated with the East London Mosque gave the new purpose-built center a range of contacts at local and more global levels that were more cosmopolitan than the predominantly Bangladeshi ties established by the Brick Lane Mosque through the BWA. Furthermore, the East London Mosque encouraged a more literary approach toward Islam through its bookshop, which stocked devotional and educational books in English, Bengali, Urdu, and Arabic. The bookshop attracted the interest of non-Muslims from schools and colleges, who were also encouraged to visit the mosque. The custodians of the Brick Lane Mosque, in contrast, have made no effort to encourage non-Muslim visitors, although outsiders are welcome to come and go as they please. (The London Tablighi mosque, in further contrast, welcomes outsiders only once a week for the evening public meeting held in its building. See Metcalf, this volume.)

Although other mosques had emerged during the settlement of Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, the Brick Lane Great Mosque and the East London Mosque were the main focus of public debates about the presence of Islam in the borough during the 1980s. Those debates entailed factional struggles among Bangladeshi community leaders and organizations, as well as concerns of outsiders such as local government planners, politicians, businessmen, and residents.

Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.