East London Mosque

Mosque, 1982-5

East London Mosque
Contributed by Survey of London on Feb. 17, 2020

Establishment of the mosque

In 1905 a number of prominent Indian Muslims in London ‘conducted the ‘Id (Eid) prayers in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch, in spite of sleet and snowfall’.1 The lack of a place for indoor Muslim worship in the Imperial capital led Syed Ameer Ali, a judge, the first Indian Privy Councillor and an Islamic scholar, to convene a meeting at the Ritz Hotel in 1910 that led to the founding of the London Mosque Fund, established to carry forward the building in London of a mosque for Muslims of all nationalities and schools of thought. Early supporters included the Aga Khan, as well as some prominent non-Muslims, notably (Arthur) Oliver Villiers Russell, 2nd Baron Ampthill, who had been Governor of Madras and acted as Viceroy of India, Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Ross Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who had been Governor of Bombay, and Professor (Sir) Thomas Walker Arnold, another scholar of Islam. Initially Friday prayers were held in rented rooms in the West End.

After the formation in 1934 of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, a charitable society for the promotion of Islam formed by predominantly working-class Muslims in East London, the East End came to be preferred as a place for this worship, and for the intended mosque. The area’s docks meant that Asian sailors, known as Lascars, had settled there, giving the locality a Muslim population of 500 to 1,000 in the 1930s, much the largest concentration in any part of London. It was also relevant to the Fund’s shift that in 1928 the Nizamiah Mosque Trust had been separately established to provide a mosque in central London.

The King’s Hall in the Commercial Road (No. 85, just west of Settles Street) was rented for Friday prayers until 1940 when sufficient money (£2,800) had accrued to permit the purchase of three early nineteenth-century terrace houses a distance further east at 446–450 Commercial Road. Following a programme led by Lt. Col. Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, Chairman of the London Mosque Fund Executive Committee, the converted houses opened as the East London Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre on 1 August 1941, the first prayer being led by the Saudi Arabian Ambassador, Sheikh Hafiz Wahba. The capacity was said to have been about 400, spaces other than the prayer hall being mostly devoted to use as a hostel for Muslim sailors. There was also a library, and medical and burial services were provided. Attendances grew after the Second World War as more merchant seamen, many from Sylhet in north-east Bengal, settled in the East End.2

43–45 Fieldgate Street

The Commercial Road house mosque was always seen as an interim measure, but for a long time the wherewithal for further development was lacking. Circumstances changed in 1974–5 when the Greater London Council acquired the Commercial Road property in a compulsory purchase order for a housing development. Sulaiman Mohammed Jetha (1906–1996), who had come to London from India in 1933 and run a spice importing business, was the Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust at the time. He played the central role in negotiations that led the GLC to provide for relocation of the East London Mosque, allocating it a site on the north side of Fieldgate Street, where Great Eastern Buildings (see p.xx) had been demolished in 1972–3. Plans for an expressly temporary pre-fabricated building were prepared by the GLC’s Housing Department, Maintenance Branch, Division M2C, in 1974 and at a total cost of £45,000 the mosque was accommodated from 1975 in cedar-clad single-storey premises at 43–45 Fieldgate Street, later the site of the Maryam Centre.

The hall, square on plan, was used diagonally, worshippers facing south-east in Qibla orientation on carpeting that had been recycled from the Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park, then rebuilding. With a capacity of 320 it was too small to meet demand and many worshippers had to pray outside in Fieldgate Street. Offices and a library were housed in the front range and an ablutions hall stood to the west. Further west and separate next to the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue there was a mortuary, an important aspect of the mosque’s community support.3

82–98 Whitechapel Road

Jetha continued to lead negotiations with the GLC and fundraising campaigns in London and the Middle East. First plans for a permanent mosque on the site of 82–98 Whitechapel Road were drawn up in 1978 with GLC agreement as regards transfer of the land, the eastern part of which was to be granted, the western part sold. Eventually, in 1982, Jetha also secured £192,000 compensation for the Commercial Road property. Another key figure was Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, Secretary to the mosque’s managing committee. The project was publicised with an estimate of £1m, proposing a building with a capacity of 2,000 that would be England’s second-largest mosque, smaller only than the Regent’s Park Mosque, which had been completed in 1977. The first scheme of 1978 was by Michael Jonas, a Potters Bar architect, who designed a building both Modernist and Islamised, intending a three-storey façade of concrete grillage, evoking mashrabiya, interrupted by a prominent minaret and backed by a large dome. This was not pursued and a second proposition in 1980 by Team 3, architects (including a Mr Ahari based in Belsize Park), presented an austerely Modernist four-storey glass-block wall interrupted only by a geometric arabesque- patterned entrance arch in front of a glazed dome over the prayer hall with a semi-glazed minaret set well back. This gained planning permission in 1981 but was subsequently rejected by the mosque committee. The projected building was said to look too much like a warehouse. Ahmed S. Eliwa, a Bristol-based Egyptian architect who was designing mosques in Maidenhead and Gloucester, drew up a third scheme in 1982. His far more traditional or historicist design included an ornate minaret and a large dome. Unlike the earlier projects, the façade was to be oriented to the Qibla, not aligned to Whitechapel Road. But this too was scrapped. The problems were financial rather than aesthetic. Indeed, it seems evident that there was a good deal of stylistic agnosticism or indeterminacy as regards formal criteria. Uncertainty as regards suitable modes of architectural design was characteristic of British mosque design at this period. However, as in many other mosque projects a minaret and a dome were fixed elements of the brief, though not religious requirements. Their presence was seen as primarily symbolic, to make it clear at a glance that the building is a mosque, whatever else the rest of the architecture might be saying.

John Gill Associates, architects based in Eltham (Barry Morse, job architect), were approached, apparently on no basis other than that their sign board was noticed at a building site in the City, and a fourth scheme, taking yet another stylistic turn, was presented in August 1982. Crucially, this was estimated at around £1.2m as opposed to Eliwa’s £2.4m. It kept the prayer hall oriented to the Qibla, but also built up to the Whitechapel Road frontage. A foundation stone was laid on 23 September 1982, but the scheme did not gain full planning approval until April 1983 and the building work, by W. J. Mitchell & Son Ltd, began in June 1983 and continued through 1984. B.S.S. Designs Ltd acted as structural engineers and the moulding of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) elements was by Anmac Ltd of Nottingham.

The East London Mosque was completed at a final construction cost of about £1.4m and an overall cost of around £2m, the largest single contribution of £1.1m having come from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Jetha, as Chairman of the Council of Management, formally opened the mosque on 12 July 1985, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Subail, Imam of Masjidul Haram, Mecca, saying the first prayer. Some council members had argued against such a large building, which with its capacity of 2,000 was the largest community mosque anywhere in the British Isles. However, the decision to go ahead proved foresightful if not overcautious. Already at the opening it was recognised that the building would be inadequate to meet expanding demand.4

The East London Mosque is prominently situated on the south side of Whitechapel Road. Constructed with walls of load-bearing brick, it mixes yellow/orange stocks with red trim, with reinforced-concrete stiffening and some steelwork. Flat-roofed forward parts comprised entrance spaces, a library, lettable shops and offices in two storeys. Behind is the domed prayer hall, a square-plan block set at approximately forty-five degrees to the road front to ensure that the rear (south-east) wall is correctly oriented (Qibla) to face the Ka’bah in Mecca. A single 100ft-tall octagonal minaret rises near the north-west corner of the forward block, its upper GRP part articulated around the balcony at its head with simplified motifs (mukarna and mashrabiya) of traditional Islamic derivation, and topped by a crescent (hilal) finial. This was the first mosque in Britain to broadcast the daytime call to prayer (adhan) through public speakers, something that soon led to controversy.

The Whitechapel Road elevation is asymmetrically and somewhat awkwardly composed around the main (men’s) entrance portal. This has a double four- centred arch in a plain artificial Portland stone surround, across the head of which ‘THE EAST LONDON MOSQUE’ is prominently lettered (an early drawing envisaged this in Arabic script). Within the inner arch above the doors there is a stained-glass roundel bearing the word ‘Allah’ in green Arabic script. The portal is flanked by pinnacles, detailed at their heads like the minaret, though more simply and without crescent finials. To the right or west of the portal is what was originally a women’s entrance, in a smaller double four- centred arch with a stone surround. To the left or east there are four two- storey bays in which four-centred arches proliferate, blind over two shopfronts, another entrance for access to upper-storey offices, also with a door that served originally as an exit for women, and a small window, as well as in five-light runs of small windows in each bay except that of the entrance to light what were originally the library and offices, later subdivided for use as classrooms.

The returns and south sides of the prayer-hall block were of similar brick and plainer. The Qibla wall had a central prayer alcove (mihrab) projection, removed around 2016, presumably in anticipation of expansion. A hipped roof rises to the circular GRP dome, which was intended to echo that of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It stands over a brick band with small oculi, and is topped by a crescent finial.

The main (men’s) entrance leads into a full-height top-lit vestibule that is an irregular quadrilateral, a simple quatrefoil-pattern frieze dividing its height, and its far side having steps up to three closely spaced four-centred arch-headed doors that lead into the prayer hall. The tympana above the triple doors are calligraphically decorated, with shahada inscriptions in square Kufic script. Shoe racks are placed near entrances to the prayer hall. Behind, against the front wall, an open-well staircase enclosed by an ornamental metal grille leads down to a basement hall, classrooms and a kitchen for catering to events such as weddings. Other stairs on the east side of the entrance hall lead down to the men’s ablutions (wudu) hall, which was designed with facilities for fifty people. The first staircase gives access to a first-floor walkway across the vestibule that originally led to the library. Ranged along the west side of the vestibule are rooms that were originally a committee room, a classroom and offices, displaying clocks and prayer times, timekeeping being essential to Muslim prayer (salat). Above, and only readily accessible via a staircase from the separate west entrance, were spaces for women, including an ablutions hall. This gave access to the women’s prayer gallery, which overlooked the prayer hall, an unusual arrangement in a mosque. It was fronted with four-centred arcading – one-way glass was originally intended so that the women would not be visible from the main hall. Above the shops to the east was office space.5

The prayer hall is a large open space with wall-to-wall prayer carpeting (janamaz or musallah) of Belgian manufacture. In traditional manner a pulpit (minbar) stands in front of the mihrab at the centre of the Qibla wall. Overhead, cylindrical pendant blocks articulate the dome where it meets the four angles of the hip. A painted calligraphic band describes the ninety- nine attributes of Allah in Arabic. This links the oculi, in which there is stained glass.

The temporary mosque on Fieldgate Street was replaced in 1983–5 with space for car parking and a freestanding imam’s house (45 Fieldgate Street), a two- storey three-bedroom brick block graced with four-centred arches under a hipped roof. A single-storey mortuary was attached to the south-west side of the prayer hall. The women’s gallery was converted to form an additional classroom in 2002, and a women’s prayer hall with a capacity of 500 was formed in the western spaces on the first floor. The building of the Maryam Centre in 2009–13 (see below) displaced the imam’s house and allowed the first-floor women’s prayer hall area to be converted to be a viewing gallery.

After it opened in 1985 the mosque’s capacity was quickly uprated to 3,000, without any extension, but even this was insufficient to meet demand. Regular attendance in 2003 was said to be in the region of 2,000 each day across five prayer sessions. Available space was regularly inadequate for Friday prayer attendance. Festival prayers had to be conducted in shifts.

In Whitechapel and Tower Hamlets more generally there is in the early twenty- first century a large Muslim population, predominantly of Bangladeshi origins. Census figures do not supply a full account, but they are indicative, recording that the population of Tower Hamlets grew from 196,101 in 2001 to 254,096 in 2011, with the proportion of people defining themselves as Muslim rising from thirty-seven to thirty-eight per cent (71,839 to 96,536). Thirty- two per cent (81,377) of the whole population identified as of Bangladeshi origin in 2011.

Dawatul Islam, founded in 1978 as a specifically Bangladeshi group, had been a dominant presence at the East London Mosque in the 1980s. It was displaced and succeeded by the Islamic Forum of Europe, another group led by British Bangladeshis. In 2003 the East London Mosque’s three imams were from Bangladesh, following the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, as in almost all of Tower Hamlet’s mosques, but the broader-based origins of the foundation has meant continuing use by other Muslim ethnicities. Emphasis is given to the use of English, to encourage younger people to become involved. The East London Mosque is the largest and most influential mosque in east London, and one of the most important and heavily used places of Muslim worship in Britain.More than simply a place of worship, the mosque has increasingly operated as a community centre, with emphasis on welfare and education, social services, counselling and the organisation of activities. The growth of community support roles has embraced many forms, from formal on-site religious and general education, to partnerships in support of local-authority schooling, young adult education, and English as well as Bengali, Somali and Arabic language classes. Beyond education the mosque provides support in matters of housing, employment, funerals and personal counselling. It also endeavours to present Islam to wider society, aiming to be a bridge between London’s Islamic and non-Islamic populations. In the later years of the twentieth century the East London Mosque secured its status as a locally influential institution with political clout.6


  1. Sir Ernest Hotson, at the opening of the East London Mosque in 1941, as quoted by Fatima Ghailani, The Mosques of London, 2000, p. 34: This account draws extensively on: Shahed Saleem, The British Mosque: An architectural and social history, 2018, pp. 133–6, 155–67: Humayun Ansari (ed.), The Making of the East London Mosque, 1910–1951, Royal Historical Society Camden Fifth Series, vol. 38, 2011: Historic England Archives (HEA), East London Mosque report, 2002–3, BI No. 106882 

  2. Saleem, pp. 155–6: Ansari, pp. 296–7 

  3. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), Building Control (BC) file 40631: East London Advertiser (ELA), 4 July 1975: Saleem, pp. 156–7: Ansari, pp. 52–3: Information kindly supplied by Jamil Sherif, see surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/954/detail/#community-veteran-sulaiman-jetha 

  4. Saleem, pp. 158–62: ELA, 26 Jan and 30 March 1979; 13 Feb. 1981; 1 Oct 1982; 15 April 1983; 29 June 1984; 19 July 1985: Standard, 1 June 1981: THLHLA, BC files 41854–6: Information kindly supplied by Chowdhury Mueen- Uddin: Mark Crinson, ‘The Mosque and the Metropolis’, in Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts (eds), Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography, 2002, pp. 79–98 

  5. THLHLA, BC files 41854–6: HEA, East London Mosque report, 2002–3, BI No. 106882 

  6. Ansari, pp. 53–80: Nazneen Ahmed, Jane Garnett, Ben Gidley, Alana Harris and Michael Keith, ‘Shifting markers of identity in East London’s diasporic religious spaces’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol.39/2, pp. 223–242 (225–232): Census: Sarah Glynn, Class, ethnicity and religion in the Bengali East End: A political history, 2015, pp. 179–92: surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/954/detail/#story 

Mahera Ruby's childhood memories of how the East London Mosque started
Contributed by Survey of London on March 9, 2018

Mahera Ruby, an academic and community activist, grew up in Whitechapel. Here she recalls the East London Mosque when it was a temporary building on Fieldgate Street in the late 1970s, and the opening of the new mosque in 1985.

'My dad [Maulana Abdul Awal] was an academic when he was back in Bangladesh, he was a lecturer at one of the private college universities in Comilla, and then he moved to Dhaka University. When he came here, he came as a Minister of Religion. Now that’s what I remember on the applications, whenever we had to write applications. I assume that’s an Imam’s role.

When we came to join him [around 1975/6], he [was in] east London. He was Chair of East London Mosque… he was Chair for a very long time. At that time, it was a Portakabin, so there was just this grey Portakabin on Fieldgate Street. And we used to come along with him because we were just children and we used to play in the little yard that was in front of the Portakabin.

I remember the feelings around the place. It was very warm, this is where we came [with my dad] for meetings at the mosque. But a lot of the meetings used to happen in our houses, so there’d be a few houses where the core meetings would take place. But because of the [larger] space here it was [used] more for prayer, [and] he would come to meet other uncles. So it was a lot of the older generation.

Although children were around, we weren’t very welcome [laughs] – we made a lot of noise and we would play. And I don’t remember seeing many girls but my dad particularly used to bring us. We didn’t come to the mosque for the madrasah (Islamic teaching) side, we were taught at home. We used to come for the social aspect, I guess, and it was a very formative part of my life actually because I used to see them [the older generation] in meetings, I used to be quite observant about the way they used to conduct meetings, and all the uncles around. So it was the social etiquettes, I think, I learned through that period.

I was about 8 or 9. And there was all the uncles greeting us because I was the Chairman’s daughter. It was just different. Some of those uncles I got to know then are still my mentors to this day, I still go to them for advice and they’re very much interested in what I do and how I move forward and progress. So they are anchors in my life, and similarly with my siblings as well. It’s a very close-knit community. We still work together in the community, we do a lot of stuff in the community. But it was my dad’s generation who built the foundation.

Racism

We used to have people come over from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, who used to give large sermons. It wouldn’t fit in the Portakabin, so they used to set it up outside, so they used to lay down the mats and people used to sit there, or there’d be chairs. I was a bit tomboy-ish, I guess, so I would sit at the front with them and listen to the sermon.

There was a lot of racism around at the time, where we lived there was a lot, so there were dogs, there were skinheads, there was a lot of – my brothers were beaten up a few times. Doing nothing, just going up a lift to where we lived. In Stepney.

There’d always be young lads downstairs or they’d urinate on the stairs just outside our house knowing that we were Asian. There was a lot of that pressure, and I think we used to be brought here by my dad as relief, kind of a feeling [of] home and seeing familiar faces..… And they used to say well done, you’re doing really great, carry on what you’re doing. So we used to get our spiritual upliftment, I guess, from coming to the mosque here.

Our generation were very very few in number. So it was my brother’s generation who are 10/15 years older than me, we used to look up them because they were our guardians. We had two generations of people, I guess, that were kind of moulding us and advising us…before ’85.

And then we heard the wonderful news about the [planning permission for the new] mosque…Everybody was quite apprehensive that the project was so large, [did] we have the people who would use the mosque, and it’s going to cost so much, can we afford to do it? And it was one brave uncle who said “no, no, of course we can do it, our people will help us”. And then they turned to the community, obviously everybody was like “yes, of course”, were all behind it.

Families

But I think by that time the community might have grown a bit, and families were beginning to join because I remember at the time evening Arabic classes were happening in homes, so one used to happen in our house, my mum used to teach the children in our house.

[Our mum] was very involved in the community, one of the ways to get to the parents was through the children. The parents were quite resistant to anything organised, they were quite anxious about who and where and why, but when it came to children learning the Qur’an, it was okay. And through that medium, she got to know the parents. And I think that’s when, kind of, the community work started among families, and religious instruction. Mum would hold circles for women, and to be honest I think that’s when maybe the women’s groups kind of started as well. So gatherings of women to talk about Qur’an. It used to happen in houses, and I remember… I think Bromley-by-Bow Mosque might have been there but it was in a flat, a converted flat.

She used to walk us from Stepney all the way to Bromley-by-Bow, and there, me, my sister… three or five of us behind her, and when we used to get to the mosque she used to speak to the women and she used to give us ‘Islam: Basic Beliefs and Teachings’, [by] Gulam Sarwar. She used to give us that book and she used to say to me and my sister “you’re the teachers, this is your class”. She didn’t speak a word of English or read… “so you’re going to do that chapter by chapter, answer the questions, and then you’ll mark them because you two are the teachers”. So we used to do that and they used to get on with the women’s circles kind of things.

Concern about the future of the new mosque

And then the mosque was built. I can’t remember how long it took. But we remember coming and going. I remember the launch of it. I remember very long meetings taking place and there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry, who would carry this forward, they were quite elderly. They were quite worried if the next generation would carry on the dream. I remember there being lots and lots of late night meetings [in our houses] and we were constantly making tea.

[They were worried about] finances, but also they were quite worried about divisions within the community as well, so they didn’t want it to be a one community mosque. Their dream was that this would be a community mosque, there won’t be any factions, even though it may be run by one particular group of people, it’s open to all.

I remember my dad being very very conscious of that, and saying that we don’t want to be labelled as another Bangladeshi mosque, we are serving the community and we want this to be a unifying factor for the community to come. And the other thing they were thinking about was travellers. So people travelling through would have somewhere to stop and pray, so that welcoming factor as well.

I remember some of those discussions, you know, listening to them discussing those things [was] really interesting because it shaped our outlook. So rather than being navel-gazing and looking at our own community, whatever we did we actually thought about the wider community in the work that we did.

So that was really interesting because they also mentored my brother’s generation because they used to sit in on the meetings. And there was, [after the mosque was built] a situation where there was division in the Committee. And then the Committee that was here, they kind of put it out to the young people, it’s up to you guys, what do you think? Because I think it did become quite culturally divided depending on which village you came from in Bangladesh. And as far as I can remember about my dad, he wasn’t interested in that, that was the last thing that they wanted. So they put it out to the young people who were majority from that faction of people, and the young people said “no, we don’t want that, we came with a wider vision and we want this mosque”. So there was the splintering off [of] a smaller group [and] the majority stayed here, but I think there was a bit of tussle.

So it survived, and we continued. Then I have this gap in memory, so I don’t quite remember, and then I just remember LMC [London Muslim Centre] being built

The opening of the East London Mosque

[When the East London Mosque was built in 1985] I just remember a lot of excitement. I remember the first opening prayer. It was huge. There were lots and lots and lots of people, there was a lot of excitement, lot of, I think, pride. There was a lot of pride, they’d achieved this as a community and they didn’t have to turn to government money for this so it’s kind of [an] independent voice. And I remember Central Mosque being really supportive – you know, Regent’s Park Mosque - although that one’s big, there was more warmth and use here, as a community, the community spirit. We used to go there quite a lot, Central Mosque, because that was the only other big mosque to go to.

I just remember it [the ELM] looking really big. I must have been quite small! [laughs] And I just remember a lot of the uncles, you know they go around, just sort of tapping, feeling, is it for real? I don’t know, there was just a lot of – they were holding each other. It was quite emotional, I think, for them as well.

The mosque caretaker

We used to have a caretaker here … we used to call him Rahman chacha [uncle], that’s what we knew him as, he was the mosque. I mean, if we wanted anything, you had to be in his good books. He was quite a short stout man but he had the key – what I remember about him was his keys, so it’s this big batch of keys he used to carry. He knew the mosque inside out, the basement. To us, it was exploration. He would take us for these little tours because when the kids used to mess around, he used to take them on these little tours, and he became our favourite uncle because he used to entertain us. And if we wanted water, if we wanted anything, it was Khan chacha, that’s what we used to call him. He used to live in the mosque apartment. When my mum used to run out of insulin, we’d come to him because he had the insulin!

The mosque was a source of so much – health, wealth, everything for us as a community. And it was such a tight-knit community. They overcame so many differences. And I truly don’t know how they did that, something must have really held them together, the vision, the dream of what they wanted to see was so much greater than the little differences that they had.

Women’s prayer space in the 1985 East London Mosque

[The women’s gallery was] open [overlooking the men's prayer hall] and we made too much noise, I think, with the kids. So we used to come for tarawih [extra Ramadan prayers] and I remember the children used to try to look over [the gallery] and it wasn’t safe, then they put the glass windows in as well. And it used to be packed when we used to come for tarawih. It helped to break down so many traditional walls that we’d built in our community about women [not] coming to the mosque. And I remember the resistance from the mosque community – wider community about women coming to the mosque.

We used to be chased by certain uncles with their sticks. And then Khan chacha used to save us. So he used to – “go, go behind there” and then show us another route. So it wasn’t liked.

But the Committee were very strong [in providing space for women]. They sang from the hymn sheet. And the imams. They were very positive. And we started our circle in the library, so the heart of the mosque was given over to the girls. We used to hold our Saturday circles, we still run at the mosque, it still continues. And we used to have it at the mosque library.

I think at the time, the Committee were very open-minded, but their religious education [was mixed]. Somebody like my dad who was educated through the madrasah (Islamic schooling) but also through mainstream [school], he held a Master’s in Arabic and Islamic studies, he had the understanding of what the future could look like for us. And also this amazing uncle who was very pragmatic and very forward thinking as well. He knew that there isn’t anywhere that says that women can’t come to the mosque. Also if they needed the children to access the mosque, they needed the parents to come. And usually it’s the women that used to bring the children to the madrasah. It [the women’s prayer space] was a small space comparatively, compared to the main hall and also it overlooked the men’s hall, which probably the public didn’t expect. “Women overlooking men? They should be behind a wall”. So it was quite forward-thinking, I think, and quite brave.

And it [the women’s space] wasn’t done as a tick-box list, sort of exercise, which is different. It was actually with the intention of being used and active. And we felt that at least by the Committee, we are wanted.'

Mahera Ruby was in conversation with Nishat Alam and Shahed Saleem on the 19th January 2018 at the East London Mosque. The interview has been edited for print.

Community Veteran Sulaiman Jetha
Contributed by Jamil Sherif on Sept. 14, 2016

Sulaiman Mohammed Jetha came to London in 1933 at the age of 27, setting up a business to import spices from India and supply them to businesses in Aldgate East, London. Originally belonging to the Ismaili tradition, he later adhered to the Sunni school of thought. He married Ira Arnovitz in 1934, in what was to be a happy and long-lasting union. Sulaiman Jetha was an astute businessman, with interests in property and the stock market, and yet also ever generous to friends and religious causes.

Soon after his arrival in London Sulaiman Jetha became involved in Muslim community work, first at the Indigent Moslem Burial Fund and later the Jamiatul Muslimin, a charitable society for the promotion of Islam, and assistance to Muslims, founded in 1934. In 1941, after pressure from the Jamiatul Muslimin, the London Mosque Fund bought terraced properties on Commercial Road to serve as an Islamic Cultural Centre and Library, but effectively to function as a mosque (the East London Mosque, ELM) under supervision of the Jamiat. When the properties were damaged by bombing during the London Blitz, Sulaiman Jetha was involved in liaising between the Jamiat and the London Mosque Fund for the repair work. He also corresponded with the Ministry of Supplies on behalf of the Jamiat for the provision of rationed sugar during Ramadan. During the 1945-6 general elections in British India, he contributed generously to the All-India Muslim League’s election fund.

In 1948 the London Mosque Fund became the East London Mosque Trust and its Secretary, Sir John Woodhead, subsequently invited Sulaiman Jetha to enrol as a member. From 1950 onwards Jetha was actively involved in the ELMT, appointed its treasurer in 1951, then Honorary Secretary and then Chair. As an office bearer, Sulaiman Jetha continued Sir John Woodhead’s tradition of meticulous record keeping, and the efforts of both men are largely responsible for the fine ELM archives today.

Sulaiman Jetha played a central role negotiating for an alternative venue when the Greater London Council placed a compulsory purchase order on the Commercial Road premises in 1974. A space was subsequently obtained off Fieldgate Street for a prefab building, and it was carpeted using left-overs from the Islamic Cultural Centre at Regents Park, that was being demolished and rebuilt. He used his extensive contacts to raise funds for the new purpose-built East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road, travelling to the Middle East at his own expense, and also maintaining good relations with Muslim ambassadors in London. During his tenure as Chair of ELMT, he had to deal with several awkward internal disputes, but this did not weaken his commitment to the project and he weathered the storms. Though funds were being raised for the mosque, Sulaiman Jetha was always ready to sanction donations from the ELMT to help in emergencies overseas, whether affecting Muslims or non- Muslims, such as earthquakes in Morocco or Nicaragua, or the Sahel drought in Ethiopia. He was also a pioneer of inter-faith dialogue, for example inviting synagogue representatives to visit the Mosque. He respected his wife’s Jewish affiliation, and donated to causes she supported even after her death in 1974. When the new mosque building was inaugurated in 1985, Sulaiman Jetha delivered the welcome address. He retired as chair of ELMT in 1990.

Almost to the very end of his days, despite poor health and loss of vision, Sulaiman Jetha continued to make his way daily from his home in Finchley to the mosque and oversee its affairs, passing on a unique spirit of sacrifice and conscientiousness to a new generation of volunteers. One of these was Salahudeen Haleem (also Treasurer of ELMT), for whom Sulaiman Jetha was ‘the soul of ELM’. For Choudhury Mueenuddin, who served as Secretary of the ELMT for some years during his chairmanship, he was ‘Sulaimanbhai to friends, and Jetha Sahib to his juniors’, and ‘one of the early pioneers of what was to become the Muslim community in Britain’.

Sources: East London Mosque Archives; Humayun Ansari, The Making of East London Mosque, 1910-1951, Cambridge, 2011; Chowdhury Mueenuddin, ‘Sulaiman Mohammad Jetha’ [obituary], Impact International, July 1996

East London mosque in its temporary building, 1977
Contributed by Survey of London on Dec. 19, 2016

A digitised colour slide from the Tower Hamlets archive collection:

https://twitter.com/LBTHArchives/status/758994373669298181

Haji Taslim Ali
Contributed by Jamil Sherif on Sept. 14, 2016

Through most of the 1960s, it was difficult to talk about the East London Mosque on Commercial Road without reference to Haji Taslim Ali and his close friend, Sulaiman Jetha, secretary and later chairman of the Mosque’s Trustees. Haji Taslim (Syed Abdul Momin Ali) was invited by Sulaiman Jetha (see above) to sign up as a member of the East London Mosque Trust in 1955, and subsequently appointed (and re-appointed every few years) as the Mosque’s ‘honorary welfare office’ and superintendent. In 1960, based on a formal agreement with the Trustees, Haji Taslim began providing a Muslim funeral service from the Mosque.

Haji Taslim was born in Sylhet, north-eastern Bangladesh (then East Bengal), and began working as a coalman in the boiler room of British merchant navy ships that would take on crews in Calcutta. By his early twenties he had travelled the world, but during the Second World War his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. The crew were rescued and taken to Chatham, where he was offered the choice of staying in Britain till the War was over, or a passage back to British India – he decided to stay, taking up odd jobs, mainly as a kitchen hand, eventually finding a job in the Daimler car factory in Coventry. There he met his wife, Josephine Mary Morgan, a divorcée later known as Hajja Mariam Ali (see below). After various business ventures, including employment in Saudi Arabia, Taslim Ali returned to London because he felt a calling for religious and community service. East London residents today recall how Haji Taslim would drive his own car to pick up children for the madrassa, and then drop them home afterwards. In April 1970 he was attacked by skinheads as he was locking up the mosque at night and hit over the head with an iron bar. He recovered well, and with Sulaiman Jetha was a keen participant in the work of the Muslim missionary association, Tablighi Jamaat, offering facilities to visiting groups at the Mosque till around 1974. ‘Haji Taslim Funerals’, located at the East London Mosque’s new Maryam Centre, continues to provide an essential community service, under the management of his son Gulam.

Hajja Mariam Ali
Contributed by Jamil Sherif on Sept. 14, 2016

Hajja Mariam Ali (née Josephine Mary Morgan) was the wife of Haji Taslim Ali (see above), welfare officer at the East London Mosque and undertaker. Mariam met her husband while both were working in a car assembly factory in Coventry, probably soon after the Second World War (their eldest son, Gulam, was born in 1948). They moved to London in the mid-1950s, first setting up a restaurant on Old Montague Street. They gave this up when Taslim Ali began his long association with the East London Mosque around 1956. Mariam was responsible for the women’s funeral arrangements.

By all accounts, Mariam was a formidable personality, running a one-person welfare service from East London Mosque, for example offering comfort to homeless merchant seamen: “I keep them with me sometimes a week or so. I try to give them a homely atmosphere. I tell them, ‘There’s a tin of biscuits and some tea,’ so they can make a cup of tea when I don’t feel like it, which isn’t very often.”

She cared for the poor, perhaps because she had known poverty herself growing up in South Wales: “I remember being without shoes on my feet. I remember my mother and father crying because we had no food in the house. I remember my father walking from Wales to London in 1926 to sing in the streets for pennies.”

The Mosque from Whitechapel Road
Contributed by Survey of London

East London Mosque in 2003, photograph by Derek Kendall
Contributed by Historic England

East London Mosque, doors into prayer hall in 2003, photograph by Derek Kendall
Contributed by Historic England

East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, April 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

East London Mosque, April 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

Brief film showing the East London mosque in the 1980s

This brief clip from a documentary or news report from around 30 years ago includes a panning shot from west to east from a building on Commercial Street looking to wards Christ Church, Spialfields, and some film of the congregation outside the East London Mosque

Contributed by Aileen Reid on Sept. 20, 2016