East London Mosque

Mosque, 1982-5

The Establishment of the Mosque
Contributed by English Heritage

In 1905 a number of prominent Indian Muslims in London ‘conducted the ‘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, an Islamic scholar and the first Indian Privy Councillor, 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 Lord Lamington, T. W. Arnold, Lord Ampthill, Sir Ernest Houston, Sir John Woodhead, Earl Winterton and Dr A. J. Arberry. Initially Friday prayers were held in rented rooms in the West End. However, from 1935 London’s East End was preferred as a place for this worship, and for the intended mosque. The area’s docks meant that many sailors, mainly ‘lascars’ from Bangladesh, had settled there, beginning in the 17th century, but in significant numbers only from the mid 19th century, giving the locality a Muslim population of 500 to 1,000 in the 1930s, much the largest concentration of any part of London. It was perhaps also relevant to the Fund’s shift that in 1928 the London Nizamiah Trust had been separately established to provide a mosque in central London.

The King’s Hall in Commercial Road, E1, was rented until 1940 when sufficient money (about £3,000) had accrued to permit the purchase of three early-19th- century terrace houses at Nos 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 then Ambassador for Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Hafiz Wahaba.  The capacity of this, London’s first mosque, was said to have been about 400, spaces other than the prayer hall being devoted to use as a hostel for Muslim sailors.

This was always seen as an interim measure, but the wherewithal for further development was lacking. In 1975 the Greater London Council, in a compulsory purchase order for a housing development, acquired and demolished the Commercial Road property. The mosque was re-housed in temporary pre-fabricated premises at No. 43 Fieldgate Street, at the back of its present site. First plans, by Michael Jonas, architect, were drawn up in 1978, and publicised with an estimate of £1 million. These were reconsidered and it was a second scheme by an Egyptian architect that gained planning permission in 1981. Funds were raised and the foundation stone was laid on 23 September 1982.  However, the mosque committee again scrapped the plans. New designs by John Gill Associates, architects, gained planning approval in April 1983 and building work continued through 1984.

The East London Mosque was completed at a cost of about £2 million, the largest single contribution of £1.1 million having come from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The mosque was officially opened on 12 July 1985 by Muhammad Sulaiman Jetha, Chairman of the Council of Management, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Subail, Imam of Masjidul Haram, Makkah, saying the first prayer. Some council members had resisted the provision of such a large building, the capacity for which was initially stated to be 2000, but the decision to go ahead proved foresightful if not overcautious, given that already at the opening it was recognised that the building would be ‘inadequate to house the ever increasing flow of visitors’.2 The capacity was quickly uprated (without extension) to 3000, but  even this is insufficient to meet demand. Regular attendance is said to be in the region of 2000 each day across five prayer sessions. The mosque was seen at the time of the visit on which this report is based to be serving overflow capacity at the mid-day Ramadan prayer, and it is reportedly regularly inadequate for Friday prayer attendance. Festival prayers have to be conducted in shifts.

The role of the mosque has extended from its core purpose as a prayer hall, with ancillary, though essential and fundamental, community support functions increasing. The mosque principally serves the Whitechapel locality, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets having a large Muslim population, predominantly of Bangladeshi origins (54,554 of a total population of 190,514 in Tower Hamlets in 1999 were defined by ethnic group as Bangladeshi and 71,839 of a total population of 196,101 in Tower Hamlets in the 2001 Census were defined as Muslim), but the broader-based origins of the foundation has meant continuing use by other Muslim ethnicities. The East London Mosque’s three imams are from Bangladesh, following the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, as do virtually all of Tower Hamlet’s mosques, but 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.

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-language, 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, aspiring to be a bridge between London’s Islamic and non-Islamic populations.


  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.  

  2. Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, Secretary of the East London Mosque Committee, as quoted in the East London Advertiser, 19 July 1985. 

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.

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

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

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

East London Mosque, April 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

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

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

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

Juber Hussain discusses attending Brick Lane and East London mosques in the 1990s

Juber Hussain discusses moving to Old Montague Street in the 1990s, Swanlea Secondary School and attending the Brick Lane and East London mosques

Contributed by Shahed Saleem on Sept. 14, 2016