A Brief History of Islam in the East End

Read more on the history of Islam in the East End which dates back to the 16th century

Introduction  

The history of Islam in the East End dates back to the 16th century. The growth of London’s Muslim Population originates in East London. At Queen Mary, many of our students identify as Muslim, with over 700 students in the QMSU Islamic Society alone. Just a few miles away in Whitechapel is the East London Mosque, place of worship and gathering for over 7,000 Muslims in London. 

 

Background 

The first wave of Muslim immigrants to England came 300 years ago as lascars. Lascars were sailors from South Asia, employed by the East India Company in the 18th century. Increasing trade over the decades led to the demand for more ship and port workers.  Britain’s first mosque is said to have been established in Cardiff in 1860. By the 1950s post-WWII, many ‘guest workers’ arrived to England from Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa to rebuild Europe. Most Muslims migrated from Bangladesh, India and Somalia. London’s first ever Indian restaurant, the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House’ was opened in 1810 by a Muslim surgeon, Sake Dean Mahomed.  

In the mid 60s there was an influx of Muslim immigrants – predominantly originating from Bangladesh (which was then known as ‘East Pakistan’). 

Immigration at the time, much like today, was not without its challenges. Many Muslim immigrants suffered a lot of racism and hostility from the community. One story which is close to home is the murder of Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi textile worker living in Whitechapel. On 4 May 1978, Altab Ali was murdered whilst walking along Adler Street. His murder led to widespread outrage and protest the prevalent racism pervading the East End at the time. Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel was established in the old churchyard where his murder took place. To commemorate his life and serve as a reminder, Tower Hamlets Council in 2016 declared May 4 as ‘Altab Ali Commemoration Day’. 

 

History of East London Mosque 

With a history spanning over a century, the East London Mosque extends its reach through the London Muslim Centre and Maryam Centre for women. The mosque is described as being ‘something for everyone’ in the community. 

The idea for the mosque was first introduced in 1910 by the Rt Hon Syed Ameer Ali; first Muslim Privy Councillor and the Aga Khan. The vision was to have a mosque ‘in the heart of the British Isles’. They created the London Mosque Fund and secured the support of Yousef Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall, two prominent translators of the Quran. Muslims and non-Muslims participated in mosque affairs. 

When the East London Mosque was first established, it was known as the ‘floating mosque’ due to its lack of a permanent site. Members would often move from one location to another. After a visit from Marmaduke Pickthall, the Begum of Bhopal was moved by the mosque’s aims and donated a generous sum which led to its formal creation. The donation was made on the condition that student quarters would be created. 

In 1985, the East London Mosque was formally established and opened in Whitechapel Road. The mosque became a place of worship for hundreds of Muslims. However, it was soon evident that the mosque needed to be bigger and after much community support – even a campaign to secure the adjoining land, the council promised more land to the mosque. 

In 2013, East End Mosque opened additional facilities for women. The Maryam Centre offers extra prayer spaces, a women’s only gym and services like counselling and educational classes. The Mosque is a meeting place for Muslims all over London. It serves as not only as a place of worship but also serves educational and social welfare purposes.  

King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, attended the 2001 inauguration of the London Muslim Centre and returned in 2004 to celebrate the achievements of the community. 

 

Present Day  

Today, the East End Muslim community is as vibrant as ever. A 2011 Census found that 38% of Tower Hamlets residents identify as Muslim which is a significantly large community in comparison compared to the national average. As Islamophobia Awareness Month draws to a close, it is important to continue to celebrate and uplift this growing and vibrant community.  

 

To Learn More: 

Visit the East London Mosque Archive Collection: https://www.eastlondonmosque.org.uk/archives  

 

References 

Al Jazeera. “Whitechapel, London: The Muslim Undertakers of the East End.” Al Jazeera, September 26, 2018. 

Altab Ali Park, Tower Hamlets Mapping 100 Years of Black and Asian History: Historic England.” Mapping 100 Years of Black and Asian History | Historic England. Accessed November 30, 2023. 

Altab Ali Park. Accessed November 30, 2023.

East London Mosque. “Brief History.” East London Mosque. Accessed November 30, 2023.

Gani, Aisha. “21 Historic Pictures of What Life Was like for Muslims in London That Will Make You Say ‘Wow.’” BuzzFeed, November 19, 2017.

Religions - Islam: History of Islam in the UK.” BBC, September 7, 2009.  

Tower Hamlets. Religion in Tower Hamlets. Accessed November 30, 2023.  

When Did Muslims Come to the UK, Where from and Why.” Muslim Engagement and Development. Accessed November 30, 2023.  

Written by Professor K. Humayun Ansari OBE. “Our Migration Story: The Making of Britain.” Our Migration Story. Accessed November 30, 2023. 

 

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