Woking Muslim Mission, England, 1913–1968

Dr G.W. Leitner

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Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner

Builder of the Shah Jehan Mosque, and founder of the Oriental Institute, at Woking, Surrey, England

compiled by Nasir Ahmad, former editor The Light

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Early life and education

Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was born in Budapest, Hungary, on 14 October 1840. As a child he showed an extraordinary ability in languages. At the age of eight he went to Constantinople to learn Arabic and Turkish, and by the age of ten he was fluent in Turkish, Arabic and most European languages. At fifteen, he was appointed Interpreter (First Class) to the British Commissariat in the Crimea, with the rank of colonel. When the Crimean War ended, he wanted to become a priest and went to London to study at King’s College.

It is also reported that during his tour of Muslim countries he adopted a Muslim name of Abdur Rasheed Sayyah. Sayyah in Arabic means a traveller.

As a linguist, he is said to have had acquaintance with some fifty languages many of which he spoke fluently. At nineteen, he became lecturer in Arabic, Turkish and Modern Greek, and at twenty-three was appointed Professor in Arabic and Muslim Law at King’s College, London.

Three years later, sometime in 1864, he was asked to become Principal of Government College at Lahore (now Pakistan), and soon succeeded in raising its status to the University of the Punjab. He founded many schools, literary associations, public libraries and academic journals, while at the same time dedicating himself to the study of the cultures of the Indian subcontinent. During this period he wrote a scholarly and comprehensive book in Urdu, History of Islam, in two volumes, with the help of an Urdu Muslim scholar, Maulvi Karim-ud-Din, who was at that time District Inspector of Schools, Amritsar, Punjab. These two volumes were later published in 1871 and 1876.

Return to Europe

He returned to Europe in the late 1870s to pursue studies at Heidelberg University (Holland), and he also undertook work for the Austrian, Prussian and British Governments. His ambition now was to found a centre for the study in Europe of Oriental languages, culture and history. On his return to England in 1881, he sought a suitable site for his proposed institution, and in 1883 came upon the vacant Royal Dramatic College in Woking, a building admirably suited for the purpose.

The site on the south side of the railway line at Maybury was used by the two most unusual institutions in Woking. The first was the Royal Dramatic College, an ambitious but untimely and unsuccessful attempt to establish what might have become a permanent centre for the dramatic arts. The other was the Oriental Institute, founded and financed by Dr G. W. Leitner.

The Royal Dramatic College

The Royal Dramatic College had its origins in a meeting held at the Princes Theatre, Oxford Street, on 21 July 1858. Among those present were Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. The outcome of the meeting was the formation of a trust, which received an important boost in the autumn of 1858 when Prince Albert conferred his patronage upon the plan.

A Royal Charter incorporating the Royal Dramatic College was granted on 8 June 1858, and the trustees then looked for a suitable site. Early in 1860 the trustees purchased ten acres of Maybury Common for seven hundred and fifty pounds from the Necropolis Company. The site was adjacent to Maybury Arch, and alongside the railway line. On 1 June 1860, a special train brought the Prince Consort from London to a temporary platform which had been erected beside the site at Maybury. The Prince was welcomed by the prospective Master of the College, Mr. Wembster, who was one of the trustees. At a short ceremony, the foundation-stone of the new building was laid. The Prince expressed his best wishes, and those of the Queen, for the project. The College was officially opened by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on June 5th, 1863.

Mr. Thomas P. Cooke, a wealthy actor, invested his money to support the College. His generosity was the principal means of support for the College, but was supplemented by a wide variety of fund-raising activities. Mr. Cooke died in 1867, and in his will bequeathed a large sum to the College.

The Royal Dramatic College was designed by T. R. Smith in a curious mid-Victorian interpretation of the ‘Tudor’ style and was constructed of red brick, the standard local material. It had a large central hall, surmounted at the western end by a tower with a small spire, and along the front was a pillared arcade or cloister. There were two wings, one on either side of the main hall and entrance. Each had five self-contained ‘houses’.

In March 1870 it was said locally that the College was “in need of funds”, and in the following years the financial position became increasingly precarious. Building costs had been higher than anticipated, and the cost of running such a substantial building with extensive grounds was too great. Public and private interest was waning, and Thomas Cooke, its greatest benefactor, was no longer there to provide more money. On 12 November, the governors and trustees reluctantly decided that it must be closed immediately. The Charity Commissioners were instructed to sell the land and moveable assets, but it was not until the end of June 1880 that this was completed. Messrs. Farebrother, Lye & Palmer of London put the property up for auction, but the reserve price of five thousand pounds was not reached. It was then sold by private contract to Alfred Chabot, a land and property speculator. It was finally purchased by Dr G. W. Leitner for his proposed Oriental Institute in the spring of 1884.

The Oriental Institute

Dr. Leitner immediately set about converting it into the Oriental Institute, decorating the interior with priceless objects which he had collected during his travels in Asia. Part of the building was made into an Oriental Museum, said to contain probably the most interesting collection in the possession of any private individual in this country. The Institute trained Asians living in Europe for the learned professions, undertook studies of linguistics and culture, and taught languages to Europeans who wished to travel to the East.

It was an ambitious and fascinating project. It remained comparatively obscure locally, and the people of Woking seemed to be unaware of the precise nature of the Institute. Once Dr. Leitner said, “There is no place in the world where the Institute and its publications are less known than in Surrey.” He hoped that the Oriental Institute would in time be granted full university status, and by the late 1890’s, it was already awarding degrees as it was affiliated with the University of the Punjab in Lahore, with which he had very close ties. He intended that it should be the acknowledged centre for this field of study — a role which was later acquired by the London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, which was established in about the year 1916.

In a letter to The Times describing his visit to the Oriental Institute, G. R. Badenoch gave an account of the vast amount of material that had been collected. He wrote:

“Dr. Leitner has so arranged every department that you can trace at once the influence of Greek art on the art of India. He has done this by bringing within a ‘chair’s length’ the sculpture, the literature and the coins of the period …. There is another species of exhibit which struck me … a large collection of Punjab fabrics …. I was also struck by the large collection of Indian manuscripts and books, some of them proving that India possessed the art of printing long before its invention in Europe …. I considered that India is greatly indebted to Dr. Leitner. There is a beautiful home where the highest in that country can go and live, and study all the great scientific appliances which England can produce, without coming into any sort of contamination, as they may consider, with European manners and customs. He can, moreover, study the history of his own country from specimens of art, coin, manuscripts and books, the like of which I have never seen. I believe also that he can be examined and become a graduate of the Punjab University .…” (27 August, 1884).

He started six journals in Sanskrit, Arabic, English and Urdu. The following critical journals in Sanskrit, Arabic and English  published by the Oriental University Institute became widely read.

  1. Sanskrit Quarterly Review.
  2. Al-Haqa’iq: an Arabic Quarterly Review. Its chief editor was Dr. G. W. Leitner but it was mainly edited by Syed Ali Bilgrami and Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Khan. It was printed and published in Hyderabad Deccan, India.
  3. The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review. It was edited by Dr. G. W. Leitner himself and was published from England.

Reprints of some of the scholarly contributions of the Asiatic Quarterly Review were published for wider circulation. Titles of some of these reprints were: (1) Mohammedanism by Dr G. W. Leitner; (2) The Non-Christian View of Missionary Failures; (3) Child Marriage and Enforced Widowhood in India; (4) The Truth about the Persecution of the Jews in Russia; (4)  Misconceptions about the Islamic Concepts of Jihad.

He wrote numerous articles and books on education, religion and social life of people living in India. But his unique research is his book Dardistan which deals with social life, religious beliefs and dialects of various tribes and ruling families of Kashmir, Afghanistan, Ladakh, Badakhshan, Gilgit etc.

Place of worship for all faiths

To cater for the spiritual needs of students of all major faiths and to provide for any who lived within reach, Dr. Leitner intended to build a synagogue, a church, a temple and a mosque. For this purpose, he earmarked pieces of land for each one of them. But first he was able to start building the mosque, most probably because the cost of the land was provided by His Highness, the Nizam of the state of Hyderabad, and a substantial amount for the construction of the mosque was defrayed by Her Highness, the Begum Shah Jehan, ruler of Bhopal State, and donations given by Indian Muslims. A spacious residential house adjacent to the mosque was also built with the munificent donation made by Sir Salar Jang, then Prime Minister of Hyderabad State. This house was later called Sir Salar Jang House.

This became possible because of his close relations with the chiefs and royalties of various Muslim states while he was in a high position as Registrar of the prestigious educational centre of Punjab for twenty long years, that is, the University of Punjab. Her Highness, the Begum of Bhopal, was a close friend and patron of Dr. Leitner and his university in Lahore. When the control of the mosque was taken over by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din in 1912, the first Muslim missionary to the West and Founder of the Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust, it was officially called the Shah Jehan Mosque to honour its main donor.

From old records it has been found that the foundations were also laid for a Hindu temple but, unfortunately, due to the untimely death of Dr. Leitner in March 1899, the plots earmarked for the Hindu temple and the synagogue were sold by his heirs to James Walker & Co. The church was built on the proposed land with the efforts of, and through donations collected by Mr. William Hamilton. It was completed on 29 November 1895. It is presently called St. Paul’s Church and stands at the Oriental Road.

The Shah Jehan Mosque

The building of the Mosque is in Bath and Bargate stone and was designed from drawings in the Art Arabe, a rare work lent by the India Office, and from details of other Oriental mosques; the style could be said to be Indo-Saracenic. In a building journal of that date, it is described as “a dignified building comparing favourably with other mock Oriental buildings of the same period … as pretty as the Brighton Pavilion”. Contemporaries were intrigued and surprised by this curious addition to the landscape of Woking. The obituary of Dr. Leitner referred to it as “the beautiful Mosque which is such a conspicuous object near the railway.”

The parapets of the walls are relieved by minarets and the onion dome, once blue and gold, is surmounted by a gilt crescent. The mosque rises from a courtyard in the front of which was a fine mosaic pavement leading to the reservoir (which is somewhat similar to a fountain of Mogul style) where the faithful were supposed to perform ablution. The courtyard and some of the decorations were the cause of a dispute between the architect, W. I. Chambers, and his client, sufficiently acrimonious to cause the firm of architects to comment: “We wish the Mosque at Woking had been built at Jericho or some place distant enough never to have troubled us.” Many of the furnishings of the Mosque were provided by Dr. Leitner. It was opened to the public in October or November, 1889. It is the oldest mosque in the British Isles, and probably in Western Europe, and is thus of considerable historic interest.

Within a few years it had naturally become a centre for British Muslims, and was the venue for religious and social festivals, which attracted visitors from a wide area. Among the worshippers in the 1890’s were “Her Majesty’s Indian attendants at Windsor”. The Shah of Iran, during his stay in England, occasionally came to the Mosque for prayers. The earliest photograph on record is of an Eid al-Fitr congregation held in 1903. The congregation was led by the well-known scholar, Abdullah al-Mamoon Suhrawardy (Daily Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, June 10–16, 1999). The Mosque was closed and practically empty between 1899 and 1912 while the Institute was vacant.

In 1912 Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din of Lahore (now Pakistan), an eminent lawyer and Muslim scholar came to England. He took over control of the Mosque with the help of the Rt. Hon’ble Syed Ameer Ali, member of the Judicial Committee of the Indian Privy Council, Mirza Sir Abbas Ali Beg and Sir Thomas Arnold. He founded the Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust and the monthly Islamic Review. With the zealous efforts of the Khwaja and his scholarly lectures and books on Islam, the Mosque became an international centre for the preaching of Islam in the West.

Death and funeral of Dr. Leitner

Sadly, the ambitions of Dr. Leitner were not fulfilled, for the Institute relied too heavily upon Dr. Leitner’s personal enthusiasm and wealth, and it did not survive his early death.

In 1898, he fell ill, and in January 1899, on medical advice, he travelled to Bonn to bathe in a spa at Godesberg. He contracted pneumonia during a cold spell in February, and on 22 March 1899, he died in Bonn at the age of 58. His body was returned to England and was buried on 6 April, 1899 in the Cyprian Avenue of the Brookwood Cemetery.

The funeral of Dr. G. W. Leitner, a remarkable linguist, and the world’s most famous orientalist, took place at Brookwood Cemetery on Thursday afternoon. The body had been embalmed, and since its arrival in England it lay at Brookwood awaiting the arrival from America of Dr. Leitner’s only son, Mr. Henry Leitner. The mourners were conveyed to Brookwood in special carriages attached to the train, which left Waterloo at 2.45 p.m., and arrived at Woking at 3.39 p.m. and at Brookwood at 3.49 p.m. Over one hundred invitations to the funeral had been issued, but owing in many cases to illness and in others to absence from town, or other engagements, only forty people could attend. Among those present from London were: Sir Henry Cunningham, Baron E. de Bunsen, Sir John Jardine, Sir Alfred Lyall, Colonel Garstin, Colonel J. Britten, Captain Selby Lowndes, Mirza Ghaffar Khan representing the Persian Minister, the Rev. H. Gollenez, the Rev. G. R. Badenoch, the Rev. C., Schlonberger, Dr. White, Dr. Th. H. Thorton, Mr. E. W. Brabrook, Mr H. Fooks, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, Mrs. Salwey, Mr. Priestley (British Museum), Mr. A. Rogers, Mr. Tate, Mr. Adams Acton, Mr. J. P. Watson, Mr. Charles Sevin, Mr. H. R. Fox Bourne, Messrs. Billing (Guilford), Mr. Lewis, Mr. A. K. Connell, Mr. W. Cave Thomas, Dr. D. H. Small (Chairman of the Delhi and London Bank), Mr. E. Purdon Clarke (South Kensington Museum), Mr. Philip Newman (Secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts), and Mr. C. Lyne. Also present were representatives of the East India Association, King’s College, London, the Anthropological Institute, the German Athenaeum, and of other institutions with which the late Dr. Leitner was connected. Dr. Leitner’s personality was well known in Woking, and the following, amongst others, also attended the funeral to show their respect to the deceased: The Rev. A. W. E. Burnett, Mr. J. W. B. S. Lancaster (Director of the Necropolis Company), Dr. Phipps, Mr. Patrick White, Mr. D. Glover, Mrs. Smyth, Mr. H. W. Gloster, C.C., Mr. F. Weston, Mr. Prior, the staff of the Asiatic Quarterly Review and the staff of the Oriental Institute

The service was conducted according to the rites of the Church of England, the officiating clergyman being the Rev. H. Marriott, Curate of St. Paul’s, Woking.

The coffin was a massive one, of oak, and had silver-plated mountings. It bore no inscription. The grave, which was lined with evergreens, moss and white flowers, is situated at the foot of a Wellingtonia, a species of Australian fir, of which Dr. Leitner was fond. There were some beautiful wreaths. Among those sending them were: Lady Reade, Sir F. Goldsmid, Mrs. Roth, Mr. and Mrs. A. Douglas, Mrs. T. P. Richter (sister-in-law), the son, Mr. Henry Leitner, Dr. and Mrs. Phipps (Woking), the German Athenaeum, Mr. Colebrook Codd (Chelsea), Miss Murray Prior, Mr. W. Digby C.J.E., Dr. Hewell (Indian Civil Service), Mr. and Mrs. A. Jordan (Piccadilly), Mr. and Mrs. Godfrey (Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts), Anna Simmel and others. There was a large number of persons at the ceremony.

Closure of the Oriental Institute

The death of its Director and Founder meant the end of the Oriental Institute, and it was closed in the summer of 1899. The treasure of artistic and historic objects and the library were sold. The contents were disposed of and soon the buildings stood vacant once more. Had it succeeded, the project might have had a profound effect upon the town. It is realistic to suppose that by 1914 there would have been an Oriental University at Woking, making the town a cultural centre of importance, and giving it an identity and status that it has tended to lack. But this remained hypothetical, and the Institute is now all but forgotten.

It has only two permanent memories: Maybury Heath Lane, which later was renamed Oriental Road in the 1890’s and, beside the railway, near the site of the former Institute, the most exotic and delightful of all the buildings of Woking, the Mosque.

Inscription on the tomb of Dr G.W.Leitner





The Lord is my shepherd therefore can I lack nothing.
Yea, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil. (Ps. XXIII)

Al-‘ilmu khayrum min al-maali

Only son
Born Lahore 1869 — Died London 1945

Website Editor’s Note: The Arabic words Al-‘ilmu khayrum min al-maali mean: Knowledge is better than wealth.


1. A History of Woking by Alan Crosby, Phillimore & Co. Ltd., Woking, U.K., 1982.

2. Victorian Woking by J. R. & S. E. Whiteman, Woking, U.K., 1970.

3. The Woking News & Mail, Woking, Surrey, England, 13 April, 1899.

4. To the Memory of Al-Hajj Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din by Arsalan Bahdanwicz, (Polish Muslim writer, historian and a specialist in history of Islam in Russia), monthly, The Islamic Review, Woking, Surrey, U.K., December 1949, pp. 5–10.

5. Rabitah ‘Alam-i Islami aur Hyderbad Daccan (Relations of Hyderabad Deccan with the Muslim World) by Muhammad Hassam-ud-Din Ghauri, published by Darul Adab, 807 Pir Elahi Bakhsh Colony, Karachi, Pakistan, 1978, pp. 181–188.

6. Nuqoosh, (‘Lahore Number’), a literary digest published by Idarah Farogh-i Urdu, Lahore, Pakistan, February 1962.

7. Dr. Eric Germain, Paris, France, 2001.

8. Indian Public Opinion, Lahore. 9th May 1876, pp.11, 12.

9. A Dictionary of Local History, G. W. Green, Martin & Greenwood Publications, Walton on Thames, UK, 1970, pp. 47–49.

10. Chand Yadain Chand Ta’asurat by Ashiq Hussain Batalvi, Sang-i Meel  Publications, Lahore, Pakistan, 1992.

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the successor of the Woking Muslim Mission.