Crescent obscured: Indian Muslims in Britain

By Omar Khalidi

Accompanied by my nephew Mansoor Baig, our car rolled out of Palmers’ Grove in North London onto M-4 motorway and reached Woking, Surrey in about an hour on Sunday July 11, 2010. Carpeted with beautiful countryside, Surrey is the most wooded county in England and is full of enticing attractions. To the Johnny tourist and many westerners, Woking, Surrey, England, UK may be associated with the town in which the Martians first land in H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. But to many Indian Muslims, Woking evokes nothing but the Shah Jahan Mosque; the beautiful, little mosque was built with the funds of Shah Jahan Begum, (1838-1901) the female ruler of Bhopal in central India.

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Prayer Hall of Shah Jahan Mosque

Woking mosque has the distinction not only of being a mosque built by a female ruler, but is also the first purpose-built mosque in Britain, which was constructed in 1889. This strikingly beautiful mosque constructed with Bath and Bargate stone is in Indo-Saracenic style so common in the subcontinent during the British Raj. Adjacent to the Mosque is the Salar Jang Memorial Hall, for which Salar Jang II donated money in 1886.[1] It serves as a meeting hall and library. Sir Abbas Ali Baig (d. 1933) of Bombay was also actively associated with this Mosque, as acknowledged in an obituary.[2] The mosque is appropriately located on 149 Oriental Road, not far from the railway station in Woking.

Not far from the Shah Jahan Mosque is the Brookwood cemetery, the largest in Britain. It has a Muslim section within it. As we strolled down the cemetery, we came across many famous men who are buried here: Syed Amir Ali (1849-1928) an influential leader and author; two translators of the Qur’an into English, Marmaduke Muhammad Pickthall (1875-1936) and Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872-1953); Muhammad Yunus, (1884-1952) a prime minister of Bihar in the 1930s; and Faiz Badruddin Tyabji (1877-1950) a judge of the Bombay High Court belonging to the famous Sulaymani Bohra clan. There is another major British Muslim landmark associated with Indian Muslims. The Regents’ Park Mosque (known now as London Central Mosque/Islamic Cultural Center) was originally intended to be named as Nizamia Mosque after the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan (reigned 1911-1948; died 1967). [3] Later on the trust and the assets of the proposed Nizamia mosque were merged with those of the Regent’s Park mosque. A picture dated Friday 4 June 1937 shows his son Nawab Azam Jah (1907- 1970) laying the foundation stone of the mosque.[4] The mosques and the cemetery reminded me that Indian Muslims have a long history in Britain dating back to the year 1600 when the English East India Company began.

Salar Jang Hall in Woking, UK.

Several thousand Indians journeyed to Britain from 1600 to 1850s, mostly ayahs accompanying the sahibs; lascars abroad ships; and munshis and envoys of Indian rulers petitioning the King-Emperor. From around 1870s, wealthy Indian parents began to send their sons for higher education and examinations in British educational institutions. Labor shortages after the World War II (1939-45) forced Britain to import labor from India and other countries. Soon a large number of Indian and Pakistani enclaves sprang up in many parts of Britain. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Indians are as common as the Irish in Britain. Indian presence is obvious to the most casual visitor exemplified by the Indian-owned corner shops, newspaper agents, airport crew, rich businessmen, famous doctors, scientists and the ever present curry restaurants. The more famous groups among Indians are of course the Gujarati shopkeepers and Punjabi restaurant owners. But Indian Muslims have also been part of the British environment. Today they form a part of the wider group of Muslims from South Asia and beyond. In 2005 the estimated Indian Muslim population is 154, 00023, while in the British census of 2001 it was 131,098.[5]

Shah Jahan mosque

Indian Muslims in Britain since 1947

A small number of Indian Muslim from all parts of British India was present who split into Indians and Pakistanis at the time of South Asia’s independence in 1947. Leaving aside parts of India that became Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is documented that Muslims from Surat and Bharuch started to arrive from the 1930s, settling in the towns of Dewsbury and Batley in Yorkshire and parts of Lancashire. There are large numbers of Gujarati Muslims in Blackburn, Bolton, Preston and in the London Boroughs of Newham, Waltham Forest and Hackney. Gujaratis have settled in such towns and cities as Leicester and Gloucester, as documented by a BBC report,
Gujarati Muslims have established madarsas in Britain for their own group as well as for other Muslims as reported by BBC’s Dominic Casciani about a madarsa in Preston.[6] In the past, members of the Khalifa community held a low position in the social hierarchy, a status closely bound up with two of their hereditary occupations, barber and musician. While they were in stigmatized occupations in India, in Britain they are a well-established and relatively successful community. While the connection with hairdressing is acknowledged and actively pursued, music making is an area of contestation, with competing claims that “music is in our blood”, and that music is not fully endorsed by Islam. [7] Besides the Gujaratis, there are other ethnic groups who constitute the larger category called Indian Muslims in Britain. Kokni or Konkani Muslims from coastal Maharashtra region have also settled in many parts of Britain, especially London. A small but articulate number of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar Muslims represented by Aligarh Alumni Association are spread all over the country. India’s Operation Polo against Hyderabad in September 1948 drove hundreds of Deccani Muslims into Britain in that year. Since then Hyderabadis have grown into a community several thousand strong, mostly concentrated in London. [8]

Economically, most Indian Muslims fall into three categories: skilled and semi-skilled laborers, shop owners, and professionals or civil servants. A study by Mark S. Brown reveals that Indian Muslims are economically and educationally more advanced than Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain. [9] A handful have become millionaires exemplified by the cases of Bihar-born Perween Warsi, known as “Samosa Queen,” [10] and Kolkata-born Nadeem Ahmad founder and managing director of Global Tea & Commodities Ltd, GTC. [11]

British Media and Academia on Indian Muslims

British media increasingly pays attention to news about India as it emerges as a world economic power. The international events of last two decades saw an enormous interest about Islam and Muslims all over Britain. Most of it is for wrong reasons, and results in negative stereotypes about Muslims. Some coverage for anti-Muslim violence in India has been covered, but not to the level it deserves. The British academia has also a fair amount of interest in India, given the colonial connection, the rich archives and libraries in London and elsewhere in the U.K. However, contemporary Indian Muslims have not been studied to any degree by British academics compared to the study of Islam and Muslims in the Middle East. Most studies of India have been in the field of humanities, leaving less room for social scientists. Those studying Islam also tend to focus on the Middle East, much to the exclusion of South Asia as well as Muslims in Britain, [12] leaving the field to a handful of anthropologists. However, the Oxford Islamic Center headed by Farhan Nizami of Aligarh has started a project to research Muslims in Britain. [13]

Political Activism

Most Indian Muslims have remained apolitical. Three generations of Indian Muslims in the United Kingdom have yet to produce a significant representation in the parliament of the world’s oldest democracy. Adam Hafezjee Patel (b. 1940), a businessman was made a life peer as Baron Patel of Blackburn. It entitles him to a seat in the House of Lord, the upper chamber of the British parliament. Another Indian Muslim, Dr. Khalid Hameed, born in Lucknow is currently the Chairman of Alpha Hospital Group, as well as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the London International Hospital. The Queen appointed him as the first Asian High Sheriff of Greater London for the year 2006-2007. The House of Lords’ Appointment Commission February 2007 made him a life peer allowing him to sit as crossbencher in the upper house of parliament.

Nothing remarkable is known of Muslims either as candidates or voters in the British parliamentary elections since several decades. At the level of borough, two Indian Muslims were elected mayors. The first was Muhammad Khan (d. 1994) was elected mayor of borough of Waltham Forest in 1986 followed by Shaikh Shuja who was elected mayor of Hackney in 1990.

The oldest community organization is the Indian Muslim Federation,UK (IMF) established in 1969 in the wake of Ahmadabad pogrom. It acquired its own premises in August 1982. Its website [ ] shows some of its resources and activities.

Dr. Omar Khalidi speaking to a gathering in IMF hall

V.A. Sayyid Muhammad, the then High Commissioner of India in London inaugurated the IMF’s Indian Muslim Hall on 23 February 1983. [14] Its aims are like that of any other community organization: “to promote educational, social, economic, cultural, political, and religious activities of Indian Muslims.” [15] To this end, the IMF has organized meetings with visiting Indian Muslims public figures, collected relief funds for the riots victims and mobilized public opinion through protest marches to end anti-Muslim violence in India. Like most Muslims organizations, IMF is also more active during epoch making events such as the 1969 pogrom in Ahmadabad, during the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992, in 2002 during Gujarat pogrom and subsequent riots. The IMF is involved in advice and counseling for Indian Muslims in UK for a variety of local issues such as those pertaining to women, youth and the elderly as well. Its premises provide space for a day care center and rentable rooms for functions to generate income for the organization. To mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, the IMF organized an international Indian Muslim conference in London in 2007, part of which was held at the House of Commons. The moving spirit behind the work is a team under the leadership of Dr Shamsuddin Agha. Born in 1936, and living in London since 1964, Dr Agha has tirelessly worked against the familiar odds: indifference of the community, lack of help from younger generation or financial help from wealthier community members. [16]

Another organization is the Council of Indian Muslims (UK) established in London in the wake of 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Its objectives as stated on the website [ ] are to “organize and bring onto one platform the NRI Muslims in the UK;” and to “promote the interests of Muslim community in India which has been subjected to most severe violence and continuous discrimination since independence.” To this end, CIM, “publishes and distributes newsletters, informative literature on violation of their human rights”; and maintains contacts with Indian and British governments for the welfare of the community. [17]

A 2009 report by an official organization Communities and Local Government, entitled The Indian Muslim Community in England, concludes:
“The Indian Muslim community is a significant community in terms of its size, which is estimated to be around 150,000 in England. However, it is perceived by respondents in this research as remaining largely invisible in public policy and the political arena because of its relatively small size in comparison with the broader Indian and South Asian Muslim communities. Respondents from the community stress its historic tradition
of co-existence with other communities through its experience as a minority in its country of origin. However, at a broad level, specific issues and needs get lost in the public policy focus and engagement with Pakistani and other Indian communities.

The community has also remained marginalized from mainstream politics both in India and in Britain, hence there is less of a culture of civic participation and engagement than some of the other established ethnic minority communities. This is an issue that is readily acknowledged within the community and there is currently considerable debate and encouragement for the community to be more politically engaged.” [18]

The 2002 Pogrom in Gujarat and Public Mobilization in Britain

The state-sponsored pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat deeply affected British Indian Muslims. In that pogrom at least three British Muslims of Gujarati descent visiting Gujarat were murdered by the rampaging mobs. As a Gujarat cop infamously said to fleeing Muslims, “We have no orders to save you.” [19] The relatives of the murdered brothers Shakil Dawood and Saeed Dawood began a campaign to bring justice to the perpetrators. [20] But evidently, the Gujarat government under Narendra Modi successfully suppressed evidence to allow justice to be brought to the killers. [21] A group called Awaaz, established after the Gujarat pogrom by a group of South Asian of all faiths and no faith became active in highlighting state-complicity in anti-Muslim violence. It tried to block the pogrom perpetrator Narendra Modi from entering U.K. in August 2003. Other Muslim organization joined the efforts to prevent Modi from arriving in UK, but they failed. [22] Three self-styled Muslim leaders, led by Zafar Sareshwala, with business interests in Gujarat, instead of supporting efforts to bring him to a court of law, instead embraced the hated anti-Muslim chief minister of Gujarat.[23] However, two years later, when the United States revoked Modi’s visa 18 March 2005 on grounds of his complicity in large scale human rights violations, Britain followed suit.[24] Since that year, Muslim organizations such as Council of Indian Muslims have repeatedly campaigned to prevent the entry of Modi into UK.[25] Some coverage in the British press has also highlighted the pogrom and the subsequent sufferings of Indian Muslims. But the combined efforts of both secular/liberal and Muslim organizations has not yet produced results that would terminate the politics of hate. Until, Indian Muslim organizations and others who believe in a secular and democratic South Asia mobilize public opinion to a high degree, Hindu supremacists in India will remain immune from prosecution, and would not be hurt too much by an occasional official pronouncement disapproving of their acts.

Clearly, the Indian Muslims in Britain are obscured in public view by the larger groups of Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis on the other. While the aforementioned South Asian groups have rightfully asserted their role within Britain and in their respective countries, Indian Muslims have not. It is partly because many were marginalized at “home”, and partly due to the replication of “home” identities based on regional culture and sectarian affiliation. Thus Hyderabadis rarely surface outside their world centered on the Nizam’s capital. Most of their collective energies have not gone beyond mushairas, Eid parties, sports and entertainment events. Similarly the Aligarh Muslim University alumni remain focused on issues specific to their alma mater. The Konkanis are naturally tied to the issues of coastal Maharashtra. The Gujarati Muslims remain divided by jamaats or clans based on affiliation to a particular place in Gujarat. None of the groups have as yet succeeded in overcoming primordial ties to unite for collective action based on a shared sense of being an Indian Muslim. Once that sense catches the imagination, it can be hoped that the various Muslim communities can channelize collective energy for unified action for the welfare of Muslims in India.

[Photo copyright Mansoor Baig, 2010]


1. As cited in Islamic Review (March 1933), p. 62, available on
And in the Indenture of the Woking Mosque Trust dated 12 April 1915, as recorded on page 97 of Muslim P. Salamat’s book A Miracle At Woking: A History of the Shahjahan Mosque, (Chichester, West Surrey, England, UK: Phillimore, 2008.

2. Khwaja Nazir Ahmad, “Sir Abbas Ali Baig,” Islamic Review (March 1933): 62-63, available on

3. Abdul Latif Tibawi, “History of London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center, 1910-1980,” Welt des Islams 21 (1981):93-208.

4. Islamic Review (August 1937),inside front cover,

5. The Indian Muslim Community in England, Published in April 2009 and accessed on July 20 2010.

6. Casciani, “Inside Britain’s Islamic Colleges,” BBC News 15 January 2004, posted on

7. John Baily, “Music is in Our Blood: Gujarati Muslim Musicians in the U.K.,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 32, 2 (March 2006): 257-270.

8. Karen Leonard, Locating Home: India’s Hyderabadis Abroad, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007)

9. Mark S. Brown, “Religion and Economic Activity in the South Asian Population,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23, 6 (November 2000): 1035-1062.

10. Ishara Bhasi, “Perween Warsi: From Frying Pan to Higher,” India Today (4 July 2005): 40-41.

11. “Brewing Success,” India Today (4 July 2005): 44.

12. Atuallah Siddiqi, 2007, Islam at Universities in England, available on


14. Indian Muslim Federation 25 Years of Cooperation and Achievements Silver Jubilee, 1969-1995, (London: IMF, 1995), p. 5.

15. Indian Muslim Federation 25 Years of Cooperation and Achievements Silver Jubilee, 1969-1995, (London: IMF, 1995), p. 6.

16. Conversations with Dr Shamsuddin Agha, London 11 July 2010.

17. For instance see, The Victim of Hindutva Fascism in Gujarat: A Tribute to Ahsan Jafri, ed. M. Munaf Zeena, (London: CIM, 2003).

18. Published in April 2009 and accessed on July 20 2010.

19. Human Rights Watch, New York 2002 Report, “We have No Orders to Save You,”

20. The Dawood Family Justice Campaign,

21. It is not clear where the campaign has gone, as some of the links in the Dawood Family Justice Campaign have gone dead when accessed on July 24 2010.

22. M. Ghazali Khan, “Modi Goes to London,” The Milli Gazette 23 August 2003, posted on

23. Omar Khalidi, “Kowtowing to the Killers,” Two 3 October 2008, posted on

24. Omar Khalidi, “Not Relevant Indians? Outlook India 10 November 2009

25. Letter of M. Munaf Zeena to the British Home Secretary in March 2009 posted on“refuse-visa-modi”-british-indian-muslims-demand