Opinion: London’s historic connections to Islam


Published: Aug 3, 2011

Last month as part of the Shubbak Festival Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London, gave a talk on London’s historical connections to the Arab world. A good bulk of the talk, however, went into the history of the Muslim presence in this city. Today, at the beginning of Ramadan, it is great to see the vibrancy that that history has led to.

Lohman’s talk started with the concern that Arabs’ history in London is actually rather elusive, and ended with the request that anyone with any information or artifacts about the Arab history of London share them with the museum. Although short, the talk brought up findings spanning from archaeological studies to more modern urban histories, originating along the lines of migration and trade between London and the Arab world.

Professor Lohman cited various pieces of literature from over 200 years ago sharing snippets of British sentiment toward Arabs, as well as the Arabs’ feeling being so far west of Europe.

Among them was the 1802 play by Eyles Irwin entitled The Bedouins, or Arabs of the Desert. The play, a comedy in three acts, was among many written by Irwin, about his travels and adventures in the Arab world, namely Egypt and Syria. Having himself been born in Calcutta, he notes great hospitality and generosity as being among the traits of Arab people.

Henry Mayhew, a satirist and journalist, wrote much about immigrant culture and poverty in London in the mid-19th century, noting with wry humor that many Moroccans had originally landed in Scotland, but left because the Scottish didn’t seem to understand spices.

London’s more modern urban history shows that the 1930s welcomed an influx of Iraqi migrants; the 1950s brought migrants from Morocco who settled in North Kensington and the East End. By the 1970s the first Arab London Guide was published. Most interestingly, however, was that the most documented area of Arab history was the development of Muslim presence — though clearly, this is not limited to Arab communities.

It was in 1800s East London that the East London Mosque Trust converted three townhouses in East 1’s Commercial Road into places of worship, discussion and community service; the first official mosque was built by 1899. The newly arriving Somali and Yemeni sailors were the main force behind building it.

At the time there were ironically more Muslims than Christians in the British Empire but still no place for worship in the capital. It was through the efforts of the then Ismaili imam Agha Khan and Lord Rothschild attempting to bridge cultures and religions that the mosque was erected, but not without discouragement. The Muslim community of the 19th century was worried that any Islam that enters Britain would be appropriated to a more Western appeal, losing its basis.

Today’s main London Central Mosque was built in 1977 and is represented in the Museum of London through a very interesting artifact: a prayer rug made in Turkey with an image of the mosque on it. This rug, unusual in its reference to the strong Islamic ties within London, was donated to the museum by the Central Mosque itself. With more than 100 mosques in greater London today, the history of London’s Muslims is clearly a rich and growing one.

London’s vibrant multi-ethnic and diverse population is credited for making this the central global city that it is. On these first days of Ramadan, Muslims can feel the presence of their community with the already rising level of festivities. London’s Edgware Road, referred to intermittently as Little Beirut, Little Cairo and Little Arabia, offers Arab residents and tourists a certain sense of home through the shawarma shops, Arab media and the grocers lining up the road and off streets.

But Ramadan nights along Edgware Road are buzzing. Serving as a spot for resident tourists coming to experience a different culture, non-Muslim Londoners gather to enjoy the evening shisha smoking, music and later opening hours. Shops are now stocked with all kinds of staple Ramadan products like Vimto and qamar i’dean (dry apricot sweet). Other places are having special Ramadan offers, from half price Qur’an MP3 players to discounted special iftar dinners. Small mixed Arab cuisine restaurant Prince Gardens is offering to pay the cab fare for parties of four and above arriving at the restaurant.

All the way up in Queensway, Youssef Keaik of Lebanese restaurant Beity is also offering specials throughout Ramadan. “Everything we serve is halal. We are Muslim and we fast, so we have an iftar (breaking of the fast) menu every year. But of course, we’re in the UK so the regular menu continues too,” he explains.

Although short, Lohman’s talk expressed an interest in the diverse cultures of the Arab peoples in London. Today, at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the vibrancy of the Islamic presence in London puts the history discussed into perspective.

As a widely referenced region today, the Arab world is a strong point of interest and as noted, the Museum of London is interested in developing its collection and knowledge of the area. It would be a great pleasure to see how the museum’s collection on this particular London subculture grows.