Written by:
Tharik Hussain

Uncovering Britain's hidden Muslim heritage

Read time:
5 minutes

Uncovering Britain's hidden Muslim heritage

An award-winning travel writer, author and journalist specialising in Muslim heritage and culture, Tharik Hussain has written the ‘Hidden Muslim Britain’ chapter of the new Lonely Planet book Experience Great Britain – the first time the subject has been covered in a mainstream travel guide. 

How did the 'Hidden Muslim Britain' chapter come about?

With this book Lonely Planet wanted to create very localised experiences, something really fresh and new. That was the slight opening of the doorway – I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to jump in two-footed here.’ 

I’d just tested the waters in Lonely Planet’s Experience London guidebook. I covered my neck of the woods, east London and northeast London. I wanted to do the Brick Lane that I know that everyone ignores. So I developed the ‘Sylheti Soul of Brick Lane’ trail. I’m of Bangladeshi origin but most of my lot are from Sylhet and this isn’t an exaggeration, but we’re the reason everyone loves curry in this country. That trail wowed Lonely Planet, so I knew we were onto a winner. 

The Experience Great Britain editor said, ‘Go for it, I’m going to give you a whole section.’ That was very empowering. She recognised how interesting this stuff is to people beyond the Muslim audience. I don’t write for a Muslim audience – I write for everyone. What I’ve done here is something that needs to happen for all marginalised heritages and marginalised narratives.

Experience Great Britain © Lonely Planet

What kind of stories, places and communities do you cover?

I point out we’ve got the first purpose-built mosque built in the northwestern hemisphere. It’s been in Woking for over 130 years and looks like a mini Taj Mahal. Everything about it screams national treasure, yet I’m pretty certain that when I put it in Lonely Planet that was the first time it had appeared in a British guidebook.

Just round the corner, you’ve got the country’s first Muslim cemetery, the Highgate cemetery of Muslim heritage. We’re talking about some of the earliest Muslim converts, lords and ladies, the most famous translators of the Koran into English, one of the last Ottoman princesses, an actual descendant of the Prophet. You’ve even got architect Dame Zaha Hadid. Serious luminaries. Plus it's stunning. 

[Nearby] you’ve also got – as far as I’m aware – the only dedicated cemetery for Muslim soldiers anywhere in the northwestern hemisphere. That’s been turned into a peace garden. 

After Woking, we go to Brighton, which is centred around the pavilion. What a lot of people don’t know is that it was in there that a certain Bengali in the late 18th/early 19th century called Sake Dean Mahomed became the official 'royal shampoo surgeon'. He goes to the pavilion – a pleasure palace – dressed up like a little maharaja to shampoo the king.

A century or so later his fellow countrymen are fighting for the British as colonised subjects in WW1. Some got injured and needed treatment. The propagandists had this great idea, 'Let’s stick them in the pavilion and we can then beam these images across the empire to remind people how much we care for our subjects.' It was a masterclass in propaganda. They did it partly because they’d been accused of mistreating their imperial dead. 

The next place I take [readers] is Liverpool because that’s where the Quilliam mosque was – northwestern Europe’s very first mosque. Woking was purpose built, this was a house mosque. I’m working with a load of people up there and we’ve turned it into a heritage centre. 

I also point out that around the country there are places like Cardiff Castle that have these spectacular oriental rooms built by the aristocracy – they’d been to the Alhambra, the Topkapi Palace, the Taj Mahal and then built themselves these miniature palaces. 

I also point out all the looted stuff – the British Museum has something ridiculous like over 250,000 Islamic items, the V&A has over 100,000. One of the big things I mention is a coin, in the British Museum, which is the most tangible evidence Islam has been here for 1,300 years. The gold dinar of King Offa, modelled on a coin of the contemporary Abbasid Caliphate. It’s the earliest example of what you might call an indigenous Islamic artefact of Britain.

How significant is it that Lonely Planet, one of the world's biggest travel brands, is covering this subject?

It’s absolutely huge. When somebody like Lonely Planet says this is important enough for us to put it into a mainstream guidebook [people] sit up and take notice. In terms of impact, I think it’s huge because Lonely Planet is an industry trend setter.

I’m not going to kid myself that this is the start of everyone just embracing this heritage, that’s not how it’s going to happen. There’s still loads of work to do. But the more I bang on about it in the mainstream, the more chance it’s got. 

I genuinely hope – and it won’t happen in my lifetime – there will come a time when someone can write about what I’ve written about and just call it 'Britain’s heritage'. I hope they don’t have to label it as ‘Muslim’ or ‘hidden’. I hope they just see it as British because that’s what it is.

Minarets in the Mountains © Tharik Hussain

How does the chapter chime with the issues raised in your book Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe – which recently won the British Guild of Travel Writers’ Narrative Travel Book of the Year award – and the Muslim heritage trails you’ve developed? 

There’s a clear theme in my work – I’m fascinated by how Islam has been othered in the western hemisphere. The reason I’m fascinated by it is because as Minarets has proven to many people, Islam has been part of this landscape since the beginning [of the religion]. Islam is a responsible for developing the western European identity as any other religious or cultural narrative. 

What I tried to do with Minarets is [help] to normalise the idea that Islam and Europe aren’t separate identities, that there would be no modern Europe without Islamic culture.

As a Muslim, I see Christian European heritage as mine, I see secular European heritage as mine, I see Jewish European heritage as mine. I don’t have a problem embracing it all. And most Europeans don’t have a problem embracing all that. But they have a real problem embracing Muslim European heritage it seems.

What I wanted to do with the Muslim heritage trails – there’s one called the Woking Trail, which has those three spaces, the mosque, the solders’ cemetery and the civilian Muslim cemetery – is make the things I love accessible [to others]. 

What are you working on next?

I work in three areas – academia, heritage and travel. In academia, we’re working on a pan-European minority heritage project piloting more Muslim heritage trails. 

Within heritage, I’m hoping to go back to Woking – we’ll be doing a big project, we’re just hoping the funding comes through. I’m also hoping to do some work around [19th-century British explorer] Sir Richard Burton, who performed the Hajj as a non-Muslim.

And from a writing perspective, as well as various travel pieces exploring Muslim heritage, I’m also working on a proposal for another book around similar themes. 

Find out more about Tharik Hussain on his website.

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