Corpses in their mouths

by Zaheer Kazmi


The Woking Martian

Did the Martians that landed at Horsell Common live on in the souls of dead Muslim soldiers? Just over a century before the ‘War on Terror', H. G. Wells penned his own fin de siècle mythic battle to protect God's empire. The setting for the alien invasion in The War of the Worlds (1898) was later to become the final resting place of some of the British Empire's Muslim fallen. Yet the Muslim Burial Ground at Horsell Common is only part of the trans-global history of Woking in Surrey, the outlying town at Greater London's edge. In 1889, nearly a decade before the publication of Wells's classic allegory of imperial anxiety, England's first purpose-built mosque, the Shah Jahan, was constructed in Woking by Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a Hungarian Jew. Wells himself lived in the area at the time of writing his book. He would have been aware no doubt of the mosque just beyond the railway line that ran along his lodgings in Maybury Road. He would also have known of the vast nearby London Necropolis, or Brookwood Cemetery, where, among its Muslim graves, two of the most influential translators of the Qur'an into English were later to be buried: Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the former, an English convert, the latter, an Indian Ismaili Bohra.

Space and time collapse in a nondescript part of suburban England where Muslims and aliens live and die. Until very recently, Brookwood Cemetery, the largest in England, was owned by Turkish Cypriots, the Guney family, who had founded Britain's first Turkish mosque in 1977. Their fate was intimately tied to their involvement in far off battles with Greek Cypriot compatriots in that divided island's wars of resistance with their strong religious undertones. Barely a few miles away, the environs of Woking where Wells resided still retain small tightly-packed Victorian terraces, several of whose current Muslim inhabitants, of which there are now many, hark from the Subcontinent. In one of these houses, in Stanley Road adjoining Wells's Maybury Road retreat, the latter-day Dickensian chronicler of working-class life, Paul Weller, grew up to find artistic inspiration while his mother worked as a cleaner at the local mosque. Years later, in his ode to nostalgia, ‘Amongst Butterflies', he would retrace his steps to Horsell Common where he played as a child, reminiscing that ‘God was there amongst the trees' by the soldiers' tomb. He also paid his own respects to this sacred confluence of memory by pledging to help finance the burial ground's restoration.

Islam in this corner of England was less foreign than left field, though it was not entirely overlooked by leading minds of the day. Beyond the idyllic writ of Rupert Brooke's dead dreams, E. M. Forster, an admirer of Pickthall's novels, had reflected on the mosque at Woking in a neglected psychogeographic meditation on the ‘indeterminate' emotional import of Islamic architecture. In a perceptive nod to the spiritual significance of the simplicity of mosques as empty receptacles for worship, he noted they were a ‘rather vague and unsympathetic object to a Westerner.'[1] The Woking Mosque, built by a Jew and funded by the Begum of Bhopal, was later managed by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement.

During Kamal-ud-Din's tenure at the mosque in the same year Forster had written about it in the modernist neurotic desolation following the Great War, W. B. Yeats wrote of the anarchy of the gyre's spiritual revolutions in ‘The Second Coming.' But in London the centre always holds and the periphery is impelled inexorably towards it, including the inhabitants of the satellite town of Woking. Like the suburban Weller who once longed to be ‘in the city', what began as a fringe Muslim presence at the Shah Jahan Mosque, also made its way to the more urbane metropolitan core of London.

In faith as in geography, outliers, like satellites, are held in a subordinate embrace or else cut loose, but seldom left to float freely. The intellectual legacies of Pickthall and Ali, the convert and the heretic, were later appropriated by the city's orthodox Muslim establishment. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Ismaili-born founder of the Islamic State of Pakistan, may have tipped his hat at the Woking Mosque in 1932 as a visiting dignitary, but had felt little need to pay his respects years earlier when he made his way as a trainee barrister directly to Lincoln's Inn at the gates of the City. In 1944, soon before Pakistan's birth, the Islamic Cultural Centre at Regent's Park was established, in later decades to be patronised by the Saudi royal family under whose Salafi aegis, ironically, Abdullah Yusuf Ali's Qur'an was disseminated. Indeed, along with the Aga Khan and Syed Ameer Ali, Pickthall and Ali were original trustees of the East London Mosque, established in 1910, known more today for its supposed associations with the Islamist politics of the Jamaat-e-Islami. London was slowly becoming an Islamist city. Not Londonistan but another kind of urban crucible. Muslims were adapting to the disciplining forces of the post-industrial urban space within which they now searched for cosmological meaning. Meanwhile, any vestige of radicalism and heterodoxy was being displaced by the hegemony of Muslim petrodollars and political power which colonised the urban environment in property, palatial and impoverished, sacred and profane, from Brick Lane to Edgware Road.

‘To the centre of the city where all roads meet…'[2]

Today, those left on the periphery of this new Medina, the aliens in the shining city, are the urban mujahideen brought back from the dead to reclaim the streets and build their own Hacienda: militants and libertarians, jihadis and free thinkers, share this ungoverned liminal space but to wildly different ends. The Muslim afterlives of Wells's futuristic imaginary could not have been anticipated by him, even as he lived in the midst of their birth in Woking. The aesthetics of power associated with Victorian steam technology were central to Wells's otherworldly visions of future society. They live on today in the cultural politics of Steampunk, its nostalgic fetishization of steam-era innovation and re-imaginings of nineteenth-century industrial society which reach back to the fictions of Wells and Jules Verne. What is perhaps less known is the passage of this aspect of Well's legacy into currents of Muslim life in the present. The contemporary Muslim anarchist writer, Yakoub Islam, has drawn on this genre, tied inextricably to Wells, in his own writings on Muslim Streampunk. In a cross-cultural juxtaposition that echoes Wells's own during his time at Woking, in one of his planned novels, The Muslim Age of Steam, Islam posits steam power as being invented in the Middle East in the twelfth century as a means of representing an alternative narrative of intellectual and scientific progress of Western modernity. The machine Simurgh, the posthuman mythical creature of the Sufi poetry of Attar and Ferdowsi, is the new time machine – a metaphor for the role of invention in spiritual emancipation within the aesthetics of a retro-futurist, trans-global geography.

Squeezing all vigour out of its subtle political critique, like a pantomime war horse, Jeff Wayne's final tour of his musical of Wells's novel came to an end ‘Alive on Stage!' last year. One might see this sapping of aesthetic vitality and the theatrical death of aliens as a metaphor for Muslim urbanism, not only in the way the Martians committed a kind of suicide by voluntarily coming to a planet which could not sustain alien life, but in how the rationalistic discipline of the city empties religion of creative and affective life. As Georg Simmel noted in his seminal sociological tract, The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), the city produces a gray uniformity, an alienation which stifles individuality and where ‘all float with the same specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money.' The Shah Jahan Mosque has long since jettisoned its own heretical origins in exchange for orthodoxy. It is now governed by ‘mainstream' British Pakistani Sunni migrants. There is an affectionate testimony to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din's life and works on the mosque's official website, though no mention that he was an Ahmadi and, thus, that he would not even be permitted to be a full citizen of Pakistan today. Perhaps this is why the mosque's kitsch Orientalist facade on Oriental Road speaks less of Eastern art today than artifice.

The Muslim life of Woking has moved full circle in its journey from the periphery to the centre of the city and back again. Soldiers continue to play their part in its story in a shadow play of war and peace. A year before the British fusilier, Lee Rigby, was brutally murdered by Islamist extremists on a South London street, the mosque at Woking hosted the Royal Anglian Regiment. But Woking was also an appropriate place to reflect on liberty for other reasons. There is something of a wider truth in the town's cyclical Muslim history that now plays out in the global cities where Islam has established itself and militancy has emerged. For when radical departures from orthodoxy are suppressed or sanitised, the past is violently distorted and, so too, the voluntarist impulse to find alternative paths to salvation free from the dominant narrative. And perhaps the city plays its part too in fostering a peculiarly brutal kind of deviant freedom through its very efficiency in servicing the uniform surface needs of its citizens, epitomised in J. G. Ballard's high rise, which leaves room for ‘deep-rooted antagonisms' to fester and break through ‘the surface of life' making the expression of a truly ‘free' psychopathology possible.[3]

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Zaheer Kazmi is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History at Oxford University and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University. He has published two books, one on William Godwin's anarchism, the other on contemporary jihadism. He has also written for The Guardian, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, openDemocracy and Carta (a Berlin-based blog) and has two books forthcoming with Oxford University Press/Hurst – a co-edited volume with Faisal Devji, Beyond Muslim Liberalism, and a monograph on Muslim 'anarchism' called Jihadutopia: Visions of Anarchy.

[1] E. M. Forster, ‘The Mosque' (1920).

[2] Ian Curtis, ‘Shadowplay' (Unknown Pleasures, 1979).

[3] J. G. Ballard, High Rise (1975).