This article explores how Muslims in Britain have sought to establish themselves as an integral part of the British community over the last 200 years – from being thought of as an alien presence to being seen as more firmly rooted in these islands – through a discussion of the ways in which they have buried their dead. In order to do this, it first addresses the significance, more generally, of rituals and place-making in constructing the past, traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. Second, and more specifically, it considers the role played by burial practices and burial grounds – the sites of funerary rituals – as tools in the construction of Muslim identities in Britain during this period, piecing together information from the relatively limited historical material available in the form of contemporary journals and newspapers, archival and cemetery records, and secondary sources.
It is possible to discern a number of ways in which Muslims in contemporary Britain express and sustain their religio-ethnic identity within cemeteries: these would include location; position; form and shape of marker; symbols; place of birth; epitaph; inscription language; and distinctive grave decorations.1 Graves and gravestones, in this fashion, have become sources of collective memory, and cemeteries are accordingly today playing a part in enabling Muslims in Britain to construct their identities through this collectivizing process. By encapsulating and perpetuating communal memories, they represent sites and icons of reverence and ritual remembrance, indeed increasingly places of personal pilgrimage. As such, in this way also, they evoke a sense of community and of communal continuity. Burial grounds undoubtedly embody the sense of how far Muslims have become embedded in British society.
‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’, wrote Simone Weil.2‘Rootedness’, it could be argued, establishes the emotional ties between people and place. The idea of having roots is deployed to set geographic, social, ethnic and cultural boundaries that categorize, alienate and exclude the ‘other’– those whose claims on, and ties to, the place in question are regarded as tenuous, spurious or non-existent. As Brian Osbourne has argued, this notion of place becomes loaded with landmarks, or markers, that operate as symbolic devices for community narratives and shared values, which, in turn, are directed towards nurturing forms of identification with place and community. Through a variety of mediums – architecture, monuments, ceremonies, rituals and myths –‘awareness of belonging’ is created.3 Hence, ‘symbolically-loaded sites and events provide social continuity . . . contribute to the collective memory, and establish spatial and temporal reference points for society’ and communities within it: they ‘reinforce peoples’ identification with specific values’, distinctive traditions and beliefs. Through them, collective memory is strengthened and national and/or community identity constructed – both formally and informally.
Graves, cemeteries and memorials are all examples of such ‘markers’. They ‘provide a symbolic place for remembrance . . . there is an ongoing visual memory of what has happened’. Cemeteries, through their symbolic construction of a collective memory of the cultural, religious and social character of past generations, can instil a sense of belonging. Indeed, a common definition of ‘home’ often equates it with the place where ancestors are buried – one reason why many Muslims belonging to immigrant families have until recently wished to have their bodies sent back to their ‘homelands’. In death, it is said, soil acquires acute significance.4
Thus, rituals surrounding death, whether historically, socially or culturally constituted, as well as burial sites, can be viewed as exercises in ‘place-making’ and identity construction. They offer insights both into the ways in which communities view themselves and the surrounding world, and into the changes that they may be experiencing. As Eva Reimers explains, ‘rituals [including funerary ones] in a non-verbal language convey to people where they belong. By making choices on how to announce the death and the funeral, the place for the funeral, the ritual service, gravestone, and so forth, the bereaved communicate not only who the deceased was but also who they are and where they belong’.5 Identity construction is accomplished not only through deliberate choices, but is part of the self-presentation of the group involved. When this construction of identity takes place in an environment where the group, to some extent, regards itself (and is regarded by others) as ‘deviating’ or ‘other’, then this presentation of self can be viewed as a resource that can be made relevant in the social organization of a cultural group. Hence, ‘processes of identity construction are accomplished not just through the reiteration of old ritual practices’: new customs are frequently incorporated into the old.6
In contemporary Britain, processes of secularization and professionalization, together with advances in medical technology, have resulted in death being steadily withdrawn from the public arena and placed in the private sphere, but this was not always so. As Harriet Jordan has shown, Victorian cemeteries, for instance, provided the focus for a whole culture of commemoration expressed through elaborate funerals, family monuments and mausoleums, mourning fashions and regular visits to the grave. The cemeteries of the mid nineteenth century offered permanent and public commemorative sites to a culture that placed great importance on processes of remembrance. The look of the cemetery, comprising its overall design, landscaping and architecture, contrasted sharply with early nineteenth century utilitarian and rather ‘spartan’, or barren, burial grounds. This was particularly so for cemeteries founded by joint-stock companies that were keen, for financial reasons, to attract the middle and upper-middle classes.7
These Victorian cemeteries drew inspiration for their design from private parks, with chapels taking the place of country houses as the centres of attention: their ‘landscape . . . was usually laid out informally in the picturesque style, with sweeping drives and serpentine lines . . . likewise, the English rural churchyard, with its native trees and meandering paths, was, understandably, also influential’. Memorials, mostly gravestones, tombs and mausoleums, marked the location of graves within cemeteries. Cemeteries were, thus, designed to serve a balance of practical and aesthetic purposes. While the primary reason for their existence was to receive burials, in most of them thought and care was given to ensuring that they also provided an appropriate environment for the burial ceremony, a dignified setting for commemorative structures, and a pleasant place for the bereaved to visit. To Victorian England, a cemetery of quality was ‘a statement of civic pride’.8
It is against this backdrop of cemetery development that we need to locate Muslim burial and place-making.9 For the vast majority of Muslims, death and the afterlife are central tenets of faith. Because of their belief in corporeal resurrection, burial is normally the prescribed mode of disposal, and mainstream Islamic traditions prohibit cremation.10 While Muslims share with Christians and Jews the tradition of being buried in a cemetery, the specific lay-out, as well as architectural character, of their ‘final resting places’ identifies them as followers of Islam. The funerary practices that accompany the act of burial itself further underline this affiliation, as processions to the graveside together with prayer services conducted by an imam set a seal on a Muslim's spiritual departure from this world and, in the process, reaffirm the identity of those left behind. The interplay of individual practice and collective identity thus emerges as a central fact of Muslim experience. Continuities between those who have died and those who remain are reinforced by the burials that take place, and collective memories of being part of a wider community are sustained by the existence of these cemeteries.11
Since cemeteries, in a very physical sense, can also be said to uncover the ‘politics’ of religious space, it could be argued that they acquire a particular significance for minority communities – for many such communities, their marginality provides the context for explicitly religious expression, something that might not be nearly so relevant were they part of society's mainstream. As Muslims in Britain have grown in number and have increasingly laid claim to public space, they have inevitably encountered degrees of resentment, resistance and opposition, which, in turn, have played a part in shaping their self-perception vis-à-vis wider British society and their negotiating strategies.12 These processes have reinforced the extent to which Muslim cemeteries now represent physical and cultural spaces within which Muslims ‘displaced’ to new environments interact with one another as well as with the broader community. In many ways, a ‘Muslim’ presence is proclaimed by their existence – their sacred architecture performs a symbolic role as a marker of this minority presence. Muslim burial grounds thus offer visual pointers to the presence of Muslims and can be viewed as spatial expressions of community identity, solidarity and ‘collective effervescence’.13
However, given that interactions between Muslims and the British Isles have been taking place for many centuries, recent attempts at ‘place-making’, abortive or otherwise, are perhaps nothing ‘new’. Muslim migration to Britain leading to the evolution of ‘settler’ communities of significant size dates from the mid nineteenth century, when transient as well as relatively permanent Muslim populations were established in Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool, South Shields, Glasgow and the East End of London. From diverse backgrounds and distinct cultures these Muslims were a motley crew – maritime workers and servants of returning East India Company employees, adventurers and itinerant entertainers, nawabs and maharanis, students, merchants from the Near East and India, and a sprinkling of men from the professional classes. Many Muslims from the Near East, Africa and Asia settled in Britain before the beginning of the twentieth century, raised families and died here – how and where to bury them when they died posed a challenge from this time onwards.
A particularly significant group of these ‘early’ Muslims was that made up by seamen visiting British ports, their annual numbers increasing from 3,000 in 1842 to between 10,000 and 12,000 in 1855.14 Most lived in areas close to the docks, in mixed communities. Joseph Salter, a mid nineteenth-century missionary assigned to work among non-Christians, also identified a significant presence of Muslim vagrants, beggars and destitutes in the East End of London, as well as a more transient population of lascars, while travelling across the country. Most, it would seem, when they died, died ignominiously leaving few traces of their burial.15 Many of them just ‘perished with cold and hunger in our streets during the [British] winter’,16 while others died in prisons, poor law unions and hospitals. Between 1854 and 1856, Salter reported that more than 1,000 were admitted into the Dreadnought alone (the ship that housed the Seamen's Hospital), of whom upwards of 100 died.17 Several more were found dead in ‘their miserable dwellings’: like paupers more generally, their funerals were likely to have been ‘on the parish’, with their corpses sent ‘all to the Union or the dead-house’.18 Poor law unions ordered pauper coffins, and bearers were recruited from the workhouse. By and large they were buried in unconsecrated spaces or those allocated to nonconformist denominations.19
Salter, while travelling in ‘the provinces’ between 1857 and 1873, also mentioned visiting the graves of thirty Turkish seamen in the Liverpool Necropolis, a public cemetery built in 1825.20 Other examples of Muslims being buried in these kinds of public cemeteries include one Sheik Abdoul [sic], a sailor who died in Barry in 1893 and whose grave is in the Cathay cemetery in Cardiff.21 Eight Muslims were similarly buried in the public graves section of the Agecroft cemetery in Salford, the earliest in 1916: all of the names inscribed on the headstones of this multiple grave suggest that the deceased were of Indian Muslim origin.22 Interment in a public grave would suggest the absence of burial provision for Muslims as well as their own inability to finance the proper Islamic rites. Nevertheless, the existence of such graves does confirm, and makes visible, a distinct Muslim presence in these locations that dates back over 100 years. In effect, these graves form part of a historical bridge to the post-Second World War Muslim communities that subsequently came to live in these areas, and remind us of the poor – the lascars, servants and ayahs – living largely in the port areas of British cities, who died in degraded circumstances, leaving little if any trace.
But further evidence from the nineteenth century suggests that, while the religious identity of the deceased might not have been sustained in the concrete form of a grave, many of the Muslim poor of this period seem to have been determined to stick ‘fast to their belief in the Islamic process of salvation after death’.23 Salter, for instance, gave the example of one such Muslim who wished to die reciting the Kalma: ‘the next day he died calling Allah! Allah! Allah!’, surrounded by friends, family and neighbours.24 When Shaikh Mohammed, another such Muslim, died, ‘a coffin was procured somehow, and was carried to the grave and deposited in his last home by his countrymen – a tribute which all Asiatics, even with difficulties attending it in England, are always anxious to perform with scrupulosity’.25 The performance of these funerary rituals surely served a socially regenerative function. Denoting solidarity, they kept alive a sense of mutual association among members of the ‘community’ and reinvigorated the beliefs and values that it shared. To a large extent, they re-established the bonds within the group that would otherwise have been fractured by the loss of one of its members.
Throughout the nineteenth century in Britain, therefore, Muslims were normally buried as nonconformists (a term which included Roman Catholics, Jews, Parsees and other non-Christians) in unconsecrated ground. A Church of England service would not have been mandatory, although there is little to indicate that any last rites would have automatically, or necessarily, taken a specifically Islamic form. Indeed, the first recorded burial of a Muslim – that of a Turk, Arif Bey, aged twenty in 1836 – seems to have followed this pattern. A young Turkish officer who was sent to England by the Ottoman sultan, Mahmoud II, to receive military training at Woolwich, he died suddenly, probably after having been thrown from his horse. It is possible that he was the sultan's son. His original burial took place in ground adjoining the depot close to the barracks. Following British military traditions, his body was placed in a brick grave, but interestingly the screws of the coffin were withdrawn after it had been lowered into the space, perhaps as a compromise with the practice of Muslims being buried only in a shroud.26
Other Muslims, it seems, were even buried as Christians by Christian ministers. This was the case as far as the notable Indian Muslim Sake Deen Mahomed (King George VI's shampooing surgeon and founder of the first curry house in London in 1810) was concerned, for when he died in 1851 he was buried in the cemetery of the church of St. Nicholas, Brighton.27 Details of Deen Mahomed's life and death are instructive when set in the context of the Muslim presence in nineteenth-century Britain. That he married his wife in a church in Ireland might suggest that he had converted to Christianity, since church weddings between Catholics and Protestants, let alone with Muslims, were not conducted in Ireland at this time. But research has shown that the wedding had been a ‘private and hastily conducted . . . ceremony’, and the fact that, instead of banns being read from the pulpit for several weeks previously, a bond had been posted with the church, suggests that the priest who performed the ceremony may have had doubts about Deen Mahomed's true religious status. Later, when Abu Talib Khan, a high-ranking traveller from India, met Deen Mahomed in Ireland in 1799, he had no hesitation in describing him as a Muslim in his travelogue.28
Deen Mahomed in his own writings presented a much more positive picture of the religion into which he had been born than was the case in other more negative and unsympathetic accounts of Muslims and Islam extant at the time.29 Indeed, he seems consciously to have maintained and even highlighted many cultural aspects of his Indian/Muslim identity, and, aware of their intrinsic value, deployed them deliberately in pursuit of his varied careers.30 On the other hand, while his memoirs, Travels of Dean Mahomet, reveal his in-depth knowledge of Muslim burial rites, there is no indication of his wish to be buried accordingly.31 Deen Mahomed's eventual burial in a Christian cemetery perhaps suggests that individual Muslims in his position, in order to survive or to progress in British society, believed that they needed to assimilate, while keeping their ‘true’ beliefs private. Someone like Deen Mahomed, most probably living in virtual isolation in Brighton, far from any significant Muslim community, would have discounted a burial according to Islamic rites for purely practical reasons, even if privately he had wished it.
By the early years of the twentieth century, the situation was beginning to change. Reasonably sizeable Muslim communities were now emerging in a number of cities and towns in Britain, and over the years this demographic shift had an impact on burial practices. To begin with, most Muslims (by birth as well as converts), in the absence of suitable religiously dedicated cemetery space, were still interred in public and private nonconformist burial grounds. While they may have been more insistent on the correct funeral rites being carried out, they were not in a strong enough position to demand separate Muslim sections in public cemeteries, nor did they possess the necessary community resources to enable them to express their religious identities through the creation of distinct Muslim burial places. In contrast to other minority religious groups, they were still not sufficiently organized as a self-conscious ‘community’ either to have secured the allocation of separate sections in public cemeteries (for example, Jewish sections had been established in cemeteries in West Ham in 1857 and Willesden in 1873) or to establish their own separate burial grounds (something that the Jewish community in London's East End had done as early as 1657).32 In any case, given the dominance of Christianity and the prevalence of negative perceptions of their religion, it would be reasonable to suppose that most Muslims in Britain during this period would have felt discouraged from drawing too much attention to their religious identity, and lacked sufficient confidence to make claims for sacral ground.
The case of Earl Stanley of Alderley (1827–1903), Britain's first Muslim (albeit hereditary) peer, illuminates the ambivalence and timidity that could be exhibited in such matters. His conversion to Islam in 1859, in the context of increasing antipathy towards Muslims and Islam, proved to be highly controversial and upsetting for his family, and he became isolated in British establishment circles. The combination of these factors contributed greatly to his reticence in speaking publicly on Islam or in expressing overt sympathy for Muslim concerns. While Stanley continued to show considerable interest in and respect for Christianity, which led many to hope that he would eventually revert to the faith of his forefathers, when the end came in 1903 his burial, described as ‘a weird spectacle’ in the press,33 did not take place in the family vault underneath the chancel of the Alderley parish church but, ‘In obedience to his wishes, it was conducted according to the rites of the Mussulman religion’ and an imam from the Turkish embassy was asked to perform the last rites.34 Indeed, most of the ‘leading’ or prominent converts of this period do seem to have received Muslim burials in the way that the interment was conducted – having either specified this in their wills (such as Abdullah Quilliam) or (presumably) left instructions with their relatives (such as Lord Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall).
Most Muslim burials of this period drew little public attention. One burial, however, that did attract considerable popular interest, probably more for reasons of exotica than anything else, with crowds reportedly watching the funeral procession, was that of a young Somali woman who died having contracted tuberculosis. Halimo Adbi Batel had come to Britain with her husband and child as members of an entire village that was re-erected at Cartwright Hall in Bradford as part of an exhibition celebrating the cultures of the world. Her burial in 1904 was the first to take place in Bradford with Somali women performing full Islamic rites at the town's public cemetery in Necropolis Road.35
All the same, despite the general indifference to these sporadic events, it is possible to trace how, during the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, the issue of Muslim burial came to form part of the wider process of establishing a more distinct community presence in various British urban spaces. By this time, the Liverpool Muslim congregation, under the leadership of the prosperous Manx convert Abdullah Quilliam, had become sufficiently organized to undertake a number of Muslim burials itself.36 In addition to a handful of converts, a larger number of born Muslims living or temporarily residing in or near Liverpool were buried by Quilliam or men linked with him. For example, in 1891, Bahr Eddris of Cairo, who had been working in the city as a butler for two years, died and his body was removed to the ‘mosque’ at Brougham Terrace in West Derby Road, where it was prepared ‘according to Islamic rites and customs’ for burial at the Liverpool Muslim Institute, the centre of this community. Prayers were said and the body was taken in a hearse to the Liverpool Necropolis, a public cemetery established in 1825 in West Derby Road near the institute.37 Eddris was buried there, ‘with the feet [sic] towards Mecca’, by Ahmad Mohammed and Syed Mohammed Younas, assisted by Quilliam and another convert.38 Interestingly, these Liverpool Muslims managed to acquire a burial plot for Eddris as near as possible to that of those thirty Turks who had died and been buried in Liverpool in the mid eighteen-fifties, and the funeral service was read in both Arabic and English.
Still perceived as ‘exotic’ and a threat to the dominant culture, however, Muslims and their religious beliefs and practices continued to be publicly opposed and stigmatized at the turn of the twentieth century. They were at the receiving end of disparaging comments in the press, often based on misleading and inaccurate information. A case in point was the funeral in 1893 of a convert, Michael Hall, aged forty-four. He was taken to the grounds of Garston, a branch of the (freemason) Buffalo Lodge. Fateha was said in Arabic and English: according to Quilliam, ‘the people of Garston gazed in silent wonder; we all wore Tarboosh [the Turkish fez] . . . [while] no attempt was made to molest us or prevent our performing this important and necessary duty, our proceedings, however, were not to pass unnoticed or unchallenged’.39 A contemporary report in the Daily Post declared ominously, ‘This little community in our midst means business . . . Quilliam, Mahomedan apostle of Liverpool, marched boldly and to the amazement of a quickly-collected crowd, performed their peculiar service over the grave’. Asserting that Hall had not converted to Islam, a claim robustly contradicted with supportive evidence by Quilliam, the newspaper considered the Muslims’ performing of the last rites at Hall's grave as ‘a piece of cool impudence’.40 The response of this Liverpool Muslim community to these attacks, however, was to remain resolutely defiant and use these symbolic occasions further to enhance their specific religio-cultural identity.
At this time, the Liverpool Muslim community was perhaps the most cohesively and institutionally structured in Britain, and its members were best placed to lay a claim to belonging to British society and assert their religious identities. In contrast, the emerging Muslim communities in South Shields and Cardiff, at least initially, were less prepared, relying until later into the twentieth century on ad hoc arrangements for religious observances to be carried out. In South Shields, for instance, as Richard Lawless's research has indicated, there were no full-time imams to lead congregational prayers, and facilities were available only in lodging houses to perform the stipulated rituals. For many years, therefore, the periodic burial ceremonies for Arab seamen who died in the town represented some of the few public manifestations of the Islamic faith there. Taking part in the procession to the cemetery and participating in the service held at the grave were duties in which all Muslims in the local community felt obliged to participate. The local press, reporting in 1916 on the funeral of Farah Abdoo, an Arab fireman, described in precise detail the physical and spiritual rituals conducted by his friends to ensure that his corpse was prepared for interment ‘in accordance with the observances of the Mahommedan religion’. The funeral procession to the cemetery was reportedly ‘a very large one’, and this, together with the rituals in the cemetery, which included the service (consisting of recitations from the Quran) conducted by the ‘High Priest’ and the filling of the grave by the mourners, was undoubtedly a determined demonstration by South Shields Muslims to assert a collective identity, albeit an embryonic one. According to the Shields Daily Gazette, ‘the cost of the funeral was equally borne by members of the Arab colony in South Shields’.41
Funeral ceremonies such as these seem to have been occasions when tribal and ethnic differences were put aside and bonds were strengthened between all sections of the Muslim community in the locality. Reporting on the later funeral in 1935 at the Harton cemetery of Ahmed Saleh, a South Shields donkeyman, the local press pointed out how ‘Shameri, Malaiki and Shari – the three great sects among whom the Shields Arabs are principally divided – sank their tribal jealousies and attended the funeral in full force’. Indeed, even ‘Darker skinned Somalis and one or two Indians were included among the crowd at the graveside’.42 In this particular case, as Lawless's work has underlined, ‘practically every detail connected with the funeral was carried out by the Arabs themselves with painstaking care and attention’.43
Saleh's funeral also highlights the extent to which change and innovation in burial rituals, partly brought about by pragmatic concerns and practical need, were increasingly incorporated as communities became more integrated with the customs and traditions of wider society. For instance, in contrast to Arab traditions, a wooden coffin was used, and, rather than Saleh's corpse being carried on a stretcher by mourners, ‘five motor cars containing the principal mourners headed the cortege to the cemetery . . . more than 150 other Arabs walked behind’. Another unusual feature of the ceremony was the presence of a large number of white women and of a Christian undertaker, Mr. A. W. Wilson, in his ‘silk-hatted, black frock-coated habit’.44
With the arrival in South Shields in the mid nineteen-thirties of Sheikh Abdullah al-Hakimi, the Yemeni religious scholar who had a profound effect on the local Muslim community, Muslim practices there started to acquire a more precise institutional shape. His religious authority and expertise helped to rationalize and legitimize ritual change. In effect, his arrival began a new phase in the ‘Islamization’ of this community. With the collective organization of religious practices, Muslims in South Shields not only became more aware of the identity boundaries and values that separated them from wider society, but also became more obliged to explore the means by which these values could be sustained. As the community became better rooted, there was growing awareness that there were areas central to the maintenance of its Muslim identity over which it had little control. Given Muslim beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, one of the issues that demanded urgent attention was that of organizing the burial of the community's dead. Thus, as religious practice acquired greater significance, Muslims in South Shields became increasingly anxious that burials were conducted meticulously in line with their traditions. In order to ensure this, it became clear that they needed to be in charge of their own burial spaces.45
It was in this context that al-Hakimi began negotiating with the city council, requesting it in 1936 to set aside a part of Harton cemetery for the exclusive use of the local Muslim community. The request was approved by the parks and cemeteries committee, but, when the sheikh asked if the amount of land allocated to them could be doubled in size, the committee refused and withdrew its original offer. The following year, the town council again considered the sheikh's application. Within the debate that followed, opposition was expressed by some councillors, but there was also strong support from others who had taken an interest in Muslim affairs and who had found the town's Muslim community ‘self-respecting’, ‘law abiding’ and possessing ‘ideals of a very high religious order’.46 It would seem that they understood well these Muslims’ powerful sense of religious identity, which had partly evolved out of living together as one, indeed a segregated, community. The councillors concerned argued that, on the basis of the principle of equity, this small Muslim population should be entitled to the same rights ‘as we would grant to our own’.47 By 1937, therefore, allotment of a Muslim section had been approved – another step towards making ‘Muslim’ space.
A much better documented example of Muslim place- (and space-) making in England is the Brookwood cemetery, near Woking in Surrey.48 The London Necropolis, as the Brookwood cemetery was originally called, was inaugurated on 13 November 1854, with the aim of solving London's burial problem, caused by a persistent lack of land combined with a rapidly growing population. Indeed, the aim was to have all London burials take place at Brookwood in perpetuity,49 and, as The Times declared at the time of its opening, ‘It is fitting enough that the largest city in the world should have the largest cemetery in the world’. While catering generously for pauper burials, it provided a secure, well-maintained place for families to establish their own permanent monuments – an immortality of sorts. In time, it became a fine example of landscaping and funerary architecture, a natural habitat and haven for flora and fauna as well as a pleasing picture of repose: the graves, according to the London Necropolis and Mausoleum Company (L.N.C.) brochure, were ‘a mass of glowing bloom’, a veritable ‘Garden of Sleep’.50
From the turn of the twentieth century, as more and more people from the empire arrived and settled in Britain, Brookwood slowly assumed an ethnically and religiously pluralistic character. For Muslims, it became a particularly special place for the embedding of the Muslim presence in Britain since it contained the oldest Muslim burial ground in the country, dating back to the late nineteenth century. This was originally set aside as a plot reserved for use by the nearby Oriental Institute in Woking. An ex-colonial official, G. W. Leitner, who had retired from education service in India and settled in the town, decided to build not only the Oriental Institute but also, with generous funding from the Begum of Bhopal, a purpose-built mosque in 1889. He applied to the owners of Brookwood, the L.N.C., for two allotments, ‘one for Hindoos, the other for Muhammadans’,51 and he agreed to maintain these on certain conditions at his personal expense.52 The original marker stone survives in the middle of the allotment, on which is carved a message: ‘Reserved by the Oriental Institute Woking’. This stone records, in some detail, how ‘Muhammadans’ should be buried in the plot:
The graves of Muhammadans are dug so as to allow the body to lie with its face towards Mecca (see direction of the Kibla stone). The graves should be 4ft deep with a side recess at the bottom for the body. Nothing should press on the body when placed in the recess which is then closed with unburnt bricks. The grave is then filled with earth and a mound raised over it.
The Qibla stone is about one foot square, with the cardinal compass points, and an arrow pointing east, carved on it. But there is, as yet, no evidence to suggest that this plot was used until 1914, when ‘the seal was affixed to [a] contract reserving the Mahomedan ground in the cemetery for the exclusive right of interment therein of Mahommadans only, and also to keep the ground in good order in perpetuity to include trimming and pruning the shrubs as required’.53 In fact, the only occasion on which its use was requested before 1914 was when the presidents of two Indian societies – Anjuman-i-Islam and Akhwan us-Sofa – wrote to Leitner asking to be allowed to inter ‘in the Mosque ground’ the body of an Indian Muslim student who had died in London in November 1893. In the event, due to a series of misunderstandings, this request was not met, something that caused great distress to the ‘community’ and the ‘relations’ of the deceased, who were consequently ‘put to the trouble and expense’ of having the body conveyed to Liverpool for an Islamic burial, most probably under Quilliam's guidance.54
The First World War, however, offered Muslims an opportune moment for place-making in Britain. If they were prepared to sacrifice their lives as soldiers for the national cause and the nation's most cherished values, then, it might be suggested, they deserved to be honoured and their ultimate contribution recognized and rewarded. Indeed, it could be argued, they were showing this commitment and unity of purpose in fighting against Britain's enemies who included their co-religionists, the Ottoman Turks. In many ways, these Muslim soldiers symbolized the rights and liberties of the British people en masse. Their identification with, and commitment to, the British war effort was captured in a resolution proposed by a leading Muslim convert, Lord Headley, seconded by the imam of the Woking mosque, Maulvi Sadr-ud-Din, and unanimously passed by the British Muslim Society in September 1914. It expressed ‘delight to find that their co-religionists in Islam were . . . carrying into effect the principles of Islam as inculcated by the holy Prophet Mohammed . . . freely pouring out their life blood in defence of honour and for the love of truth and justice’.55 Muslim soldiers, so the argument went, were entitled to an honourable place in the land for which they had fought and died. Their inclusion – in culturally appropriate ways – after death in cemeteries and burial grounds, it was felt, would help to create a sense of community as well as mark their acceptance as equal stakeholders in the British national polity.
From the early years of the First World War, with Indian soldiers fighting on the Western Front, those wounded in France during 1914–16 were treated in special hospitals along the south coast in Brighton and Brockenhurst. Those who died received burial rites according to their religion. The first burial in this country of an Indian Muslim soldier who succumbed to wounds received while serving in France took place in the Brookwood cemetery in December 1914. Floral tributes were placed on the coffin by local Muslim converts.56 In 1915 the burial of an Indian Muslim officer took place. At the request of the imam of the Woking mosque, the local commanding officer detailed fifty soldiers, headed by an officer, to attend the funeral in order to pay military honours to this gallant soldier. Three rounds were discharged and, in a fusion of Muslim practices with British military traditions, the ‘Last Post’ was sounded by the bugle boys.57
Rumours, however, arose that Muslim soldiers were not being buried according to their religious customs. As the Woking Herald stated,
very grievous lies and false reports were being spread by the Germans amongst the Indian troops as to the manner in which we were dealing with the Mohammedan wounded and dead; it was of the utmost importance that the conscientious scruples of Indian troops should be carefully observed and every consideration given to them.58
To dispel the rumours mentioned by the Woking Herald, the war office commissioned a special burial ground. Initially Maulvi Sadr-ud-Din was invited to the Victoria Royal Hospital at Netley, to approve a site for a Muslim cemetery in the grounds of the institution where Indian wounded were being nursed. The Maulvi did not like the idea and suggested Woking instead. His suggestion was accepted and a site along the bank of a canal on Horsell Common, some 500 yards from his mosque, was opened. The chairman of the local urban council welcomed the Muslim cemetery, describing it as ‘an honour to have men who fell as a result of the war buried in the district’.59 Designed by an India Office surveyor and architect, T. H. Winney, and built by a local firm, its arches, minarets and domed gateway reflected the traditional Indo-Arab architectural style of the Woking mosque. The burial ground was completed in 1917 and subsequently received nineteen burials of Indian army soldiers;60 a further five were received during the Second World War. The graves were set at an angle to the normal position in a British cemetery so as to allow the body to lie in the correct direction towards Mecca. In 1921 the war graves commission took over its upkeep, and, while the graves were removed in 1968 to the military cemetery at Brookwood because of occasional vandalism, the burial ground at Horsell Common, enclosed by walls, still stands as a memorial to the sacrifices that Muslim soldiers made during the First World War.61
During the inter-war period, the Woking mosque, with its proximity to London, became arguably the major centre of institutional Islam in Britain, attracting the attention of the great and the good nationally, and indeed internationally. Periodic visits by high personages from the Muslim world reinforced its importance. Leaders of the Muslim community in Britain based in London were intimately connected with it and contributed to its wide range of activities. Brookwood cemetery, as their final resting place, held many attractions. It was the only public cemetery serving London that possessed a section designated for Muslims and, with the Woking mosque nearby, a proper Muslim burial could be ensured. Moreover, it is likely that most of these Muslims hailing from middle to upper-class backgrounds (especially those who had converted) would have wanted to be buried in a place that was not only commensurate with their social status, but which pleasantly harmonized their death with nature and wider British culture, while also underlining their religious identities.62
The Brookwood environment, with its dedicated Muslim section, allowed for the collectivizing and anchoring of their common Muslim identities in a variety of ways: through the performance of rituals after their death; through the choice of signs, symbols and markers; and through the choice of language for the inscription and symbols on the gravestone which separated them from non-Muslims buried beside them. Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), who died in Cornwall, and Sir Charles Hamilton (1876–1939), who died in Sussex, chose to be buried in Brookwood cemetery for two reasons: first, because they wanted to ensure that they received the proper Muslim burial necessary, according to their beliefs, for the transition to life after death to take place; and, second, because they wanted to affirm publicly their religious affiliation and commitment to Islam for future generations of British Muslims.63 Likewise, other prominent individual Muslims in Britain at this time – both men and women – including Syed Ameer Ali (1846–1928), Abdullah Quilliam (1856–1932), Lord Headley (1855–1935), Saiyid M. H. Tirmizey (1896–1939), Madam Khalida Buchanan-Hamilton (d. 1942) and Clara Sophie Namier (1890–1945), through their desire and decision to be buried in Brookwood, made a significant contribution to the history of Muslim place-making and the shaping of Muslim identity in early twentieth-century Britain.
Since the Second World War, Brookwood cemetery has continued to contribute, through the expression of the funerary rituals carried out there, to the construction of Muslim collective memory in a culturally pluralizing Britain. Its multi-faith character is reflected in the range of religions represented at the cemetery – Anglican, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Swedish Congregational, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Jewish – many with their own separate sections, as well as in the historically noteworthy figures from diverse ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds who are buried there. However, Brookwood also chronicles the diversity that came to be found within British Islam itself, with its separately dedicated burial plots for Sunnis, Ithna Ashari, Ismaili and Bohra Shias and, since 1975, Ahmadiyyas.64
The mass migration of Muslims to Britain from the nineteen-sixties meant that the burial of their dead assumed particular importance. Brookwood cemetery – because of the non-availability of burial space for Muslims elsewhere, because of the historical associations of Muslims with the place, because family or friends might be buried there, because it is a beautiful site, and because some Muslims do not like being buried on top of Christians – became a popular final place of rest for Muslims from all over the country. It is interesting to note that, as burial gave way to cremation in the Anglican community, Brookwood cemetery, on the whole, suffered neglect and disrepair. However, its Muslim and Catholic sections remained well maintained as it was in these parts of the cemetery that most burials were taking place, and it was these plots that tended to be visited by relatives and consequently better looked after. Muslim concern for the cemetery was further reinforced when its ownership passed into the hands of Ramadan Guney, a Cypriot Muslim. Guney became interested initially through his desire to purchase a family plot and subsequently through his links with the Central London mosque and its need to identify new burial areas for its worshippers. However, in 1985, instead of acquiring a portion of the cemetery, he purchased the entire site. Followings its acquisition, Guney showed considerable enthusiasm for and commitment towards improving the cemetery's condition, clearing overgrown parts and investing heavily in the computerization of its surviving records, but in the absence of external funding the process proved to be slow and frustrating.65
In the late nineteen-nineties, the ‘norm’ as far as the majority of Britain's Muslim dead was concerned remained the repatriation of bodies to the places from which the deceased, or their families, had originally migrated. For many of these Muslims, who arrived in Britain after the Second World War, Britain did not feel like their ‘homeland’ and so they wanted to be buried in a place that they perceived to be sacred and where they believed their roots to lie. Britain, for many of them, was still ‘non-holy’ land and their Muslim places of origin were preferable: ‘It's best to be buried in Bangladesh [Pakistan, Turkey and so on and so forth]. It's our country, our earth’.66 Enduring ‘myths of return’, combined with the reluctance of local British people to accept them as equal citizens, made it difficult for this generation of Muslims to stake a territorial claim. After all, ‘for a Muslim to feel at home or for a non-Muslim to recognize a Muslim space’, the presence of ‘normatively enjoined practices’ is necessary.67 Staking such a claim was made all the harder by the way in which their dead could be treated with disrespect, with occasional bouts of desecration of, among other sacral spaces, graves. In many ways, damaging or destroying ‘memorials’ of this kind – sacral space – can be seen as attempts to efface a people's memory. Burial grounds, after all, are highly symbolic sites and attacks on them might be viewed as efforts at ‘identicide’.68
However, as the British landscape has become increasingly ‘Islamized’, with the establishment of mosques and other permanent, bricks and mortar, Muslim institutions, as the majority of primary kin have become rooted in Britain, and as Muslim communities have become more established and more sizeable, there seems to be a shift taking place in British Muslim perceptions of where ‘home’ is. For an increasing number of young Muslims, since their relatives and friends live in Britain, the British element of their identity is, in contrast to their migrant elders, forming a much more important part of who and what they are, of their identities. They have developed more complex emotional and cultural bonds with the country of their birth, and this is reflected in an increase in the number of families, compared with the past, who are now choosing to bury their kin in Britain.69 As they do so, they seek suitable provision for performing the last rites according to Islamic requirements. They also want to bury their dead in Muslim burial areas that allow for the correct alignment of graves, for interment at short notice, for burial in un-coffined shrouds, and for the filling in and mounding of graves by mourners. While they still encounter bureaucratic, legal, social and cultural barriers, as well as problems around dying, death and burial (such as obstacles in securing permission for burial grounds, and delays with coroners, funeral directors and cemetery managers which hamper the Muslim preference for speedy burial), it would seem that many relevant authorities are responding more inclusively and more positively to their needs and demands.70 This has been particularly the case in localities where Muslim populations are large enough and sufficiently articulate to make their burial needs felt. Thus, the increasing accessibility and proximity of burial grounds, many situated in neighbourhoods that families can visit easily and regularly and in which they can look after the graves of their deceased properly, is playing its part in encouraging the burial of Muslim dead in Britain.71 Moreover, with the increasing ‘Islamization’ of sections of Britain's Muslim communities, pressure has grown to bury people immediately, as stipulated by religious tradition, rather than to delay the funeral by sending corpses overseas. A further factor that today discourages repatriation is the belief that embalming, which is necessary when bodies are sent ‘back home’, may not be permissible within orthodox Islamic tradition.
In various ways in present-day Britain, therefore, it is clear that Muslims are increasingly laying claim to, and carving out, more funereal space for themselves. But, as this article has sought to demonstrate, the question of their burial is not a completely new, twenty-first century story. We should not forget those thousands of lascars and other members of the Muslim poor in nineteenth-century Britain who ended up being buried in unmarked graves, devoid of individual recognition, and whose passing contrasted greatly with that of the numerically much smaller number of elite Muslims (both converts and by birth) who were laid to rest with dignity, their religious identities acknowledged by wider society. At the same time, however, the gains of more recent years are linked to the greater numerical presence of Muslims as well as to the more structured organizational or institutional framework that Muslims have established for themselves, together with changing patterns of social status and standing. After all, as Barbara Metcalf has argued, what happens in relation to ritual life and expressions of religious belief ‘depends a great deal on the size and composition of the (individual) Muslim community (concerned)’.72
An excellent instance of how a Muslim funeral in today's multicultural Britain has shed light on the construction of a more nuanced ‘Muslim’ identity is that of Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, a British Muslim soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2006. His funeral was attended by 400 people including his commanding officer and the Muslim chaplain for the armed forces. His coffin was draped in a gold and green cloth bearing a quotation from the Koran; his uncle described his nephew as ‘a hero of Islam, Pakistan, Britain and the international community, who sacrificed his life for a noble cause’ (echoing similar comments to those made by leading British Muslims during the First World War); his older brother Zeeshan, a former member of the intelligence corps, said that ‘Jabron was a committed soldier and a committed Muslim. He was fiercely proud of his Islamic background and he was equally proud of being British’.73 But, while communal markers of death and burial become occasions for expressing and reaffirming ethnicity and religious identity, they can also be regarded as steps in the gradual enculturation of ethnic groups. At the same time, markers of religio-ethnicity are by no means unambiguous. In cemeteries where different ethnic groups are buried next to each other, the majority culture and minority cultures tend to incorporate practices from each other, thereby blurring the boundaries.
Thus, the evolution of Muslim burial practices in Britain demonstrates how, over a much longer period of time than simply the years of mass migration after the Second World War, British Muslims have, both individually and collectively, established – through the construction of new kinds of relationship to British space – a sense of belonging in a minority Muslim context. The choice of where to be buried has always been relatively less problematic for converts since Britain is their and their forebears’ land, the soil where their ancestors were buried. But, until the early twentieth century, the most that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain could hope for was some kind of Muslim funeral ritual delivered by a co-religionist. The usual place of burial was not then a Muslim cemetery. Only around the time of the First World War did the option of a separate dedicated place in which to bury Muslims become available, but even then this space remained limited. Lack of historical awareness of this aspect of the British Muslim past means that discussions about Muslim funereal practices in contemporary Britain tend to focus on the developments of recent decades. They overlook the extent to which, in earlier times, generations of Muslims grappled with similar dilemmas of how to combine being in Britain with being a ‘good’ Muslim. In the current reworking out of burial practices, it is important not to forget how Muslims in the past staked their place in Britain.