Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner
Builder of the Shah Jehan Mosque,
and founder of the Oriental Institute, at Woking, Surrey,
compiled by Nasir Ahmad, former editor The Light
Early life and education
Dr. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was born in Budapest, Hungary, on
14 October 1840. As a child he showed an extraordinary ability in
languages. At the age of eight he went to Constantinople to learn
Arabic and Turkish, and by the age of ten he was fluent in Turkish,
Arabic and most European languages. At fifteen, he was appointed
Interpreter (First Class) to the British Commissariat in the Crimea,
with the rank of colonel. When the Crimean War ended, he wanted
to become a priest and went to London to study at King’s College.
It is also reported that during his tour of Muslim countries he
adopted a Muslim name of Abdur Rasheed Sayyah. Sayyah in
Arabic means a traveller.
As a linguist, he is said to have had acquaintance with some fifty
languages many of which he spoke fluently. At nineteen, he became
lecturer in Arabic, Turkish and Modern Greek, and at twenty-three
was appointed Professor in Arabic and Muslim Law at King’s College,
Three years later, sometime in 1864, he was asked to become Principal
of Government College at Lahore (now Pakistan), and soon succeeded
in raising its status to the University of the Punjab. He founded
many schools, literary associations, public libraries and academic
journals, while at the same time dedicating himself to the study
of the cultures of the Indian subcontinent. During this period he
wrote a scholarly and comprehensive book in Urdu, History of
Islam, in two volumes, with the help of an Urdu Muslim scholar,
Maulvi Karim-ud-Din, who was at that time District Inspector
of Schools, Amritsar, Punjab. These two volumes were later published
in 1871 and 1876.
Return to Europe
He returned to Europe in the late 1870s to pursue studies at Heidelberg
University (Holland), and he also undertook work for the Austrian,
Prussian and British Governments. His ambition now was to found
a centre for the study in Europe of Oriental languages, culture
and history. On his return to England in 1881, he sought a suitable
site for his proposed institution, and in 1883 came upon the vacant
Royal Dramatic College in Woking, a building admirably suited for
The site on the south side of the railway line at Maybury was used
by the two most unusual institutions in Woking. The first was the
Royal Dramatic College, an ambitious but untimely and unsuccessful
attempt to establish what might have become a permanent centre for
the dramatic arts. The other was the Oriental Institute, founded
and financed by Dr G. W. Leitner.
The Royal Dramatic College
The Royal Dramatic College had its origins in a meeting held at
the Princes Theatre, Oxford Street, on 21 July 1858. Among those
present were Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. The
outcome of the meeting was the formation of a trust, which received
an important boost in the autumn of 1858 when Prince Albert conferred
his patronage upon the plan.
A Royal Charter incorporating the Royal Dramatic College was granted
on 8 June 1858, and the trustees then looked for a suitable site.
Early in 1860 the trustees purchased ten acres of Maybury Common
for seven hundred and fifty pounds from the Necropolis Company.
The site was adjacent to Maybury Arch, and alongside the railway
line. On 1 June 1860, a special train brought the Prince Consort
from London to a temporary platform which had been erected beside
the site at Maybury. The Prince was welcomed by the prospective
Master of the College, Mr. Wembster, who was one of the trustees.
At a short ceremony, the foundation-stone of the new building was
laid. The Prince expressed his best wishes, and those of the Queen,
for the project. The College was officially opened by the Prince
of Wales (later Edward VII) on June 5th, 1863.
Mr. Thomas P. Cooke, a wealthy actor, invested his money to support
the College. His generosity was the principal means of support for
the College, but was supplemented by a wide variety of fund-raising
activities. Mr. Cooke died in 1867, and in his will bequeathed a
large sum to the College.
The Royal Dramatic College was designed by T. R. Smith
in a curious mid-Victorian interpretation of the ‘Tudor’ style and
was constructed of red brick, the standard local material. It had
a large central hall, surmounted at the western end by a tower with
a small spire, and along the front was a pillared arcade or cloister.
There were two wings, one on either side of the main hall and entrance.
Each had five self-contained ‘houses’.
In March 1870 it was said locally that the College was “in need
of funds”, and in the following years the financial position became
increasingly precarious. Building costs had been higher than anticipated,
and the cost of running such a substantial building with extensive
grounds was too great. Public and private interest was waning, and
Thomas Cooke, its greatest benefactor, was no longer there to provide
more money. On 12 November, the governors and trustees reluctantly
decided that it must be closed immediately. The Charity Commissioners
were instructed to sell the land and moveable assets, but it was
not until the end of June 1880 that this was completed. Messrs.
Farebrother, Lye & Palmer of London put the property up for
auction, but the reserve price of five thousand pounds was not reached.
It was then sold by private contract to Alfred Chabot, a land and
property speculator. It was finally purchased by Dr G. W. Leitner
for his proposed Oriental Institute in the spring of 1884.
The Oriental Institute
Dr. Leitner immediately set about converting it into the Oriental
Institute, decorating the interior with priceless objects which
he had collected during his travels in Asia. Part of the building
was made into an Oriental Museum, said to contain probably the most
interesting collection in the possession of any private individual
in this country. The Institute trained Asians living in Europe for
the learned professions, undertook studies of linguistics and culture,
and taught languages to Europeans who wished to travel to the East.
It was an ambitious and fascinating project. It remained comparatively
obscure locally, and the people of Woking seemed to be unaware of
the precise nature of the Institute. Once Dr. Leitner said, “There
is no place in the world where the Institute and its publications
are less known than in Surrey.” He hoped that the Oriental Institute
would in time be granted full university status, and by the late
1890’s, it was already awarding degrees as it was affiliated with
the University of the Punjab in Lahore, with which he had very close
ties. He intended that it should be the acknowledged centre for
this field of study — a role which was later acquired by the London
University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, which was established
in about the year 1916.
In a letter to The Times describing his visit to the Oriental
Institute, G. R. Badenoch gave an account of the vast amount of
material that had been collected. He wrote:
“Dr. Leitner has so arranged every department that you
can trace at once the influence of Greek art on the art of India.
He has done this by bringing within a ‘chair’s length’ the sculpture,
the literature and the coins of the period …. There is another
species of exhibit which struck me … a large collection of
Punjab fabrics …. I was also struck by the large collection
of Indian manuscripts and books, some of them proving that India
possessed the art of printing long before its invention in Europe ….
I considered that India is greatly indebted to Dr. Leitner. There
is a beautiful home where the highest in that country can go and
live, and study all the great scientific appliances which England
can produce, without coming into any sort of contamination, as
they may consider, with European manners and customs. He can,
moreover, study the history of his own country from specimens
of art, coin, manuscripts and books, the like of which I have
never seen. I believe also that he can be examined and become
a graduate of the Punjab University .…” (27 August, 1884).
He started six journals in Sanskrit, Arabic, English and Urdu.
The following critical journals in Sanskrit, Arabic and English
published by the Oriental University Institute became widely read.
- Sanskrit Quarterly Review.
- Al-Haqaiq: an Arabic Quarterly Review. Its chief
editor was Dr. G. W. Leitner but it was mainly edited by Syed
Ali Bilgrami and Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Khan. It was printed and
published in Hyderabad Deccan, India.
- The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review. It was edited
by Dr. G. W. Leitner himself and was published from England.
Reprints of some of the scholarly contributions of the Asiatic
Quarterly Review were published for wider circulation. Titles
of some of these reprints were: (1) Mohammedanism by Dr G.
W. Leitner; (2) The Non-Christian View of Missionary Failures;
(3) Child Marriage and Enforced Widowhood in India; (4)
The Truth about the Persecution of the Jews in Russia; (4)
Misconceptions about the Islamic Concepts of Jihad.
He wrote numerous articles and books on education, religion and
social life of people living in India. But his unique research is
his book Dardistan which deals with social life, religious
beliefs and dialects of various tribes and ruling families of Kashmir,
Afghanistan, Ladakh, Badakhshan, Gilgit etc.
Place of worship for all faiths
To cater for the spiritual needs of students of all major faiths
and to provide for any who lived within reach, Dr. Leitner intended
to build a synagogue, a church, a temple and a mosque. For this
purpose, he earmarked pieces of land for each one of them. But first
he was able to start building the mosque, most probably because
the cost of the land was provided by His Highness, the Nizam
of the state of Hyderabad, and a substantial amount for
the construction of the mosque was defrayed by Her Highness, the
Begum Shah Jehan, ruler of Bhopal State, and donations given by
Indian Muslims. A spacious residential house adjacent to the mosque
was also built with the munificent donation made by Sir Salar Jang,
then Prime Minister of Hyderabad State. This house was later called
Sir Salar Jang House.
This became possible because of his close relations with the chiefs
and royalties of various Muslim states while he was in a high position
as Registrar of the prestigious educational centre of Punjab for
twenty long years, that is, the University of Punjab. Her Highness,
the Begum of Bhopal, was a close friend and patron of Dr. Leitner
and his university in Lahore. When the control of the mosque was
taken over by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din in 1912, the first Muslim missionary
to the West and Founder of the Woking Muslim Mission & Literary
Trust, it was officially called the Shah Jehan Mosque to honour
its main donor.
From old records it has been found that the foundations were also
laid for a Hindu temple but, unfortunately, due to the untimely
death of Dr. Leitner in March 1899, the plots earmarked for the
Hindu temple and the synagogue were sold by his heirs to James Walker
& Co. The church was built on the proposed land with the efforts
of, and through donations collected by Mr. William Hamilton. It
was completed on 29 November 1895. It is presently called St. Paul’s
Church and stands at the Oriental Road.
The Shah Jehan Mosque
The building of the Mosque is in Bath and Bargate stone and was
designed from drawings in the Art Arabe, a rare work lent
by the India Office, and from details of other Oriental mosques;
the style could be said to be Indo-Saracenic. In a building journal
of that date, it is described as “a dignified building comparing
favourably with other mock Oriental buildings of the same period
… as pretty as the Brighton Pavilion”. Contemporaries were intrigued
and surprised by this curious addition to the landscape of Woking.
The obituary of Dr. Leitner referred to it as “the beautiful Mosque
which is such a conspicuous object near the railway.”
The parapets of the walls are relieved by minarets and the onion
dome, once blue and gold, is surmounted by a gilt crescent. The
mosque rises from a courtyard in the front of which was a fine mosaic
pavement leading to the reservoir (which is somewhat similar to
a fountain of Mogul style) where the faithful were supposed to perform
ablution. The courtyard and some of the decorations were the cause
of a dispute between the architect, W. I. Chambers, and his client,
sufficiently acrimonious to cause the firm of architects to comment:
“We wish the Mosque at Woking had been built at Jericho or some
place distant enough never to have troubled us.” Many of the furnishings
of the Mosque were provided by Dr. Leitner. It was opened to the
public in October or November, 1889. It is the oldest mosque in
the British Isles, and probably in Western Europe, and is thus of
considerable historic interest.
Within a few years it had naturally become a centre for British
Muslims, and was the venue for religious and social festivals, which
attracted visitors from a wide area. Among the worshippers in the
1890’s were “Her Majesty’s Indian attendants at Windsor”. The Shah
of Iran, during his stay in England, occasionally came to the Mosque
for prayers. The earliest photograph on record is of an Eid al-Fitr
congregation held in 1903. The congregation was led by the well-known
scholar, Abdullah al-Mamoon Suhrawardy (Daily Dawn, Karachi,
Pakistan, June 10–16, 1999). The Mosque was closed and practically
empty between 1899 and 1912 while the Institute was vacant.
In 1912 Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din of Lahore (now Pakistan), an eminent
lawyer and Muslim scholar came to England. He took over control
of the Mosque with the help of the Rt. Hon’ble Syed Ameer Ali, member
of the Judicial Committee of the Indian Privy Council, Mirza Sir
Abbas Ali Beg and Sir Thomas Arnold. He founded the Woking Muslim
Mission & Literary Trust and the monthly Islamic Review.
With the zealous efforts of the Khwaja and his scholarly lectures
and books on Islam, the Mosque became an international centre for
the preaching of Islam in the West.
Death and funeral of Dr. Leitner
Sadly, the ambitions of Dr. Leitner were not fulfilled, for the
Institute relied too heavily upon Dr. Leitner’s personal enthusiasm
and wealth, and it did not survive his early death.
In 1898, he fell ill, and in January 1899, on medical advice, he
travelled to Bonn to bathe in a spa at Godesberg. He contracted
pneumonia during a cold spell in February, and on 22 March 1899,
he died in Bonn at the age of 58. His body was returned to England
and was buried on 6 April, 1899 in the Cyprian Avenue of the Brookwood
The funeral of Dr. G. W. Leitner, a remarkable linguist, and the
world’s most famous orientalist, took place at Brookwood Cemetery
on Thursday afternoon. The body had been embalmed, and since its
arrival in England it lay at Brookwood awaiting the arrival from
America of Dr. Leitner’s only son, Mr. Henry Leitner. The mourners
were conveyed to Brookwood in special carriages attached to the
train, which left Waterloo at 2.45 p.m., and arrived at Woking at
3.39 p.m. and at Brookwood at 3.49 p.m. Over one hundred invitations
to the funeral had been issued, but owing in many cases to illness
and in others to absence from town, or other engagements, only forty
people could attend. Among those present from London were: Sir Henry
Cunningham, Baron E. de Bunsen, Sir John Jardine, Sir Alfred Lyall,
Colonel Garstin, Colonel J. Britten, Captain Selby Lowndes, Mirza
Ghaffar Khan representing the Persian Minister, the Rev. H. Gollenez,
the Rev. G. R. Badenoch, the Rev. C., Schlonberger, Dr. White, Dr.
Th. H. Thorton, Mr. E. W. Brabrook, Mr H. Fooks, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas,
Mrs. Salwey, Mr. Priestley (British Museum), Mr. A. Rogers, Mr. Tate,
Mr. Adams Acton, Mr. J. P. Watson, Mr. Charles Sevin, Mr. H. R.
Fox Bourne, Messrs. Billing (Guilford), Mr. Lewis, Mr. A. K. Connell,
Mr. W. Cave Thomas, Dr. D. H. Small (Chairman of the Delhi and London
Bank), Mr. E. Purdon Clarke (South Kensington Museum), Mr. Philip
Newman (Secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts),
and Mr. C. Lyne. Also present were representatives of the East India
Association, King’s College, London, the Anthropological Institute,
the German Athenaeum, and of other institutions with which the late
Dr. Leitner was connected. Dr. Leitner’s personality was well known
in Woking, and the following, amongst others, also attended the
funeral to show their respect to the deceased: The Rev. A. W. E.
Burnett, Mr. J. W. B. S. Lancaster (Director of the Necropolis Company),
Dr. Phipps, Mr. Patrick White, Mr. D. Glover, Mrs. Smyth, Mr. H.
W. Gloster, C.C., Mr. F. Weston, Mr. Prior, the staff of the Asiatic
Quarterly Review and the staff of the Oriental Institute
The service was conducted according to the rites of the Church
of England, the officiating clergyman being the Rev. H. Marriott,
Curate of St. Paul’s, Woking.
The coffin was a massive one, of oak, and had silver-plated mountings.
It bore no inscription. The grave, which was lined with evergreens,
moss and white flowers, is situated at the foot of a Wellingtonia,
a species of Australian fir, of which Dr. Leitner was fond. There
were some beautiful wreaths. Among those sending them were: Lady
Reade, Sir F. Goldsmid, Mrs. Roth, Mr. and Mrs. A. Douglas, Mrs.
T. P. Richter (sister-in-law), the son, Mr. Henry Leitner, Dr. and
Mrs. Phipps (Woking), the German Athenaeum, Mr. Colebrook Codd (Chelsea),
Miss Murray Prior, Mr. W. Digby C.J.E., Dr. Hewell (Indian Civil
Service), Mr. and Mrs. A. Jordan (Piccadilly), Mr. and Mrs. Godfrey
(Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts), Anna Simmel and others.
There was a large number of persons at the ceremony.
Closure of the Oriental Institute
The death of its Director and Founder meant the end of the Oriental
Institute, and it was closed in the summer of 1899. The treasure
of artistic and historic objects and the library were sold. The
contents were disposed of and soon the buildings stood vacant once
more. Had it succeeded, the project might have had a profound effect
upon the town. It is realistic to suppose that by 1914 there would
have been an Oriental University at Woking, making the town a cultural
centre of importance, and giving it an identity and status that
it has tended to lack. But this remained hypothetical, and the Institute
is now all but forgotten.
It has only two permanent memories: Maybury Heath Lane, which later
was renamed Oriental Road in the 1890’s and, beside the railway,
near the site of the former Institute, the most exotic and delightful
of all the buildings of Woking, the Mosque.
1. A History of Woking by Alan Crosby, Phillimore &
Co. Ltd., Woking, U.K., 1982.
2. Victorian Woking by J. R. & S. E. Whiteman, Woking,
3. The Woking News & Mail, Woking, Surrey, England,
13 April, 1899.
4. To the Memory of Al-Hajj Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din by Arsalan
Bahdanwicz, (Polish Muslim writer, historian and a specialist in
history of Islam in Russia), monthly, The Islamic Review, Woking,
Surrey, U.K., December 1949, pp. 5–10.
5. Rabitah ‘Alam-i Islami aur Hyderbad Daccan (Relations
of Hyderabad Deccan with the Muslim World) by Muhammad Hassam-ud-Din
Ghauri, published by Darul Adab, 807 Pir Elahi Bakhsh Colony, Karachi,
Pakistan, 1978, pp. 181–188.
6. Nuqoosh, (‘Lahore Number’), a literary digest published
by Idarah Farogh-i Urdu, Lahore, Pakistan, February 1962.
7. Dr. Eric Germain, Paris, France, 2001.
8. Indian Public Opinion, Lahore. 9th May 1876,
9. A Dictionary of Local History, G. W. Green, Martin &
Greenwood Publications, Walton on Thames, UK, 1970, pp.47–49.
10. Chand Yadain Chand Ta’asurat by Ashiq Hussain
Batalvi, Sang-i Meel Publications, Lahore, Pakistan, 1992.