The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Leitner's 'Oriental Institute' at Woking

In 1882 Leitner was instrumental in securing university status for the University of Punjab (and is regarded as a founder) and from 1882 -1884 he went back to England on sickness furlough and established his Oriental Institute at Woking, which was affiliated to the University of Punjab and awarded University of Punjab degrees. Along with his new college, he established his museum of Gandharan Art and built the first purpose built mosque in England, in 1889, as part of its campus.

The architect for the mosque was Mr W.I. Chambers, who is said to have copied an architectural design from a French book of architecture (though one must also observe that the mosque does have some real similarities with the famous Badshahi Mosque in Lahore itself, a major local landmark, which would have been very familiar to Leitner). The architectural drawings came from the notable and influential publication, L'Art arabe d'après les monuments du Caire depuis le VIIème siècle jusqu'à la fin du XVIIIème siècle. It is of interest that the style adopted refers more to Egyptian and Middle Eastern styles than the India sub-continent, which seems odd given Leitner's commitment to India, but it may perhaps have been partly chosen to illustrate Leitner's educated taste, by chiming with popular Islamic styles, know to the cognoscenti of the period. It may well have been intended to also to be part of the established genre of Oriental-inspired buildings in England, of which the Sassoon Mausoleum of 1892, in a Mughal style, in Kemptown, Brighton, is a Jewish example which was intended to evoking the Oriental and Bombay origins of the family (it was described as, 'a dignified building comparing favourably with other mock Oriental buildings of the same period ... as pretty as the Brighton Pavilion'). Thus, while it was an exotic addition to the hinterlands of Woking and Woking station, it was not without architectural precedents in England.

The mosque is highly elegant with a central cubic space with ornate parapets, small finials working as stylised minarets and a central onion dome, once blue and gold, supporting a golden crescent. It is surrounded by a garden and fronted by a courtyard, with a central fountain or ablution pool. The decorative architectural details, both inside and out, are very fine and the painted decorations and calligraphy within are beautiful, with much use of green, the colour said to have been favoured by the Prophet. One notable feature are the windows, whose latticed, stone traceries are complex patterns of stars of various forms, reminiscent, if not duplicating, Stars of David, possibly another deliberate allusion to Leitner's own Jewish heritage. A similar incorporation of a Jewish motif by a Jewish owner can be seen in the mosaic decorations in the recreation of a classical Greek villa, Villa Kerylos, in the South of France, which use the Star of David alongside classic Greek motifs. Leitner additionally provided the furniture of the Mosque and it was opened in late 1889.

The facilities of the Institute, including the aforementioned mosque, were a museum, guesthouse, library, and publishing house. The mosque was used a place of worship, not only by the students at the institute, but also by Indian, Afghan, Turkish, Egyptian, and Syrian Muslims, residing in, or visiting London. The Institute mostly served the Muslim intelligentsia and trained resident Asians for the professions, but it also specialised in studies of linguistics and culture, and taught languages to Europeans who wished to travel to the East. The existence of these facilities and access to London, via the local railway station, with fast and regular connections to central London, made it important to British Muslims and attracted Muslims to Woking. It even received a degree of Royal recognition, as Queen Victoria's India Muslim retainers at Windsor attended the mosque.

The Lodge adjacent to the mosque functioned as an Oriental Museum, and contained Leitner's pioneering collection of Gandharan Art, which was said to have contained probably the most interesting collection in the possession of any private individual in this country.

In a letter to The Times describing his visit to the Oriental Institute, G. R. Badenoch gave an account of the museum and the collection that Leitner had assembled there:

'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).

What is unique about Leitner's Oriental College was his desire to create a genuinely multi-faith community of students, with places of worship for all faiths. The fact that only the mosque was built on site gives an inaccurate impression as to what was planned or desired. He intended that there would also be a synagogue, Hindu temple and church on campus too, but while the foundations for the Hindu temple may have been laid, the other plans were never realised at all, largely due to his premature demise, though a church, St. Paul's Church on Oriental Road, was eventually built on the plot of land provided, by the raising of additional funds collected by William Hamilton. It was completed on 29 November 1895.

The mosque was built first largely because he had motivated backers and funders for the Islamic facilities, with funding for the land and building, from His Highness the Nizam of the state of Hyderabad, who gave the land, and Her Highness, the Begum Shah Jehan, ruler of Bhopal State, who gave the buildings. The residence which was constructed next to the mosque (the Sir Salar Jang House) was another gift, from Sir Salar Jang, then Prime Minister of Hyderabad State, and is in the form of an Indian colonial villa. The first floor balcony is also replete with a design reminiscent of 'Jewish' Stars, which again suggests that these were introduced by Leitner as a nod to his Jewish origins. There were other benefactions too, from Indian Muslims.

The Institute also had an alternative name, used by Leitner, in an article in the 'Asiatic and Imperial Quarterly Review', the 'Oriental Nobility Institute' and he described it as 'a place for Oriental scholars, including those natives of India, of good family and position, who desire to keep their caste and religion whilst residing in this country for official or business purposes'. In an article in the Pall Mall Gazette, he was also at pains to say that the mosque should not be used for making converts, introducing new doctrines to Islam, or for celebrating 'the generally unhappy marriages between Muhomedans and Englishwomen'. One needs to place the latter statements in the context of the article in the Pall Mall Gazette, as he may have felt the need to assure popular opinion that the Institute would act with propriety and not threaten the status quo, but these comments also indicate that Leitner was controlling about who got access to the mosque and how it was used, and this attitude attracted criticism from the nascent Muslim community in London, who thought that he had a patronising attitude to South Asian Muslims and cut across what they regarded as Islamic tradition.

Calling it the 'Oriental Institute' was almost certainly to denote its affiliation with the University of Punjab, which was also called the 'Oriental University'. It also seemed to directly promote one of Leitner's aims in establishing Punjab University, which was to be an Academy for archaeological and philological investigations, which would assist the work and research of European Oriental researchers and departments, through its locally based research and resources.

The college was a remarkable reverse intellectual and cultural influence, back from India to the 'home country' of England. It may be seen as an elite initiative, funded by Muslims from India, which served their own agenda. Leitner knew the local royalty around the Punjab, as he was the Registrar of the University of Punjab and he and the University were particularly supported by Her Highness, the Begum of Bhopal, and in this way it may be seen as quietly subversive of the colonial relationship between England and India, even if Indian Royalty were clients of the British.
Leitner's real agenda core agenda is suggested by the six (influential) journals he published out of Woking and the Oriental Institute, which were in Sanskrit, Arabic, English and Urdu. The texts were authored and edited in Woking and some sent out to India to be published on the presses there, and disseminated widely.

These included The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review, edited by Leitner himself and published from England; Al-Haqa'iq: an Arabic Quarterly Review, of which Leitner was editor-in-chief, though it was mainly edited by Syed Ali Bilgrami and Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Khan: it was printed and published in Hyderabad, India; The Sanskrit Quarterly Review. There were also reprints of some contributions to the Asiatic Quarterly Review re-published for wider circulation, such as (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.

Leitner also wrote an 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.

Part of the larger significance of the Oriental Institute is that it became a place which helped project Islam in Europe, but it was also a meeting place for Islamic intellectuals and perhaps contributed to the process which lead to Indian independence. In this way, we can see that Leitner and Woking played a not inconsiderable role in the new universalisation of Islam and the creation of a new idea of the Islamic World, which was also made possible by the emergence of railways, steam-ships, tourist excursions and the telegraph, which could move people and ideas around the globe efficiently and quickly, combined with cheap mass printing media. This early globalism and mass communication is the forerunner of today's global community, with mass transport around the work and era of mass-communication and the mass consumption of religious / political ideas and identities.

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