Whenever I walk towards Brick Lane Mosque in the east end of London I always look at it as a continuation of a Dickens novel; from the Artful Dodger picking pockets, cockneys selling jellied eels, Jack the Ripper spying his next victim in the prolific bawdy houses of the area, to three Bengali Lascars with cutlasses entering said house to reclaim what the prostitutes had taken from them, to Bengalis worshipping in that very building. It is an intrinsic part of the East End where the poor huddling masses have always congregated.
Before its manifestation as a mosque that very building used to minister to the Huguenot community as it fled Catholic persecution in France in the mid-eighteenth century. For sixty years it stood thus until it was turned into a Wesleyan chapel with an eye to convert the local Jews of the area. But the Jews to no avail clung on to the law of Moses, and so it evolved into a methodist chapel 1809. By 1880 a series of Russian pogroms brought Lithuanian Jews to the area filling it with tailors, bagels, fish and chips and handy boxers, who transformed the church into a synagogue. It remained thus until the area saw an influx of Bengalis and the building became a mosque in 1976 – a few years before I was born.
But don’t think for one second that Bengalis are newcomers to the area, far from it, they have been there since the 1600s. Perhaps the most notable being a secretary to the East India company, I’tisaam Uddin who wrote the first Persian work on Blighty and helped develop the country’s understanding of the Persian language. But what is curious is that it was mostly Sylhetis who came as Lascars or sailors even though that part of the country is landlocked with little access to the sea. Some have posited the idea that the hills so favourable for growing tea and the presence of navigable river meant that the local populace developed a close relationship to the sea. Bengal after all has always been a stopping off point for ships on the way to the Far East. It was no wonder that Islam came to Bengal within a hundred years of its inception. The area was famous for its shipwrights and would have no doubt remained so had it not been decimated by the arrival of the East India company. Others point to the local populace’s foreign stock coming as it did from the saint Hazrat Shah Jalal and his followers whose offspring configured their character to look outwards and be like the Irishmen of the South, voyaging and settling in many parts of the world. This includes my Nana, my maternal grandfather who established Brick Lane Mosque.