SHAFAQNA – The first Islamic-led commemoration for British soldiers who lost their lives will take place on Thursday after years of pressure from a local council and the first Muslim chaplain to the UK armed forces, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The event comes 100 years after a Muslim burial ground was created in Woking, Surrey, for 21 Indians who died fighting for Britain during the first world war.
While Hindu- and Sikh-led services have existed for some time, this will be the first time an Islamic-led service will take place in the UK.
The ceremony will be led by Imam Asif Hafiz, one of the most senior Muslims in the British army and the Islamic adviser to the chief of the defence staff, but it will honour all those who have fought for Britain, not just Muslims. A Christian priest will also be present at the ceremony, which will be attended by Prince Edward and defence minister Lord Howe.
Hafiz told BuzzFeed News he hoped the commemoration would encourage more Muslims to join the army, and hinted that the armed forces were not currently diverse enough. “I think the armed forces could be better at reflecting our society,” he said.
The imam emphasised that it was important for an Islamic-led event to take place to raise awareness of the Muslim contribution to Britain – as well as to create more unity within British Muslims.
He also cited research by British Futures showing that only 2% of Brits know the scale of the Muslim contribution to the first world war, which saw 400,000 Muslims from India fight alongside British soldiers.
Hafiz said: “What we’re doing now is making sure that history is not forgotten and that is not only their history but also the sacrifice of their comrades. …
“It will in my view raise awareness for both Muslims and non-Muslims to realise that they [Muslims] have played a role in the defence of the UK, that Muslims have contributed to the defence of British people, and that there’s no contradiction between being Muslim and being in the armed forces.
“There was no contradiction a hundred years ago and there’s no contradiction today.”
The ceremony will take place on a site in Woking originally used in 1915 to bury 21 Indian soldiers.
A further six Indians who fought in the second world war were subsequently buried in the same ground, which was next to Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, the Shah Jahan. But the land was largely neglected, and when it was vandalised in the 1960s, the Indian soldiers were moved to Brookwood, a military cemetery.
But now the original burial ground has been redeveloped after the local council received funding from Muslim donors, the Department from Communities and Local Government, and the Armed Forces Covenant grant scheme.
The day of the commemoration service will also see the launch of a Muslim peace garden that has been developed over the burial ground. It is understood that although all faiths will be allowed there, it will be a focus point for remembering the Muslims who have died while serving for Britain.