Thursday, 3 February 2011

Islam and Muslims in Korea

Islam and Muslims in Korea

Dr. Mozammel Haque

Seoul: Korea: I came to Korea during November 2010 and prayed my Eid-ul-Adha prayers at the Seoul Central Mosque, Korea. Of course, I also met the Imam of the Mosque as well as the President of the Korean Muslim Federation. During Friday Jumaah prayer after the Eid, I had the opportunity of meeting with Muslim brothers of various nationalities living in Korea.

There are 40,000 Native Muslims in a total population of 42 millions living in the Korean Peninsula with some 220,000 kilometre territory extending southward from the north-eastern section of the vast Asian continent. The northern border is mainly with China but also borders on Russia to the northeast. Though Korea has been having some link with Muslims from the earliest period, Islam, as a religion reached there in very recent times.

Presence of Islam in Korea
Though modern Muslim minority community in Korea was formed after the Korean War (1950-53), the relations between Muslims and Koreans can be traced back to the 9th Century or earlier. The history of Muslim connections with Korea can be initially divided into two periods: i) ancient and ii) modern. There were three stages of Muslim relationships with the Koreans in the pre-modern period.

Firstly, according to Korean chronicle and Arab scholars, the first verifiable presence of Islam in Korea dates back to the 9th century during the period of Unified Shilla dynasty with the arrival of Persian and Arab navigators and traders. According to numerous Arab and Muslim geographers, including the 9th century Muslim Persian explorer and geographer Ibn Khurdadhbih many of them settled down permanently in Korea, establishing Muslim villages. Further suggesting a Middle Eastern Muslim community in Shilla are figurines of Royal guardians with distinctly Persian characteristics. Later, many Muslims intermarried with Korean women.

Arabs came for the first time in 1024 in Korea. According to Korean history of the Koryo Kingdom, a group of some 100 Muslims, including Hasan Raza, came to Koryo in September of the 15th year of King Hyonjong (1024) and another group of 100 Muslim merchants came the following year.

There are more detailed and interesting accounts on Muslims living in Shilla in the several writings of such scholars as Ibn Rustah, Masudi Al-Idrisi and others. There are definitive accounts of the advent of Muslims into the Korean Peninsula 150 years prior to Sino-Korean historical records. Many Arab merchants came to Korea during the 11th century on a large scale trade mission, who might have been following their own religious rites, such as praying, fasting and have pursued their own customary tradition during their stay in Korea. But there was no evidence that they resided permanently in Korea or began spreading the message of Islam in this period.

Second in line came Muslims when the Mongols controlled Korea in 1270. Many Muslims, who had wielded power in most policy-making and administrative posts under the Mongol regime, came to Korea. During Mongol rule in Korea the Mongols relied heavily on Uyghurs to help them run their vast empire because of Uighur literacy and Uighur experience in managing extending trading networks. At least two of them settled down in Korea permanently and became the progenitors of two Korean clans. During the Koryo dynasty, particularly the Yuan intervention to Koryo (1270-1368), many Muslims, mostly Central Asians, settled down permanently. They took up positions not only as officials of the Koryo court but as private traders in almost every corner of the country. They formed their own communities in the Koryo capital and celebrated their festivals and maintained their religion, Islam, too. They built a Mosque called “Ye-Kung”, whose literary meaning is a ceremonial hall.

One of those Central Asian immigrants to Korea originally came to Korea as an aide to Mongol princes who had been sent to marry King Chungnyeol. Goryeo documents say that his original name was Samga but, after he decided to make Korea his permanent home, the King bestowed on him the Korean name of Jang Sunnyong. Jang married a Korean and became the founding ancestor of the Deoksu Jang clan. His clan produced many high officials and respected Confucian scholars over the centuries. Twenty-five generations later, around 30,000 Koreans look back to Jang Sunnyong as the grandfather of their clan. They are aware that he was not a native of Korea. Many believe that he was an Arab-Muslim. However, there is no evidence of Islamic influence on Deoksu Jang family traditions.

The same is true of the descendants of another Central Asian who settled down in Korea. A Central Asian (probably a Uyghur) named Seol Son fled to Korea when the Red Turban rebellion erupted near the end of the Mongol’s Yuan dynasty. He, too, married a Korean, originating a lineage called the Gyeongju Seol that claims at least 2,000 members in Korea today but shows no special signs of Muslim influence.

The continuation of Islamic religious activities was threatened by the Royal decree in 1427 which prohibited the performance of Islamic rites and the wearing of traditional dress and headgear. The newly established Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) was no more receptive to foreign cultures, including Islam. The assimilation policy of the early 15th century virtually obliterated most of the traces of the Islamic presence in old Korea. Therefore, Muslim settlers in Korea who had secured quite high social and economic positions, shed gradually their native attire, customs and rituals to which they adhered for about 150 years.

Islam in Modern Korea
In modern history, the spread of Islam and the development of Muslim community in Korea started with the Turkish troops serving with the United Nations forces during the Korean War in early 1950s. This phase of history can be classified into three periods: the first period from 1950 to 1960, the second from 1960 to 1980 and the third from 1980 to the present.

i) During the first period (1950-1960), the Korean Muslim community appeared in 1955 with another group of Turkish Muslim soldiers who had participated in the Korean War (1950-53) under the banner of the United Nations. The Turkish soldiers, besides their duties to defend peace and freedom, propagated their religion which paved the way for the beginning of a new era for Islam in Korea.

Among these Turkish soldiers, Abdulgafur Karaismailoglu, who was an Imam of the Turkish brigade, started teaching Islam to those Koreans only who visited the Turkish army camp at first and to general publics in Korea through public lectures. From September 1955, they initiated a wide range of Islamic activities in Korea. As a result of his efforts, some Koreans gathered around him evincing keen interest in Islam. Abdullah Kim Yu-do, Umar Kim Jin-kyu, Muhammad Yoon Doo-Young were the first generation of Korean Muslims who converted to Islam inspired by the Turkish Imam Abdulgafur.

For more effective Islamic learning and teaching, new Korean converts established the Korea Islamic Society in September 1955. Almost every weekend they would invite Karaismailoglu and organize Islamic lectures in Seoul, through which many Koreans took the opportunity to learn the basic teachings of Islam. As a result, 10th June, 1955 witnessed the mass conversion to Islam by 57 Koreans at once after an impressive Islamic lecture of Karaismailoglu.

This occasion became a turning point in the spread of Islam in Korea. In April 1956, “Chung Jin Madrasa” was established in the military barracks, where secondary education and Islamic lessons were imparted to the poor children who could not enter the regular school because of economic difficulties. The Korea Muslim Society grew large enough to become the Korea Muslim Federation in 1967.

In July 1956, Karaismailoglu was replaced by a new brigade Imam named Zubeyir Koch who came to Korea just after graduation from Imam Hatip (Khatib) High School in Turkey. Building on the base laid by the previous Imam, the young Imam initiated energetic Islamic Da’wah work through mainly holding conferences and establishing personal contacts. He also succeeded in building a temporary Masjid at the big military camp in Seoul with a minaret, which is recorded as the first Masjid in Korea. In the opening ceremony of the Masjid, another 58 Koreans accepted Islam. Till the Imam’s departure in July 1957, the number of Muslims in Korea reached 208.

ii) During the second period (1960-1976) till the 1960s, the relations were mainly built with the South-East Asian countries like Malaysia and Pakistan. Particularly Tunku Abdul Rahman, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, extended generous support for building a Mosque in Seoul. Another important figure to be mentioned here is Maulana Sayyid Muhammad Jamil, the then President of the Qur’an Society of Pakistan. In 1967, the Korea Islamic Foundation was officially registered and recognized as the representative of Muslim Community in Korea.

By the middle of 1970s, Islam saw a new era of rapid expansion in Korea when economic ties with many Arab and Islamic countries became prominent and opened their doors to the Korean Muslims. Some Koreans working in Saudi Arabia converted to Islam, when they completed their term of labour and returned to Korea, they bolstered the number of indigenous Muslims. The Seoul Central Mosque and the Islamic Centre was finally built in Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood in 1976, which is the symbol of Korea-Arab cooperation. At the same time, as the continuation of the Korea Islamic Society, the Korea Muslim Federation has emerged as unique and legal unified body for Islamic propagation in Korea.

Mosques in Korea
There are six Masjids in Korea: Seoul Central Mosque, Pusan al-Fatah Masjid, Kwang Ju Masjid, Jeon Ju Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Masjid and Anyang Rabitah Masjid. The Seoul Central Masjid and Islamic Centre was built at the site of 1,500 sq/m which was donated by the Korean government in May, 1969 and was opened on 21st May, 1976. It was later enlarged to a three-storey building in December 1991 with financial support from Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah.

Muslim Community and
Da’wah Activities
The main Da’wah activities consist of undertaking translation and publication of Islamic literature; organizing regular Islamic seminars and conferences for non-Muslims; opening Arabic course free of charge; setting up Sunday Madrasahs for Muslim children; arranging training programme for Muslim leaders and sending students to Islamic institutes in Islamic countries.

The Korean Muslim Federation made efforts to translate and publish books on Islam. In July 1976, the series of 17 booklets were published in Korean language and distributed free of charge. “The Muslim Weekly News” and “Al-Islam” ) (bi-monthly and bi-lingual magazine were published for informing Da’wah activities of the Federation. and “Korea Islam Herald” are published and distributed in and out of Korea. “The Korea Islam Herald”, a bi-monthly and bi-lingual newspaper was first published in June, 1967. A Korean scholar also translated the Tafsir of Holy Qur’an into Korean Language.

With the economic boom in the Middle East in 1970s, many Koreans advanced to Islamic countries and became much interested in Islam there. Responding to a need of Da’wah to them, the Korea Muslim Federation established its branch and Islamic Centre in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in March 1978 with the help of Sheikh Omar Abdullah Kamel. Regular Islamic lecture and education were given to non-Muslim Koreans in the Jeddah Islamic Centre. As a result, about 8,000 Korean workers embraced Islam up to now. In July, 1979, another branch was also established at the Zaharah camp of Samho Construction Co in Kuwait. Mr. Sulaiman Lee Haeng-Lae (Imam of Seoul Central Mosque at that time) was dispatched in order to preach Islam to Korean workers in Kuwait; as a result, about 3,000 Korean workers became Muslims up to June 1984. Indonesia branch was also opened in 1982.

Korea Muslim Federation concentrated its Da’wah activities on Islamic education and research. Seminars and lectures on Islam were frequently held at the Conference Hall of Seoul Central Masjid. These academic activities about Islam reached the summit when the International Islamic Seminar was held in August 1997 with the financial support of Rabitah al-Alam al-Islami, Makkah. More than 100 Muslim scholars including 20 foreign Muslim scholars participated in this Seminar and had a lively discussion on the subject of “Islam and East Asia – History and Cultural Harmony”. During the Seminar, the Opening Ceremony of Korea Institute of Islamic Culture (KIIC) was also held.

Prospects of Da’wah in Korea
In Korea, full freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution. It can be said that the Korean government is not so much hostile toward Korean Muslims and acknowledges their contribution to the national cause.

Much importance is accorded to education by the Korean authorities. More than 98% of total population in South Korea is literate. The establishment of 200 Universities in a country like Korea with its very limited area, points to the great zeal of the Korean community towards education.

Performing Hajj
Korean Muslims don’t neglect their duty of Hajj. Umar Kim Jin-Kayo and Sari Such Jung-Kill had carried out the Hajj for the first time in 1960 and became the first Korean Haji. Hajj delegation was organized and dispatched to Saudi Arabia every year, including 132 Muslims in 1978 and 104 in 1979.

Madrasah Sultan Ibn Abdul Aziz
In October 2000, Prince Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz, the present Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited Seoul Central Masjid and donated 300,000 dollars for establishing Madrasah, which was opened in the Islamic Centre of Seoul Central Masjid in October 2001.

The Islamic Centre is currently giving lectures on Qur’an, Arabic and English language, plus education about Islamic spirit practice with 15 students in each lecture. The final goal is to lay the groundwork of the Islamic Education Institute in Korea by activating the ongoing Madrasah, the afternoon school.

The Korea Islamic University
Responding to an urgent need for an Islamic Educational Institution to serve the top-level Islamic Da’wah in East Asia, the plan to found the Korea Islamic College has been shaping up since the late 70’s. In May 1977, Sheikh Abdullah Ali Al-Mutawwa from Kuwait visited Seoul Central Masjid and proposed the establishment of a Korea Islamic College.

Furthermore, Prince Naif ibn Abdul Aziz, the then and also present Minister of Interior of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, then Malaysian Prime Minister showed great concern on the University project with financial donation. In 1980s, Choi Kyu-Ha, the former President of Korea visited Saudi Arabia and they came to an agreement to cooperate in establishing the Korea Islamic University. The Koran government accordingly donated the site of 430,000m for Korea Islamic University, and in 1982, the 1st Joint Committee was held in which details of the agreement are reached. However, the Korea Muslim Federation is working on the project on a somewhat reduced scale for Da’wah College due to such various reasons as budget shortage.

Establishment of Muslim Cemetery
The absence of a Muslim cemetery is another difficulty faced by the Muslim community. According to the Islamic law interment is indispensable and any Muslim society should prepare his own Muslim cemetery. In Korea, most of other religious societies like Christianity had their own cemeteries. Muslim society in Korea, however, had no cemetery. The establishment of Muslim cemetery has been a long dream of Korea Muslims, but it was difficult due to financial shortage. His Excellency, Abdul Razzaq, the Qatar Ambassador to Korea showed deep concern on this question from 2002. As a result of his noble effort, Qatar government decided the financial support for the site of Muslim Cemetery in Korea. In August, 2004, Korea Muslim Federation purchased the land site of 3,800m and established Muslim Cemetery.

Korean Muslims have also established Halal butcher shop at the Seoul Islamic Centre in 1983 in order to facilitate the growing tendency for Halal food among them.

Imam of Seoul Central Mosque
The present of Imam of the Seoul Central Masjid is Abdur Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa who embraced Islam in 1984 when he was students of physics at college and after that he went to Saudi Arabia to study, first, Arabic language and then degree in Usul-al-Deen. He had a Bachelor Degree in Usul-al-Deen from the Islamic University of Madina and now pursuing his doctoral thesis on regional studies from the Korean University. He was married in 1989 and has three children. His eldest son, who was born in Madina, Saudi Arabia, went for Hajj during November, 2010.

Though modern Muslim community in Korea has passed half a century since the seed of Islam was sowed in Korea about 150 thousand Muslims are walking on the path of Allah the Almighty with 9 Masjids, 4 Islamic Centres and more than 60 Musalla, under the Korea Muslim Federation, which is a unique and legal integration body for Islamic Da’wah in Korea.



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