Friday 20 September 2019

Islam and Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: South Korea

Muslims in South Korea are just a tiny figure of about 0.3% of the total population, predominantly Christians. As per estimates, there around 150,000 Muslims, 45,000 of whom are native Korean. Migrant workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh make up a large fraction of the Muslim population.

Islam came to the Korean peninsula around 9th century through Arab and Persian traders. Most of these traders were from what is now modern-day Iraq, though some archeological evidence from this era depict Silla palace guardians with distinctly Persian characteristics. Perhaps by then no other foreigners had adventured to this part of the world and in fact it were the Arabs and the Persians who drew the first non-East Asian maps of the region and travel writings involving their adventures in Unified Silla. 

While the traders kept coming and going, some of them settled down and intermarried with the local Korean community, building a community that would serve as a cue for the Islam to take its root here. The official Korean records first witness mention of Muslims in 1024, when a large contingent of Arab traders came to the Goryeo kingdom during the reign of King Hyeonjong. This opened the door to Central Asian traders and migrants to settle down in Korea, as well as some of the Chinese Hui. 

The Koreans were quick at making use of Advancement in science made by the Muslims. In the early Joseon period, the Islamic calendar served as a basis for calendar reform owing to its superior accuracy over the existing Chinese-based calendars. A Korean translation of the Huihui Lifa literally meaning "Muslim System of Calendrical Astronomy", a text combining Chinese astronomy with the zij works of Jamal al-Din, was studied during the time of Sejong the Great in the 15th century. The tradition of Chinese-Islamic astronomy survived in Korea up until the early 19th century.

Thereafter, Islam went through various phases of its existence mostly on the down side as the few who stayed back could not spread the new religion here and whatever remained of Islam and Muslims had almost faded till it was reintroduced during the nineteenth century when Korean settlers migrated to Manchuria. During the Korean War, a large allied contingent from Turkey known as the Turkish Brigade not only assisted with defense, but also with the humanitarian work of rebuilding Korea.  Shortly after the war, some Turks who were stationed in South Korea as UN peacekeepers began proselytizing Koreans. By 1955, the Korea Muslim Society (later the Korea Muslim Federation) was established. As trade with the Middle East increased in the 1970s, Koreans who served as foreign workers in Saudi Arabia converted to Islam, and brought the religion back home. 
A spectacular view of the Seoul Central Masjid located in Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood opened. [Photo: RADU DIACONU/AL JAZEERA]

President Park Chung-hee accepted offers to fund the construction of mosques from Muslim nations such as Malaysia, as a token of goodwill, which led to the construction of the Seoul Central Mosque that opened on on May 21st, 1976. Today, there are mosques in Busan, Anyang, Gwanju, Jeonju, Daegu, and Gyeonggi to accommodate a steadily growing Muslim population in Korea.

Life of Muslims in South Korea is not very easy, which generally stems from the lack of familiarity with Islam, as for most of the South Koreans the way of living of Muslims still sound very strange.
Abdul Rahman Lee Ju-Hwa, presently a Muslim Imam, who was introduced to Islam in 1984, had difficult times to tell his friends that he could not meet for barbecue and drinks. "Back in the day, my friends didn't understand my religion and forcibly asked me to drink," he said. "It took some time but today they understand me." Imam Lee looks back at the Korean hostage crisis and recalls a time when local police were stationed in front of the mosque to protect it from protests and bomb threats as a reaction to the kidnappings. "The Korean hostage crisis was one critical point in the history of Islam in South Korea," Lee says.
The post 9/11 days and media infested with news of Islamic State and Al Qaeda, have helped breed a degree of Islamophobia in South Korea. This is often stoked by less inclusive Christian groups and publications, who have come up with alarmist reports overstating the number of Muslims, alleging that Muslims are using tactics like “spreading halal food” and having more children through polygamous families in order to “Islamize” Korea.

The proposed building of a halal food production zone in Iksan, a small city in western South Korea, also sparked a predictable backlash, spearheaded by Christians. Despite sparking a controversy out of proportion, the Iksan halal zone reflects a new and somewhat unfamiliar dynamic, growing more prominent in recent years: South Korea working to attract Muslim visitors as cash-spending consumers rather than migrant workers.

In Seoul, the presence of Muslims is significance and so are the Halal rating signs on many a eatery, beside many shops and eateries owned by Turks, Arabs, Pakistanis and others. 
The strong aroma of spices fills the air in the famous Korean restaurant Eid. Three Muslim sisters — Dina, Nana and Nurul Kamarul — sit enjoying bibimbap and kimchi, among other traditional Korean dishes. A round green sticker on the window tells visitors the restaurant is officially certified as halal.
The Halal stickers are part of an initiative by the government to attract more Muslim tourists to South Korea. A Halal Food Festival, which recently ended; added more than 100 Muslim-friendly restaurants; and spent 200 million won — the equivalent of more than $175,000 — to provide prayer rooms at popular tourist destinations. The initiative by the government to facilitate Muslims visiting South Korea has resulted into an increase the number of Muslim tourists manifold. In 2018, 971,649 Muslim tourists visited the country, an 11 percent increase from 865,910 in 2017, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.

The younger generation of the Korean Muslims is trying to spread awareness on Islam in South Korea through social media. Umar (Daesik) Choi, a young enthusiast Muslim promotes Muslim-friendly restaurants in Seoul in collaboration with the Seoul Tourism Organization as part of a video series called "From Kebab to Kebab" on YouTube. He studies Arabic and Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia.
Umar (Daesik) Choi (left) - Ola Bora Song (right)

Ola Bora Song, is a Korean Muslim who converted in 2007, works at the Seoul mosque and gives lectures to South Korean Christians and others who want to know more about Islam. She tries to answer all their questions to avoid any misunderstandings. "I was once a non-Muslim and I understand their misconceptions, which is why I want to give them all the information they need to understand what Islam really is, that [it] is, a religion of peace and respect." Her lectures have proven quite successful. "Some people who had preconceived ideas about the religion would come to me after my lectures and tell me how sorry they were for not knowing," she says. With more than 140,000 followers on Instagram, Bora has become a bit of an online sensation and inspirational figure for many Muslims across Asia. In South Korea, where beauty plays an integral part of society, she likes to make a fashion statement with her headscarf, a colourful symbol of her double Korean and Muslim identity. [Source / Photo: RADU DIACONU/AL JAZEERA]

the Seoul Central Mosque in the district of Itaewon is the central point where large congregations of Friday and Eid prayers are held. Sometimes, usually in the Ramadan,  prayer mats are laid outside the main prayer hall to make room for large number of Muslims, mostly immigrants from Southeast and Central Asia. “I was travelling an hour from Ansan (southwest of Seoul) by train and bus to perform a prayer along with my two children,” Ahn, a Korean Muslim who converted to Islam a decade ago after marrying a Pakistani Muslim, told Arab News. However he confides that living as a Muslim in South Korea has been tough, and is getting tougher due to Islamophobia. 

Park Dong-shin, a native Korean who reverted to Islam in 2009, runs two YouTube channels for Islam. “I started running YouTube channels in 2011 with the goal of providing accurate information on Islam, and they’ve gained popularity fast in recent years thanks to the YouTube boom,” Park, , told Arab News. “Many of the viewers post malicious comments insulting Islam and Muslims, but I feel that’s a very normal process of a new culture being mixed in a society. It’s a process of people learning a new culture and religion,” he said.

Practicing Islam is difficult in South Korea where Islam is marginalized in many cases, yet the South Korean Muslims pride themselves on keeping their faith in the face of numerous challenges. Those living in Muslims majority countries just cannot fathom the difficulties of the Muslims who form a very small percentage of population in non Muslim countries. But reading their accounts is very heart warming for despite all odds, they take pride in being Muslims and following Islamic way of life despite the prejudices around.

You may like to view an informative video about Islam, Halal Food and life of Muslims in South Korea, which will give you an insight into life of Muslims in South Korea:
Author's Note: The data for this post has been collected from the references as given below. If any one differs with the material contained in this post, one may consult the references and their authors.  If someone has more material about the subject, he/she is most welcome to share in the comments box to make the post all encompassing.

Photo | References: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 |
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