Updated: Aug 22
Islam is not necessarily a religion one would immediately associate with countries in the Far East, a region where oriental culture is practically ingrained in the everyday lifestyle of natives.
In fact, religion in the Far East is virtually dominated by four belief systems that have originated in the region, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism; all of which are deep-rooted in the history and culture of several Far Eastern countries.
But that does not mean Islamic culture does not bear strong and historic roots in the region. It can actually be traced back to the history of many popular eastern states, Japan, Taiwan, and China included (the latter through the Uighur population).
It also has a notable position in the history of the Korean Peninsula
Korea, now divided into the ultra-conservative North, and the more modern and westernized South as a result of the Korean War, are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to religious diversity. Up North, Islam is almost non-existent due to the controversial states complete ban on all forms of public religion.
It’s only real presence comes from a handful of immigrants, and those working at foreign embassies.
It is surprising to note that in a country where virtually the entire population portrays its current and former leaders as akin to gods, North Korea does have a mosque within its capital, Pyongyang.
The facility is however situated within the Iranian embassy, and is limited solely to those within the compound.
In the South, Islam is far more prominent, although it still remains but a speck amongst a largely Christian and Buddhist majority. A meager 135 000 of South Korea’s estimated 50 million population practices the religion, around 40 000 of whom are Korean Muslims.
Many immigrants have come from across central, south, and West Asia, hailing from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. Remarkably, much of the faith’s growth has come within the last 15 years; in 2001 there were only around 34,000 Muslims in South Korea.
Rise and fall of Islam in the peninsula
Islam’s earliest presence in Korea can be dated back to the mid 9th century, through trade links with the Islamic world. During that time, many travelers and traders traversed both land and sea from areas like Persia and other Islamic territories, some of whom choosing to settle in the peninsula.
Other narratives suggest that Muslims rose to prominence in the 11th century, when the region was under the rule of Taejo Wang, who oversaw the Goryan dynasty. During this time trade relations continued to prosper with the now Middle East, increasing the religion’s foothold in Korea. Further advances were made when the Mongol empire overtook the region in 1270.
This rapid growth however came to an abrupt halt during the preceding rule of Sejong the Great, leader of a Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for over 5 centuries. He, according to historic reports, decreed that all Muslims should forgo their Islamic attire, rituals and beliefs, in favor of what was the norm amongst the majority of the Koreans.
Re-introduction of Islam
It wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that Islam saw something of a resurgence, a result of the Korean War which begin in 1945. The stoke that lit the fire in this case was the Turkish military. Having joined a UN coalition to repel an attempted North invasion of South Korea (A result of which is Korea in its present day divided state), many of the so called ‘Turkish Brigade’ stayed behind as UN Peacekeepers, making contributions outside of their military duties. This included educating locals about Turkish practices and tradition, and Islam.
Another contributing factor to Islam’s reemergence, coming prior to the war, was the peninsula’s annexation from Japan in 1910. The result of this saw many natives fleeing to neighboring China, home at the time to a sizable Muslim population. As the war concluded many refugees flooded back to the region, bringing with them a new found system of belief.
Historic and modern day infrastructure
In modern day South Korea, mosques, although extremely scare, can be found in some of the country’s major cities. But historically the first presence of an Islamic house of worship comes up during the Goryan period, in what is now the North Korean city of Kaesong. In fact, historic reports indicate the presence of several mosques in what was then the capital of a unified Korea.
South Korea - Friday at the mosque in Itaewon, Seoul
The first official mosque in modern Korea however, was established in the Southern capital of Seoul in 1976, in a neighborhood called Itaewon.
This establishment came amidst a boost in economic ties with the Middle East; something that helped bolster the number of reverts to Islam.
The community also saw growth as many South Koreans sought work in Muslim majority states, picking up and bringing the religion back home.
A total of 11 mosques currently exist in present day South Korea, in the cities of Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Anyang, Jeonju, and Gwangju. There is also reportedly a facility in the North Korean city of Kaesong, which serves as a joint industrial region and houses many factories and workers from the South.
Apart from that, the only other known mosque in the North is the prior mentioned facility at the Iranian embassy in Pyongyang. Other infrastructure in South Korea includes a recently established Islamic primary school, and a long standing madrassa.
A simple Google search will lead you to a web of information highlighting the extent of racism and xenophobia present in South Korea. Unfortunately this is rather widespread in the country, and is encapsulated by the treatment, or rather ostracization of North Korean defectors.
Muslims face similar exclusion and prejudice; largely in part due to the global narrative of Muslim’s post 9/11. Reverts also face isolation at the hands of family members and friends based on their decision. Many South Koreans still maintain a sense of ignorance when it comes to Islam and fear the religion as dangerous, and one of extremism.
In 2007 these perceptions were further fueled when Taliban radicals abducted 23 Korean missionaries traveling to Kabul, executing two. The hostage situation, which lasted roughly 1 and a half months, culminated in South Korea’s withdrawal of 200 troops situation in Afghanistan, and the alleged payment of around $20 million. The remaining hostages were subsequently released. This incident did little to better the Muslim population’s reputation, and led to further ridicule.
Other struggles are more cliché to those living in a westernized society, from finding halal food in a country where pork and alcohol is a staple of many dishes, and in the case of women (donning hijab), the ever present glances of others.
Despite raging negative perceptions and challenges, sentiments amongst most Korean reverts has been one of finding peace. Many found themselves drawn to the religion in spite of a continued media bombardment post 9/11.
Whilst Islam, and all other religious ideologies for that matter, remains insubstantial in the oppressive and isolated north, the religion is on an upward trend in South Korea. As the country continues to grow and diversify, the population is only expected to increase. Islam could well prove to be a significant player in Korean culture come the not so distant future.