Islam Takes Root and Blooms

From Japanese colonial times, Itaewon has been a major residential area for people from abroad. It once housed Japanese army barracks, and after 1945 a large compound in the district became the property of the U.S. army. Its neighborhood developed as a magnet for all kinds of foreign residential activity in Seoul.

Itaewon is dominated by a building that is unmistakably a mosque. This impressive building is a reminder of the resurgence of the Muslim community here.

Islam has been a presence in this country for a very long time. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Arab sailors and merchants often frequented the coastal waters of South and East Asia. As early as 845 their books mentioned Korea, and did so in the most flattering of terms: ``Over the sea beyond China lies a mountainous country called `Silla,’ rich in gold. Muslims who arrive there by accident are so attracted by its character that they stay there forever and do not want to leave.’’ Indeed, at that time a number of Muslim merchants made it their home.

Some Koreans also made epic trips to the West. Records confirm that in 727 the famous Buddhist monk Heoch’o visited the Arab Near East on his way back from India.

During the Koryo period (918-1392) Kaesong, then the nation’s capital, was home to a thriving Muslim community, and there was a mosque as well. Members of one of the country’s clans, the Changs of Toksu, still recall that the clan’s founder was a Muslim who came to Korea during the Koryo era. However, the Yi dynasty, which seized power in 1392, was much more introspective than its predecessor, so these early connections with the Near East gradually withered.

The resurrection of Islam took place during the Korean War. The war was fought largely by U.S. forces, but with support from other countries, among them Turkey, at that time a close ally of Washington. The Turkish forces were among the most numerous, some 15,000 soldiers, and best trained non-American units to take part in the war.

The Turks brought Islam back to Korea. They proved to be not only good fighters but also successful missionaries. Their ``tent mosques,’’ which initially served the soldiers themselves, eventually became major centers of missionary activity. The Turks allowed and encouraged Korean converts to take part in prayers and attend services. The Turks were also engaged in large-scale humanitarian efforts, which left a favorable, lasting impression on the locals.

When the war finished and the Turkish units returned home, they left behind a small but active local Muslim community. The Korean Muslim Society was officially inaugurated in 1955. This body, later re-named the Korean Islamic Foundation, became the major organization for believers here. The society sent members overseas for religious education and tried to establish a permanent mosque with the help of a Malaysian government grant, but was unable to. Prayers were held in makeshift buildings, with minarets made of wooden planks and iron frames.

The 1960s brought a new impetus to Islam in this country. At that time a large number of Korean construction workers were dispatched to the Near East, where domestic companies were engaged in numerous projects. Some of these workers came back as converted Muslims and engaged in missionary activity among their fellows.

In the 1970s, the first permanent mosque was established in Itaewon, constructed with a grant provided by Saudi Arabia and opened in 1976. At that time it was one of the most remarkable buildings in the entire city, and is still impressive.

The number of Muslims here is estimated to be about 45,000 in addition to some 100,000 foreign workers from Muslim countries. There are six permanent mosques around the country, and in general, Islam is a growing religion here.

Sources: The Korea Times 11-22-2002


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