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[Weekender] Islam finds way into Korean society

Itaewon, where Korea meets Muslim world

Stepping outside a lecture room at Kyung Hee University amid a flock of Korean students, a 28-year-old Jordanian student heads toward a Muslim prayer room set up in his university campus.

Mohammad’s daily ritual in the prayer room demonstrates Korea’s efforts to understand the once-alienated religion, he noted.

“These days, Koreans do not discriminate against me on the basis of me being a Muslim,” he said, adding this was not always the case.

“When I came here in 2010, Koreans gave the cold shoulder to Muslims or those who headed to the Muslim prayer room. It was troubled times for people like me,” he said.

The changes in perception are the result of an ongoing effort to better understand Islam both as a culture and religion, explained Imam Lee Ju-hwa of the Seoul Central Mosque.

“Each year, there has been a dialogue among multiple religions here. We discuss ways to coexist and cooperate with each other,” he said.

As part of an effort to promote the religion, the Islamic community here holds free Arabic classes along with seminars and lectures about the Islamic culture. 
A 200-meter street leading up to Korea’s largest mosque in Itaewon, Seoul, is emerging as “Muslim Street,” attracting both Muslims and non-Muslims. ((Ock Hyun-joo/The Korea Herald)
A 200-meter street leading up to Korea’s largest mosque in Itaewon, Seoul, is emerging as “Muslim Street,” attracting both Muslims and non-Muslims. ((Ock Hyun-joo/The Korea Herald)

Kim Sang-kyu, an executive of the Markaz Arabic Center, explained that the country has seen a growing interest in the Arabic language.

“Three years ago, two students came to study Arabic. Now, more than 100 students visit here and learn Arabic a month,” he said.

“As most Arabic speakers are Muslims, Korean students learning Arabic get a chance to understand the Islamic culture by communicating with Muslim teachers.”

Visitors to the Seoul mosque on Friday ― the holy day in Islam ― would encounter hundreds of people flocking beneath the towering minarets.

Believers overflow from the prayer rooms and out to the stairs and the building’s exterior, where brightly hued prayer rugs lie.

An elderly Arabian man in a white long thobe, a Southeast Asian man wearing an orange Hawaiian-style shirt, a lanky Nigerian man, a barefoot Korean youth and even a group of Korean girls clad in hijab ― the garment worn by Muslim women ― all come to kneel at the mosque for prayer.

The Muslim population is still relatively small at 135,000. But a street full of restaurants and shops marked “halal” around the Seoul mosque suggests that the Muslim culture in Korea has developed past its fledgling stage.

There had been darker times when these very streets were filled with anti-Islamic protesters, especially in 2007 when a hostage situation in Afghanistan resulted in the death of two Koreans.

Imam Lee Ju-hwa, however, said the incident, albeit tragic, led people to learn about then-little-known religion.

Last February, a small group of Koreans held a candlelight vigil in front of the Jordanian embassy in Seoul for the Jordanian pilot recently executed by the Islamic State militant group.

The Muslim-style memorial indicated that Islam in Korea is no longer mysterious and tangled with violence, but has been gaining ground to become a respected religion.

“It is important for Koreans to realize that Muslims have already set root in the country and are living, breathing with us,” Lee said.

“Sure we have our differences, but it’s important to open up to others to try and understand one another, and set a foundation for us all to coexist peacefully.”

By Yoon Min-sik and Kim Yu-ah
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