Islam Struggles for a Toehold in Korea
By Don Baker, Harvard Asia Quarterly, Winter 2006
Nov 25, 2006 - 10:39:00 AM
Korea occupies a peninsula jutting out of northeast China toward Japan. This is not a neighborhood known for a strong Muslim presence. Japan has few Muslims. Nor are there many Muslims in Russia’s Far East, which lies just to the northwest of the Korean peninsula. China has many more Muslims than either Japan or Russia’s eastern provinces, but Chinese Muslims are concentrated in either the far west or the southwest, thousands of miles from Korea. With few Muslim neighbors, traditional Korea developed a religious landscape that was dominated by Buddhist temples, Confucian study halls, and shrines for Korea’s own folk religion. That landscape has become more crowded over the last century with the addition of thousands of Christian churches. There would appear to be no room left for that other major world religion, Islam. Nevertheless, scattered among those thousands of churches, shrines, and temples, a careful observer might notice a few mosques. Furthermore, those mosques will be crowded during a typical Friday worship service. Islam appears to be gaining a toehold on the Korean peninsula.
Not only are there practicing Muslims living in Korea today, the history of Korean contact with Muslims and with Islam goes back hundreds of years. The Islamic world first became aware of Korea’s existence via China’s Tang dynasty (617-907). Korea, in turn, first encountered Islam during its own Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), when a few Central Asian Muslims moved into the peninsula. However, there was no ethnically Korean community of Muslims until after the Korean War (1950-1953). Though Korean sources from the Silla dynasty, which ended in 936, say nothing about Islam, Muslims or Arabs, there are references to Korea in some early world geographies by Muslim scholars. According to a study by Hee-Soo Lee, a Korean scholar of the history of Muslim-Korean relations, the first such reference appears in Ibn Khurdadbih’s General Survey of Roads and Kingdoms, which was first published in the mid-9th century.1 Altogether, Lee has identified eleven different Muslim geographers from the 9th through the 13th century who noted the existence of a land to the east of China that they referred to as Silla. These works typically called Silla an island rather than a peninsula, which suggests that no Muslims had actually visited Korea. Instead, word of Silla’s existence probably reached the Muslim world through Arab and Central Asian merchants who had engaged in trade with Tang China and may have met Koreans there.
The Tang dynasty was one of the more cosmopolitan periods in Chinese history. There were tens of thousands of foreign traders living in China at that time, including Koreans, Central Asian Muslims, and even Arabs. It is probable that some Koreans met some Muslims in China. Even if the Koreans, who were concentrated along China’s northern coast, and Arabs, who were concentrated in the Guangdong area in the south, did not meet, they probably heard of each other’s existence. Korean diplomats, and the merchants who accompanied them, probably saw other Muslims in the Tang capital of Chang’an, since people from Central Asia traveled there to present tribute to the Tang emperor, as did Koreans. There was a large enough Muslim community staying in Chang’an under the Tang to justify the construction of a mosque in the 8th century. Koreans may have traded with those Muslims, since some Persian and even Roman artifacts that had traveled the Silk Road have been excavated from Silla tombs.
History records at least one specific instance of Muslim-Korean contact during the Tang a century before the first Muslim work mentioned Korea. However, it is unlikely that the Turkish and Arab armies who defeated Tang troops in Central Asia in 751 were aware that the general leading those Tang armies, General Gao Xianzhi (d. 755), was actually a native of Korea whose birth name was Go Seonji. Nevertheless, that first confirmed encounter of a Korean with Muslims had historic consequences. The defeat of Gao Xianzhi’s army by the advancing Muslim forces on the banks of the Talas River near Samarkand ensured that Chinese influence would fade away in that part of the world, and Buddhism would be replaced by Islam as the dominant religion in Central Asia.
Despite a lack of direct knowledge of Korea, early Arab accounts of Korea paint a very attractive picture (perhaps the few Koreans they met bragged about their homeland!). They describe it as richly endowed with gold and enjoying a very pleasant climate. A couple of 9th and 10th century Arab sources translated by Lee even claim that some Muslims had wandered over to Korea and found it such a nice place to live that they did not ever want to leave. If those reports are true, those Muslims must have blended into Korean society very quickly, because there is no mention of them in Korean sources from that time.
Muslims and the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)
The first Korean accounts of contacts with Muslims come from the Goryeo dynasty, which followed Silla. The official history of the Goryeo dynasty, compiled in the 15th century but based on older documents, reports that in the 11th century Arab traders sailed into Korean harbors on several occasions to engage in trade. The Muslim merchants offered rare ingredients needed in Chinese medicine prescriptions, some of which they had picked up in Southeast Asia on their way. In return, they received gold and cloth from the king of Goryeo.
Such direct maritime trade began to fade at the end of the 11th century, though Koreans may have continued to trade with Arabs through Song China (960-1279) middlemen for sometime afterwards. When Song China was defeated by Mongols, and the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) seized control over all of China and, as part of the broader Mongol empire, opened up land links across Eurasia, Korean interaction with Muslims revived, though now it was by land rather than by sea.
The Mongols employed many Arabs, Persians, and Central Asian Muslims, especially Turks and Uighurs, to help them run their empire. Some of those non-Mongols served in the Mongol army. Others served in administrative posts. Though Korea remained under nominal Korean rule during the Mongol era (the Wang family, which ruled Goryeo, stayed on the throne), it was conquered by the Mongols a couple of decades before the Mongols completed the conquest of Song China. After Goryeo surrendered, some of those conquering troops, including Central Asian Muslim elements, stayed in Korea to ensure Korea did not resume its resistance to Mongol rule. The Mongols also regularly dispatched officials to Korea to relay its instructions to Goryeo and make sure those instructions were heeded. Some of those officials were Muslims, and some of them stayed in Korea and were given official positions in the Mongol-controlled Goryeo government. There were also some Muslim merchants who moved to Korea and opened up shops in Goryeo’s capital.
Some claim to find proof of the prominence of Muslim merchants in Goryeo in a popular song from 13th century Korea that has survived to the present day. That song, “The Turkish Bakery” may have been written for a stage performance created for the amusement of King Chungnyeol (r.1274-1308), who apparently enjoyed bawdy songs and plays. The first stanza of that song, reads:
I go to the Turkish shop, buy a bun,
An old Turk grasps me by the hand.
If this story is spread abroad,
Daroreo geodireo, You alone are to blame, little actor!
Deoreo dungsyeong darireodireo darireodireo taroreogeodireo taroreo
I will go, yes go to his bed;
Wi wi daroreo geodireo daroreo,
A narrow place, sultry and dark.
According to Peter Lee, the nonsense syllables, which also appear as refrains in the remaining stanzas, were intended to sound erotic. The remaining three stanzas tell of similar erotic liaisons with a monk, a dragon, and an innkeeper.2 Taken together, they tell us what sorts of relationships residents of Goryeo’s capital city considered exotic and exciting. Though the dragon was clearly not real, there must have been rumors of actual womanizing innkeepers, monks, and Turkish shopkeepers to make that song so popular in Goryeo elite circles. However, even without that song as evidence, we can be sure that there were Muslim merchants in Goryeo Korea because Hee-Soo Lee has located several references to them in the official history of the Goryeo dynasty.
It is not always easy to tell if Goryeo documents are referring to a Muslim or simply to someone from Central Asia. For example, the term translated as “Turk” in that song about the Turkish bakery is “huihui.” The term “huihui” came to be synonymous with Muslims in East Asia later. However, it may not have been used exclusively for Muslims in the 13th century, when that song was written. “Huihui” at that time referred to Central Asian Muslims as well as to Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking community that lives in what is now China’s Far West and did not fully convert as a community to Islam until possibly as late as the 15th century. At the time that song was composed, a few Uighurs were Muslims but others were Buddhists and still others Christians. Therefore, in the 13th century, when someone was called a “huihui,” that meant that he or she was a Turk from Central Asia but not necessarily a Muslim. It is likely that most of the Turks in Korea during the Mongol era were Uighurs. The Mongols relied heavily on Uighurs to help them run their vast empire because of Uighur literacy and Uighur experience in managing extended trading networks. At least two of those “huihui” settled down in Korea permanently and became the progenitors of two Korean clans.
One of those Central Asian immigrants to Korea originally came to Korea as an aide to a Mongol princess 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.3 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 Uighur) 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.
To find evidence of Muslim influence on Goryeo Korea, we have to look to alcohol. Though Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol, Arab Muslims developed the technology of distillation, which they used to produce medicinal ingredients. Korea, probably following a Chinese example, used that imported technology to distill the popular Korean drink known as soju (“burnt liquor”). Even though it has been over 700 years since Koreans started making and drinking soju, it still has the taint of being foreign in origin. Since it is “foreign” liquor, soju is not supposed to be offered to ancestors during ancestor memorial rituals. The more traditional fermented rice wine is offered instead. However, even though the ancestors do not want any soju, their living descendants make it one of those more popular alcoholic beverages in Korea today.
We can also see Muslim influence in the official calendars of the late Goryeo period. After they gained control of China, the Mongols invited Arab astronomers to Beijing to correct mistakes that had crept into Chinese calculations of the movements of the sun, the moon, the five visible planets, and the stars. Those Muslim scientists brought with them the latest astronomical instruments as well as mathematical tools for predicting heavenly movements based on what those instruments revealed. The Korean government then sent their own astronomers to Beijing to learn from those Muslims. Even though there was nothing particularly religious about the calendar those Muslim scientists produced for East Asia, it became known unofficially as the Muslim Calendar. The government in both China and Korea continued to use Muslim calendrical techniques until the 16th century, when Christian missionaries from Europe brought even more advanced instruments and calculating techniques to China. Neither the creation of soju nor the adoption of Arab calendrical techniques required the presence of actual Muslims on Korean soil. However, records from the first decades of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), that which followed Goryeo, assure us that at least some of the Central Asians who had moved to Korea during the Goryeo dynasty were Muslims. In 1427 King Sejong decreed that the “huihui” who had been receiving stipends from the Korean government since the previous dynasty, and who had maintained a distinctive culture with their own styles of clothing and headgear and who even had their own “ritual hall,” were no longer to be treated any differently from than any other Korean. They also had appeared before the king every year as a group to honor him with their distinctive rituals. However, this reminder of Mongol rule, and the special place Central Asia and Muslims had in the Mongol empire, must have bothered King Sejong. Their stipends were terminated and they were ordered to dress like everybody else, as well as perform the same rituals as everyone else.The ritual hall referred to in this Joseon dynasty document is probably a mosque, though no descriptions of the hall survive to confirm that conjecture. There is also a reference in Joseon records to a “huihui” religious leader being allowed to settle in Korea in 1407. Combined with the fact that by the 15th century most Uighurs had become Muslims, it is likely that there was an actual Muslim presence in Korea in the 14th century and into the 15th. Nevertheless, the Muslim community must have been too small to resist the royal command to assimilate. There are no further references to Muslims on Korean soil for the rest of that long dynasty.
Korea and Muslims from the 15th Century
Not only are there no records of Muslims in Korea from 1427 through 1910, there was not as much Muslim, Arab, or Central Asian influence on Korea during the Joseon dynasty as there was during the Goryeo. Korean potters in the first century of the Joseon dynasty began using a glaze on their pottery with a shade of blue that is sometimes called “Muslim blue,” but there is no evidence that Muslim potters introduced that glaze to Koreans. Koreans acquired it from the Chinese. Some have also argued for Uighur influence on the 15th invention of Han’geul, the ingenious Korean alphabet. Koreans were familiar with the Uighur writing system. Mongols had borrowed the Uighur phonetic writing system when they first felt the need to have written records, before they asked a Tibetan lama to devise a better script for them. Koreans would have encountered the Uighur script when they were part of the Mongol empire. That phonetic script may have been one of the stimuli that awoke Koreans to the benefits of an alphabet and inspired them to invent Han’geul early in the next dynasty. However, there is no resemblance between the Uighur script and Han’geul, so any Muslim influence on the Korean alphabet is slight.
The Joseon dynasty is often labeled a “hermit kingdom” because of its lack of contact with the outside world. That label is somewhat of an exaggeration. Joseon Korea maintained regular contact with China and Japan. However, Korea was isolated from much of the rest of the world, and that includes the Muslim world. Unlike the Goryeo dynasty, the Joseon dynasty did not welcome Arab merchants into its ports and did not welcome Central Asians immigrants to Korea. The history of Korean contact with Muslims comes to a halt in 1427 and does not revive until the 20th century. Korea began welcoming Muslims again in the 20th century, after Korea lost control of its own borders. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Japan and then several Western powers including the United States, pressured the Joseon dynasty to open its borders to more foreign merchants and diplomats. Japanese, American, French, British and even Chinese diplomats and merchants began pouring through those gates they had pried open, changing the balance of power on the peninsula so dramatically that Korea lost control over its own affairs. By 1910, the Joseon dynasty was history, and the Korean peninsula was a colony of Japan. Japan was a trading empire, so it was not as wary of foreigners on its territory as Joseon Korea had been. In the 1920s the Japanese colonial authorities welcomed a couple of hundred Muslims of Central Asian Turkish ethnicity who had fled the Communist revolution in Russia. Those refugees settled down in cities across the peninsula and opened tailor shops and other small businesses. They did not proselytize among the Korean population but instead stayed to themselves outside of business hours. However, they wanted a place to get together and pray as a Muslim community, so they pooled their resources and purchased a building in Seoul. The first floor of that building was a community center for cultural events. The second floor had a prayer room as well as classrooms for their children. That building was officially opened in 1934 and was the closest thing to a mosque Korea had had since 1427. It did not last very long. Korea’s Turkish Muslims left Korea for Turkey after Japanese rule collapsed in 1945 and the subsequent rising tide of Korean nationalism made them feel uncomfortable on the peninsula.
Though the Muslims in Korea during the colonial period were more concerned with survival than with proselytizing, they inspired at least one Korean to adopt their religion. Park Jaeseong, who worked in a Muslim-owned clothing store, is the first Korean we know of who converted to Islam while in Korea, though there may have been others during the colonial period we do not know about.4 There were also a few Koreans living in Manchuria during the 1930s who were impressed by the Muslims they met there and converted to Islam. However, they did not return to Korea until after liberation in 1945. Because the number of Korean converts was so small, and most of them were not in Korea, there was no real Korean Muslim community until later, after the Korean War. Until 1955, we can talk about Muslims in Korea, but we cannot talk about a Korean Muslim community.
The Birth of a Korean Muslim Community
A true Korean Muslim community finally appeared in the 1950s, thanks to the influence of Turkish troops who stayed in South Korea after the Korean war as part of the United Nations forces stationed there to protect South Korea from another North Korean attack like that of June 25, 1950, which led to a three-year civil war. Though those Turkish soldiers did not come to Korea to covert Koreans to Islam, they did not turn away Koreans who came to join them in their prayers. Some of the Koreans who had become Muslims while they lived in Manchuria talked to the imam for those Turkish forces and in 1955 he agreed to help them form a Korea Muslim Society. Soon, Koreans had a tent set aside for them to meet and pray. Within one year after the Korean Muslim Society was formed, it had over 200 members. The leaders were Umar Kim Jin-kyu and Muhammad Yoon Doo-young, both of whom had become Muslims when they were living in Manchuria. In 1959 Umar Kim, along with Sabri Suh Jung-kil, visited Mecca, becoming the first Koreans to perform the Hajj.5
The small Korean community grew in the 1960s and 1970s, fueled partially by conversions among the Korean construction workers who went to the Middle East to work on construction projects. The Korea Muslim Society grew large enough to change its name to the Korea Muslim Federation in 1967. Still, there were no more than 3,000 Korean Muslims during the 1960s. They met in a makeshift prayer hall in downtown Seoul. Then President Park Chung-hee, anxious to build friendships with Middle Eastern countries, offered to provide land for a real mosque. Muslim governments responded by offering in turn to provide the funds necessary to build that mosque. In 1976 the Korean Central Mosque opened up the hill from the bars and clothing stores patronized by American soldiers in Itaewon, a district in Seoul.
The Korean Central Mosque is an impressive structure that looks like a piece of the Middle East transported to Korea. There is nothing Korean about its appearance. It has the minarets one would expect to see on a mosque in the Islamic world, as well as Arabic calligraphy engraved on stone near its entrance. Nevertheless, once it rose above the houses and shops in Itaewon, it began attracting more Koreans. Within one year after that mosque opened, the number of Korean Muslims rose from 3,000 to 15,000. That number continued to rise over the next decade or so. By 1990 there were 35,000 Korean Muslims in Korea. The mosque in Seoul was joined by a mosque in Korea’s second largest city Busan as well as one in the provincial capital of Jeonju.
Seoul and another in the city of Anyang, also near Seoul, giving Korea a total of 5 mosques by 1990. Three more have been built since then. Then the nature of Islam in Korea began to change. The total number of Muslims rose dramatically over the 1990s, but the number of Korean Muslims stayed almost the same. A labor shortage in Korea’s rapidly growing economy led to an influx of foreign workers, many of them from Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Before the Korean economy took a sharp dip in 1997, the Muslim community in Korea grew to around 150,000. However, only 35,000 of those Muslims had been born in Korea and spoke Korean as their native language. The rest were workers, plus a few diplomats, students, or businessmen, who had recently come to Korea but did not intend to spend the rest of their lives there.
Some of those immigrant workers have married Korean women, as did some of their predecessors during the Goryeo dynasty, and made Korea their home. Many others have left, either because the Korean economy had slowed down so much that it no longer had any need for their labor or because they had grown frustrated by the lack of opportunities for upward mobility in a Korea that does not easily accept foreigners as full members of its society. The latest estimate for the number of Muslims in Korea is around 100,000, of which 35,000 to 40,000 are Koreans.
The Difficulties Facing Islam in Korea
Why has it been so difficult to attract Koreans to mosques? Koreans have clearly become more interested in organized religion over the last few decades. Since 1960 the number of Christians in Korea has grown from 1.1 million to more than 14 million. Buddhism has grown as well, from a couple of million adherents in 1960s to well over ten million today. Yet the Muslim community has at most only 40,000 ethnically Korean adherents.
One reason Islam had not made more headway in Korea is that it is seen as a religion for foreigners, rather than a religion for Koreans. Even though all the officers in the Korean Muslim Federation are Koreans, if a Korean drops by a mosque he will see mostly non-Koreans there. When I visited the Seoul Central Mosque on a mid-week afternoon in December 2005, the only Korean I saw was a secretary. The rest of the people there were from Turkey or South Asia. Koreans go to a hall of worship not just to worship but also to become part of a community centered on that worship hall. Korea has been a monoethnic society for centuries, so most Koreans are not accustomed to joining a community dominated by people who do not look like them or speak their language. Though Islam grew rapidly in Korea in its early years when most of the Muslims were Koreans, growth in the number of Korean-born Muslims has stalled ever since the mosques began filling up with non-Korean believers.
Another obstacle comes from the strict demands Islam makes on its believers, which can sometimes clash with Korean social norms. Many observers, Korean and non-Korean alike, have noted that, because Korean society is so ethnically and culturally homogenous and is also very group-oriented, it exerts strong peer pressure on its members to fit in rather than act differently from those around them. This causes problems for Muslims, who are supposed to stop what they are doing and pray five times a day even though they may be at school or work and surrounded by Christians and Buddhists. Muslims also have restrictions on what they can eat and drink. They cannot eat pork, for example, a rule extremely hard to observe in a country where pork dishes are plentiful. Ramadan, with its month-long daytime fast, is particularly difficult, since eating in Korea is a communal activity and classmates or fellow-workers will ask a Muslim colleague to join them for lunch. Drinking alcohol is also a communal activity that officemates often indulge in on a regular basis. However, most Korean Christians also refrain from alcohol, so that ban alone would not have proved an insurmountable barrier to conversions to Islam. A stronger barrier is the requirement that Muslims go to a mosque for congregational prayer early in the afternoon on Fridays. Korean companies and schools tend to follow a Monday-through-Friday work schedule and often will not understand a Korean Muslim’s need to work less than a full day on Fridays.
A final barrier to widespread acceptance of Islam by Koreans is the very nature of that religion and its religious practices. Koreans are accustomed to statues or paintings in their worship halls. Muslims have no such images in their mosques. Koreans, especially those who attend the Pentecostal services that are so popular in their country, are also used to noisy and even emotional religious services. Muslim prayers are much more austere. Furthermore, Koreans traditionally have been polytheists. Christianity has managed to overcome the traditional Korean unease with monotheism, but even Christianity preaches three persons in one God. The God of Islam is one and one only. Moreover, the God of Islam, unlike Jesus Christ, can never be depicted with a statue or a painting.
Does Islam have a future in Korea? Yes, if that question means whether Islam has established a permanent presence on the peninsula. However, if that question is asking if Islam will soon become a significant religious force in Korea, challenging the dominance of Buddhism and Christianity, the answer is probably no. Christianity succeeded in Korea by adapting to Korean ways. A Korean Christian church is unlike most Christian churches in the rest of the world. There is a Korean approach to worship and church organization that draws Koreans to Korean churches even when they live overseas and have to drive past non-Korean churches in order to reach a church in which they will feel more comfortable.
Islam, on the other hand, has resisted Koreanization. Perhaps because the number of foreign-born Muslims outnumbered the Korean-born only a few decades after the first Korean Islamic community was established, Islam in Korea still has the look and feel of an imported religion. A mosque in Korea does not look very Korean, inside or out. Moreover, Muslim worship services do not resemble any of the traditional Korean modes of worship. This non-Korean appearance of Muslim ritual and worship, and the reluctance of Islam to bend its ethical and ritual demands to local customs, may be the primary reason why Islam will remain a minority religion on the Korean peninsula.
- Hee-soo Lee, The Advent of Islam in Korea (Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), 1997), pp.40-53.
- Peter Lee, ed., A History of Korean Literature (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 104-05.
- Koreans name their clans after the place where the clan progenitor lived. Jang settled down in the town of Deoksu in central Korea.
- Lee, The Advent of Islam in Korea, p. 199.
- Korean Muslims take Muslim personal names, which they use along with their original Korean names. For example, the current head of the Korea Muslim Federation is Abdul Razig Sohn Joo Young.