Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood is known as a multiethnic, expat-friendly district and a magnet for Koreans looking for something exotic. Its main street has restaurants serving dishes from all parts of the globe: Parisian mussels, New York pastrami, Nashville barbecue.
But some of the most exotic features of Itaewon are up the hill in the lanes leading up to the Seoul Central Mosque. Every Friday, more than a thousand Muslims living in the capital city make their way to the mosque to attend the weekly prayer known as Jumu’ah. A handful of native Koreans say the prayers, too, but the vast majority of the attendees are from Muslim Asian countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia.
At 1 p.m. on March 14, the faithful filled the mosque and its surrounding area. Because of their numbers, they couldn’t all fit into the prayer hall.
With legs neatly folded, devout Muslims sat on carpets outside and prostrated in the direction of Mecca. They followed the rituals of worship led by an imam, bowing and placing their hands on their knees against a backdrop of the imposing domed building.
For Muslims who follow a strict framework of religious life, the mosque serves not only as a center for religious practices but also for information, education and socializing. The hourlong congregation on Friday is considered the central event of the week and all Muslims are encouraged to join. Along with the weekly prayer, Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day, one of the five pillars of Islam along with the testimony of faith, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting during the month of Ramadan and giving a part of one’s savings to the poor.
Muslim expats are scattered across Korea and come from different ethnic groups. Their jobs vary from engineers and factory workers to students and teachers. Getting together is important for them, especially because Muslims account for a minuscule 0.08 percent of the population, according to the Korea Muslim Federation.
This is precisely why the host of believers from different countries flock to the mosque each Friday, and the number only continues to expand. Among them is a Bangladeshi who wanted to be identified by his middle name, Zaman.
“I come every week because I can meet many Bangladeshis and other people who practice the same religion,” said Zaman, who studies at Kookmin University.
“This is really comforting, especially when you live in a foreign country,” said Zaman while gathering in a group after finishing prayers.
After Friday prayers, many people stick around to chitchat with others. Apart from providing a platform to practice their faith, the mosque offers practical help in terms of living in Korea. After arriving in Seoul six months ago as an exchange student, Muhammad Jazli Adib Masri Zohaini, a Malaysian, lost weight for the first few weeks because he had no idea where to get halal food.
“For the first few weeks, I only had fish,” he said. “But ever since I started attending the mosque, I got to know some halal restaurants.”
Under Islamic law, Muslims must eat halal food. Halal restaurants must use food from a supplier that follows halal practices. The slaughter of an animal must be performed by a Muslim, who must precede the slaughter by calling out the name of Allah. The animal must be slaughtered with a sharp knife to minimize pain and expedite the death. The slaughterer must not cut the spinal cord, and the blood from the animal must be drained.
Prayer time also has to be worked into Muslims’ schedules in Korea.
When asked if working or studying gets in the way of the five mandatory prayers, an expat from Guinea said, “We must be observant under any circumstances, so there are no excuses.
“Whether you are at the workplace or school, you should pray, and my Korean boss is mostly understanding,” he continued, “Also, many Koreans are genuinely interested when I say I am a Muslim.”
Daily prayers can be performed anywhere as long as the place is clean and does not pose any interference to concentration. The practice of praying has prompted some halal restaurants and other landmarks in Korea to build prayer rooms for Muslim visitors.
In 2007, Everland Resort in Yongin set up a prayer room. Five major tourist attractions including the Korean Folk Village in Gyeonggi and Skinanniversary Beauty Town in Paju, a beauty spa, have prayer rooms.
The Seoul Central Mosque was established by presidential decree in 1969 during the rule of military strongman Park Chung Hee, father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.
The Park regime provided the site for free and Islamic countries – led by Saudi Arabia – financed construction of the three-story building with its taller minarets, which can be seen from many parts of Seoul.
Park wanted to show respect to Middle Eastern countries, where Korean companies were competing to win construction business.
“This was the period when Korea needed the Middle Eastern countries,” said Imam A. Rahman Lee Ju-hwa, who belongs to the Korea Muslim Federation.
“Korean construction companies sought to boost their presence in the oil-rich countries, and I think the president decided to give the land to build positive impressions,” he said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The mosque first opened its doors on May 5, 1976, when only a small number of Muslims were registered.
“At that time, people rarely knew what Islam was about,” said Park Hyung-bong, an official of the Korea Muslim Federation.
Now there are 16 other mosques around Korea. The 5,000-square-meter (1.2-acre) Seoul Central Mosque has a capacity of 1,500 people. It has three floors with a separate facility for women to pray on the third floor. The imam plays an important role in the Muslim community. His responsibilities range from presiding over Friday sermons to settling disputes among congregates.
“There is no specific line between personal and religious life for Muslims,” the imam said.
“So imams often are involved in their congregates’ issues, both religious and personal.”
In 1991, the Prince Sultan Islamic School opened for Muslim preschoolers across from the mosque, supported by funds from Saudi Arabia.
To get to the mosque, take subway line No. 6 to Itaewon Station and come out of exit No. 3. Go straight until reaching the crosswalk after Dunkin’ Donuts. Turn right and go straight, turning left at the top of the hill as the street curves.
Source: Korea Joongang Daily