Islam in North Korea

In South Korea, Islam is a small minority religion. The Muslim (both Korean and foreign-born) community is centered around Seoul, where the first large 20th-century mosque was built in 1976 using the funds of the Malaysian Islamic Mission and other Islamic countries.

In addition to fewer than 30,000 indigenous Korean Muslims, are South Asian, Middle Eastern (i.e. Iraqi), Indonesia and Malaysian immigrants in South Korea, the majority of whom are Muslims. They have been guest workers since the 1990s, taking the total Muslim population in the country to around 35,000.[1]

It is believed that there is no significant presence of Islam in North Korea, where autonomous religious activity in general is almost non-existent.

Early history

During the middle to late 7th century, Muslim traders had traversed from the Caliphate to Tang China and established contact with Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.[2] In 751, a Chinese general of Goguryeo descent, Gao Xianzhi, led the Battle of Talas for Tang China against the Abbasid Caliphate but was defeated. The earliest reference to Korea in a non-East Asian geographical work appears in the General Survey of Roads and Kingdoms by Ibn Khurdadbih in the mid-9th century.[3]

The first verifiable presence of Islam in Korea dates back to the 9th century during the Unified Silla period with the arrival of Persian and Arab navigators and traders. According to numerous Muslim geographers, including the 9th-century Muslim Persian explorer and geographer Ibn Khurdadhbih, many of them settled down permanently in Korea, establishing Muslim villages.[4] Some records indicate that many of these settlers were from Iraq.[5] Other records suggest that a large number of the Alawi Shia faction settled in Korea.[6] Further suggesting a Middle Eastern Muslim community in Silla are figurines of royal guardians with distinctly Persian characteristics.[7] In turn, later many Muslims intermarried with Korean women. Some assimilation into Buddhism and Shamanism took place, owing to Korea's geographical isolation from the Muslim world.[8]

Trading relations between the Islamic world and the Korean peninsula continued with the succeeding Goryeo kingdom through to the 15th century. As a result, a number of Muslim traders from the Near East and Central Asia settled down in Korea and established families there. At least one major Korean clan, the Chang family with its seat at Toksu village, claim descent from a Muslim family.[2] Some Muslim Hui people from China also appear to have lived in the Goryeo kingdom.[9] In 1154, Korea was included in the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi's world atlas, Tabula Rogeriana. The oldest surviving Korean world map, Kangnido, drew its knowledge of the Western Regions from the work of Islamic geographers.[10]

Small-scale contact with predominantly Muslim peoples continued on and off. During the late Goryeo period, there were mosques in the capital Gaeseong.[11]

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. 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 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.[3]

In the early Joseon period, the Islamic calendar served as a basis for calendar reform owing to its superior accuracy over the existing Chinese-based calendars.[3] A Korean translation of the Huihui Lifa, a text combining Chinese astronomy with Islamic astronomy, was studied in Korea under the Joseon Dynasty during the time of Sejong the Great in the 15th century.[12] The tradition of Chinese-Islamic astronomy survived in Korea up until the early 19th century.[13]

However, due to Korea's geographic and political isolation during the Joseon period, Islam was practically non-existent in Korea by the time that it was re-introduced in the 20th century. It is believed that many of the religious practices and teachings did not survive.[3] However, in the 19th century, Korean settlers in Manchuria came into contact with Islam once again; some of these became the first Korean Muslims in modern times.[14]

20th-century re-introduction

During the Korean War, Turkey sent a large number of troops to aid South Korea under the United Nations command, called the Turkish Brigade. In addition to their contributions on the battlefield, the Turks also aided in humanitarian work, helping to operate war-time schools for war orphans. Shortly after the war, some Turks who were stationed in South Korea as UN peacekeepers began teaching Koreans about Islam. Early converts established the Korea Muslim Society in 1955, at which time the first South Korean mosque was erected.[14] The Korea Muslim Society grew large enough to become the Korea Muslim Federation in 1967.[3]


In 1962, the Malaysian government offered a grant of 33,000 USD for a mosque to be built in Seoul. However, the plan was derailed due to inflation. It was not until the 1970s, when South Korea's economic ties with many Middle Eastern countries became prominent, that interest in Islam began to rise again. Some Koreans working in Saudi Arabia converted to Islam; when they completed their term of labour and returned to Korea, they bolstered the number of indigenous Muslims.[3] The Seoul Central Mosque was finally built in Seoul's Itaewon neighborhood in 1976. Today there are also mosques in Busan, Anyang, Gwangju, Jeonju, Daegu and Kaesong. According to Lee Hee-Soo (Yi Hui-su), president of the Korea Islam Institute, there are about 40,000 listed Muslims in South Korea, and about 10,000 are estimated to be highly active practitioners.[15]

The Korean Muslim Foundation said that it would open the first Islamic primary school named Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Elementary School in March 2009 with the objective of helping Muslims in Korea learn about their religion through an official school curriculum. Plans are underway to open a cultural center, secondary schools and even university. Abdullah Al-Aifan, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Seoul, delivered $ 500,000 to KMF on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government.[16]

Before this formal establishment of an Elementary School, a madrasa named Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Madrassa, has been functional since 1990's where children were given opportunity to learn Arabic, Islamic culture, and English.

Many Korean Muslims say their different lifestyle makes them stand out more than others in society. However, their biggest concern is prejudice they feel after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001.[17] In Arirang TV, a Korean station also did a 9 minute report on Imam Hak Ap-du and Islam in Korea.[18]




  • Kwon, Young-pil. (1991). Ancient Korean art and Central Asia: Non-Buddhist art prior to the 10th century. Korea Journal 31(2), 5-20. [2]
  • Lee, Hee-Soo. (1991). Early Korea-Arabic maritime relations based on Muslim sources. Korea Journal 31(2), 21-32. [3]

External links

  • Korea Muslim Federation
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology ( KAIST ) - Muslim Students Association ( MSA )
  • Islamic Center & Masjid of Daejeon
  • Cheonju Masjid
  • Islam and Muslims in South Korea
  • Collections of Korean Muslim Sermons (Audio)
  • “난 한국인 무슬림이다” (Korean) - Introducing Korean Muslim communities (Part 1) by the Hankyeohrae
  • ‘코슬림’ 알리 “내 나라는 코리아” (Korean) - Introducing Korean Muslim communities (Part 2) by the Hankyeohrae
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