Islam in Korea, past and present

There are now 15 mosques nationwide, with about 200,000 Muslims, including ethnic Koreans.

Korea and the Middle East may look like they have nothing in common.

On the surface, the two regions do not seem to have crossed paths as they have totally different economies, cultures and ideals. Above all, religion may be what divides the two. While the religious heritage of Korea derives mostly from Buddhism, Confucianism and more recently Christianity, the Middle East is deeply rooted in the Islamic teachings of Prophet Muhammad.

Yet, scholars say the two sides’ cross-cultural relations date back to the seventh century ― the era of the Kingdom of Unified Silla in Korea and, in the Middle East, the Islamic Golden Age. This was when the Muslim world spanned from the Philippines in the East to the Iberian Peninsula in the West.

“Korea’s first encounter with Islam was purely commercial,” said Lee Hee-soo, Korea’s leading scholar of Islam culture, and professor at Hanyang University’s Department of Cultural Anthropology.

Muslim merchants and traders traveled via the Silk Road to China’s Tang-era capital of Changan, today’s Xian, with which the Unified Silla had close political and business ties, the scholar explained.

Commercial relations between the two eventually expanded into culture, arts, science and technology with both sides depicting each other in their poems and songs…