Small, but Diverse, Korean Muslims Carry On

Shariq Saeed carries an unconventional status symbol with him everywhere he goes: a calloused indentation on his forehead. The weathered bump, called a zabiba, was caused by friction between his head and a prayer mat. Muslims are instructed to pray five times a day, and a zabiba is generally viewed as a sign of piety and devotion caused by deep, repeated bows.

Saeed is a nine-year resident of Seoul from Pakistan, and a practicing Muslim. The scar tissue on his forehead is evidence of dedication to his religion, a faith he brought with him to Korea, where he continues to worship among his fellow Muslims at Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon, downtown Seoul.

Each Friday afternoon, Saeed is one of the worshippers who answer the call to prayer that rings out from Seoul Central Mosque.

Korea’s Muslim population, believed to number around 35,000, is far smaller than its large Christian and Buddhist populations, but Seoul Central Mosque is still filled with worshippers each week. The mosque is located near a popular nightlife area; worshippers walk past night clubs and transvestite bars on their way to prayers.

Muslims everywhere need to reconcile their faith with violent passages in its scripture and images of terror seen in media reports. “There is a true face of Islam, but it is not seen in the media,” Saeed said. “The true Islam is what we see around us here: brothers sharing in peace.”

Seoul Central Mosque is the largest mosque in Korea and was built in 1974 with petro dollar support from Saudi Arabia. On the mosque’s faded facade is letter in the graceful script of Arabic. Worshippers leave their shoes on the steep, wide staircase that leads to the prayer room.

The mosque is an imposing structure at the top of a hill. Flanked by twin minarets, the white building stands out in the grayness of Seoul. The area above the entrance is decorated with intricate blue tiles. The Islamic discouragement of the drawing of human figures, a restriction meant to prevent idolatry, led to creative use of tiles to decorate houses of worship.


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