Muslim Seoul

Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world–through most of history, save the many invasions, nearly everyone in Korea has been ethnically Korean and Korean-speaking. What regional dialects there are are largely mutually intelligible (though perhaps still surprising for such a small country), and outside of a small number of Chinese, ethnic minorities are virtually non-existent.

Well, things are changing, due to two great forces at work.

First, as has been much noted in the U.S. press, a relative lack of young women (as a result of historical sex selection by parents) and the undesirability in marriage of relatively poor Korean farmers have resulted in a large number of international marriages between Korean men and Vietnamese and other women from poorer Asian countries. This has led to quite a large number of Vietnamese women in the Korean countryside and resulting children of mixed marriages.

The second cause is Korea’s prominence in the global economy. Korea is, more or less, a rich country now, and many people from countries around the world are attracted to live and work in Korea. This ranges from American, Canadian and Australian 20- or 30-somethings who get jobs teaching English to Uzbeks and Indians coming to Korea to work in factories. Among these of course are some Muslims, who have carved out a niche in Seoul.

I knew that there was a mosque in Seoul because I could see it from the Seoul Grand Hyatt, where I would occasionally stay on business, but didn’t bother to seek it out until recently. As it turns out, there is in Itaewon (Seoul’s primary “foreigner” neighborhood) a whole mini Muslim Seoul, an unexpected and interesting facet of the huge metropolis.

Sign for the Seoul Central Masjid, seen from the main road in Itaewon (note Dubai Restaurant)

Gateway to the Seoul Central Masjid, just up the hill

Seoul Central Masjid. While the mosque is located in Seoul’s “foreigner” neighborhood, I was surprised to find several Korean Muslims inside. Since I do not believe there is any historical presence of Islam in Korea, I assume they are all relatively recent converts.

Islamic School attached to the mosque

The mosque forms the center of a mini Muslim Seoul, complete with Islamic bookstores, travel agencies catering to Muslims and restaurants ranging from Pakistani to Uzbek to Turkish. We chatted briefly (in broken English and Korean) to a very nice Syrian man working at an Turkish/Arab sweets shop (many Korean women seem to drop by to flirt with him).

The Muslim footprint in Korea is not limited to Itaewon. Here, an Iraqi man carves up doner to patrons near Namdaemun market.

18 thoughts on “Muslim Seoul

  1. This entry is fascinating, Paul, particularly the section on Muslim Korea. I note that many of the businesses (e.g. "Dubai Restaurant," "Muslim Fabrics") use English signage. Is this because of the multinational origins of the owners?

  2. VM: Many businesses in Korea (especially those that are catering to a younger audience) have English language signage, but all those in Itaewon (Seoul's "foreigner" neighborhood) do, because so much of the targeted audience is non-Koreans.

    Anonymous: Of course!

  3. Fascinating account of Muslims in Korea. I never realized they have a thriving Muslim population in Seoul, but it's not surprising. From my contact with Koreans, I have the impression that they're the most tolerant and easy going people in the world.

  4. Paul,

    Thanks for sharing. It is interesting to see how things take form in other countries, even religion!

  5. the pics you've post was really amazing mate! i have bookmarked your blog. and probably will come back for more of your post.

  6. Wowowowow this is awsooooome
    so many people keep saying that koreans are rascist and blada blah but from these pictures, obviously not so.

    hehe at iraqi dona <3

  7. This is excellent, some really nice insights into Muslim life in Seoul. I'm yet to head out there, but cant wait as it's a destination we feature in our company that specialises in Halal Friendly Travel. I'll probably be in touch by email to potentially use some of your images on our site.

  8. hello,
    first thank u for the article, I didn't know that we can find other culture outside of Itaewon ^^

    then I have a question :
    I am a french muslim student and I will study in Seoul next year (in august) and I want to know if u have a contact (a family maybe, or a colocation) of muslim people where I can live during my 9 month in Korea?
    maybe u don't have the response but I don't have an other way to find it.
    thank u

  9. I am a Muslim going to Seoul. Please recommend me the Muslim hotels, restaurants near all the tourist attraction areas. Thanks

  10. Dear Paul, thank you so much for this entry. This totally made me want to go back there. I went there for a backpacking trip with my girlfriends back in May last year and I do admit there are still a lot of prejudices about Muslims (and a whole lot of staring), but I think nowadays Koreans are slowly accepting the Islam community, which is good.

    I'm Nisa, a Muslim lady from Malaysia and I've been to Itaewon myself too. I'm not sure about Muslim hotels, but my Korean friend just recently open a guest house catering for Muslim visitors too. Maybe you can search their FB and ask them directly about it? Just type 'Guest House 한국나들이' on Facebook and you will find it. If you don't want to stay there, maybe you can just head down to Itaewon mosque and ask around? For Halal restaurants, just go to Itaewon mosque and there are a lot of Halal restaurants near the area. Oh! And there is also a Muslim Information Center right in front of the mosque. Have a nice trip!

  11. I’m planning to have trip to Seoul this month. Could you propose some hotels which close to mosque or halal food restaurants or subway station in Itaewon ? Thank you

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