|A consumer shops for fabrics at Step-In, a clothing and fabric shop on Itaewon Islamic Street.
Bakery, a small store on the left side of the road leading toward the
Seoul Central Masjid in the Yongsan District, was crowded with
customers last Thursday afternoon.
Among those waiting were two
Muslim men from Sudan in line to purchase bread and a Korean couple
with curious eyes who were gazing at the baklava, bite-sized cakes made
with nuts and honey.
customer browses through the books at the Islamic Book Center. Lower
right: Workers at Salam Bakery put out Syrian and Turkish cakes.By Jeon
“Non-Muslims interested in ethnic
food also come to my shop,” said Jinee Jung, who runs the bakery
specializing in Syrian-style cakes. “Still, the Muslims living on this
street or those who pass through this street to pray at the mosque are
my major customers. My bakery sells them halal confectionaries, which
Muslims can buy without fear of violating Islamic law.”
is an Arabic term that means “permissible” under Islamic law and
includes objects or actions. The rules about food are probably the most
familiar to non-Muslims.
these, the most rigorous rules for food are applied to meat. Halal meat
excludes pork and many other sorts of meat and, in addition, requires
that rigorous procedures for slaughter be followed, such as a quick
killing to minimize the animal’s suffering.
To make the bakery’s halal cakes, animal oil and other animal ingredients are avoided or used sparsely in the bakery’s recipes.
is the busiest season for us,” Jung said. “During Ramadan, Muslims
refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk. They tend to eat
more pastries and sweets at night than on ordinary days so I will keep
the shop open for 24 hours a day during Ramadan, although I will let my
chef, who is from Damascus in Syria, rest during the day because he
cannot eat or drink during that time.”
Ramadan began on Saturday and continues for about a month.
the road from the Salam Bakery stands Salam.com, an electronics store
that deals in various electronics goods, including a cell phone with an
alarm set to ring for daily prayers.
There are also several travel agencies here, with signs in Korean and Arabic, and sometimes in English.
along the street there is a clothing and fabric shop called Step-In,
whose Afghan owner welcomes anyone who steps into the store. In front
of the store, mannequin heads wearing hijab, or head coverings, and
pretty shoes are displayed.
One of several grocery stores on the street has a sign that says “We now have halal duck.”
Islamic world in central Seoul is commonly called Itaewon Islamic
street. The street started with a few grocery stores and restaurants
selling halal food near the Seoul Central Masjid, the mosque
established there in 1976.
Because of the halal food
regulations, eating is not an easy job for Muslims in Korea, where the
percentage of the Muslim population is not very large.
nearly becoming a vegetarian, living here,” sighed Shiraz Subeh, an
Ewha Womans University student from Palestine. She had come to the
Seoul Central Masjid for her daily prayers, which is one of her
obligations as a Muslim. The mosque has a separate area where women can
The shops on Itaewon Islamic Street have met the
nutritional needs of many Muslims in Korea. There is a butcher selling
halal meat next to the entrance of the masjid, as well as several
grocery stores and restaurants in the neighborhood.
“We can do
our five daily prayers either at the masjid or at home, but I come here
from time to time to pray, to meet friends and to shop in the
neighboring stores,” Subeh said.
But there is much more here than food.
and her friend from Kyrgyzstan, Nazik Sultanbekova, who is also
studying at Ewha, dropped by the Islamic Book Center to purchase a copy
of the Koran in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking friend.
Ahmad, the bookstore’s chief executive officer, said he opened the
store three years ago to increase awareness about Islam among Koreans
and the larger foreign population.
“Many people may
misunderstand, but Islam emphasizes open-mindedness, tolerance and
peace, and many Muslims are open-minded,” he said. “I am from a Muslim
family in Kashmir, India, but I have not become a Muslim just because
my parents are Muslim. I read the scriptures of various religions and
then I decided to be a Muslim.
“I recommend that people do the
same to become familiar with the similarities and differences between
different religions and to gain a true understanding of them.”
bookstore has Korean and English translations of the Koran and other
Islamic books. For English-speakers interested in studying Arabic there
are books written in both English and Arabic.
There are many
things to learn on this street. Most of the Muslims here are kind and
eager to tell people who ask about Islam. Ahmed, the bookstore owner,
and Jang Sun-kyung, who were at the mosque to pray, were two such
hospitable folks. Jang, the former head of the female devotees’ group
at the masjid, converted to Islam after spending 20 years exploring
other religions. Her story is rather unique because, unlike many other
Korean converts to Islam, Jang came to Islam without having traveled to
the Middle East.
The number of Muslims in Korea is gradually
increasing, because more Koreans have become interested in the religion
and the culture. The number of workers arriving here from Islamic
countries is also increasing. The Korea Muslim Federation, which has
its headquarters in the masjid, estimates there are about 35,000 Korean
nationals who are Muslim, in addition to the many other Muslims among
the foreign population.