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Islam Enlightens Australia
Dr. Abdur Rauf


Islam continues to enlighten the Australian continent with increasing force and fervour. The exact date when the first Muslim arrived in Australia has not been ascertained so far. However, the remains of settlements and cemeteries of the sixteenth century Macassar Muslim fishermen have been discovered in the southern coast of the continent. The recorded history of Islam in Australia dates from 1860 when a camel-handler, Dost Muhammad, arrived in Australia from Karachi. He was a Pathan who originally hailed from Kashmir. He brought with him two dozen Peshawari camels. He was scheduled to accompany Burke and Hills in their first-ever south-to-north crossing of the Australian desert. The two ill-fated explorers, however, perished in the highly hazardous journey. Although Dost Muhammad survived the tragic expedition he also lost his life in a later camel accident.

Streams of Immigrating Muslims

During the last half of the nineteenth century several Afghan cameleers were labouring on the Australian soil. They came to be known as Ghans, being a shorter from a Afghan. The Ghans were soon followed by streams of migrating Muslims from countries like: Albania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Cyprus, Palestine, China, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, etc.

The early arrivals were mostly unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. Some of them were petty shopkeepers. They were, however, tough, hardworking and resourceful. They were soon rated to be the most appropriate persons to venture into inland Australia. Their services were also hired for building up the first overland telegraph line across the continent from Adelaide to Darwin. At later stages, these early Muslim settlers also assisted in the building up of the trans–Australian railways. Thus right from the earliest phase of their settlement in Australia the Muslim community was making substantial contribution to the process of exploration and development of the continent.

The termination of World War II saw a steep rise in migration. From 1945 to 1988 there was a rising stream of migrants from a large number of Muslim countries. The new arrivals included 41,470 from Turkey, 21,080 from Indonesia, 18,500 from Egypt, 5,950 from Syria and 5,370 from Pakistan. Quite a few hailed from other countries like Yugoslavia, Malaysia and Singapore. The immigrants from south-east Asia included a high proportion of professional personnel and skilled technicians. There were also those who had come for higher education and training.

The Muslim population of Australia has been rising steadily over the years. They now constitute the largest minority group in the continent. According to the 1986 Australian population census their number was officially reported to be 109,523. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, however, claims that even as early as 1980s the Muslim population stood approximately 250,000. The figure presently stands even closer to 300,000. Majority of the Muslims reside in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Northern Territory.

Community Organisation and Mosque Network

The Muslims in Australia present the picture of an organised and enlightened community. Each state has an Islamic Council, Islamic Cultural Centre, Muslim student’s association and a number of mosques. The Australian Federation of Islamic Societies was established in Sydney in 1964 to co-ordinate the functioning of all Muslim groups and associations working in various states. In 1975, its name was changed to Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). In Arabic, it is known as Al-Ittihādu’l-Ustrālī Li’l Majālis al-Islāmiyyah. All Islamic units operative at state levels must be recognised for their affiliation by the national organisation – the AFIC. Currently over 70 Islamic socio-cultural associations are affiliated to the AFIC. Each state Islamic Council and the Muslim students’ association has equal representation on the federation. A permanent federation secretariat is located in Sydney. The AFIC has by now established itself as a symbol of unity and power of Islam and the Muslim Ummah in Australia.

Presently a network of well-organised mosques are operating in the entire length and breadth of the continent. According to an old survey there are 15 mosques in various parts of New North Wales. Of these the Imam Ali Mosque at Lakemba in Sydney is the biggest. It was built through a donation of $ 1200,000 from the Saudi Arabian government. Victoria has ten well-established mosques. The magnificent mosque at Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, was designed by a Pakistani student studying architecture at the University of Queensland. It was constructed by voluntary labour and contributions by the local Muslim community. Some mosques have also been raised at former churches purchased by the local Muslims. Western Australia houses one of the early mosques constructed in 1905. The first mosque in South Australia was built in 1899. The island state of Tasmania has a mosque at its capital. Hobart. Well-organised programmes for the training of the mosque Imams are conducted locally. Such training programmes are also organised overseas through the Islamic universities in Pakistan and Malaysia. Professional help is also sought from Regional Islamic Da‘wah Council for Southeast Asia and the Pacific (RIDSCEAP), World Assembly of Muslim Youth and other international organisations.

Apart from the five daily prayers and the normal socio-cultural activities, the Prophet Muhammad’s (sws) birthday and the two Eids are celebrated with great fervour and rejoicing. Where mosques are not available in the immediate vicinity, the local Muslims manage to organise congregational praying sessions and cultural functions in any available place suited for the purpose. Thus, for instance, while attending a UNESCO conference in Sydney in 1979, the present author enjoyed the honour of leading the Friday congregational prayer at the campus of the MacQuarie University. Quite a large number of non-Muslims also showed unusual interest in the Adhān, the Khutbah and the graceful congregational prayer.

Growth of Education and Culture

The first full-time Islamic primary school in Australia was established in May, 1983 at Coburg, an inner suburb of Melbourne. One million dollars were provided by the Saudi Arabian Government. The AFIC purchased a former church school building and the foundations were thus laid for a well-organised Muslim school. The school follows a normal Australian primary school curriculum with an appropriate emphasis on Islamic studies, history and Arabic language. Enrolment was started in 1983. The following Islamic schools are also operating effectively: (1) Malik Fahad Islamic School, Greenacre, (2) An-Nuri Islamic School, Lakemba, and (3) Muslim Community School, Thornilie. Two colleges have also been established: (1) Arkana College Kingsford, and (2) Werribee Islamic College, Werribee.

In 1990, the AFIC also established a National Islamic Education Commission. The purpose was (i) to standardise and streamline the curriculum in all the Islamic schools and colleges, and (ii) to facilitate procurement of the needed funds from the government and the community sources.

Quite a number of well-organised Islamic cultural centres, mostly attached to the mosques, have also been established. In 1978, the Australian Government donated a piece of land in the Northern Territory at Darwin for the construction of an Islamic centre. The project was completed by the local Muslim community in 1979.

Periodic Muslim youth camps are also organised in several states. Such camps provide religious and cultural orientation to the mosque Imams, the school teachers and the community workers.

Efforts for Dissemination of Islam

A large number of Australians are utterly ignorant of Islam. Lack of proper knowledge often becomes basis of undue misunderstandings, prejudices and discriminations. Sometimes Muslims suffer such taunts as: ‘Why don’t you get back on your camel’. Some neo-converts also often display lack of basic knowledge about Islam. In order to meet all these deficits and deficiencies, the Australian Muslims are concentrating on Da‘wah or dissemination of Islam. To achieve their goals, they organise, small meetings at private residences and mosques and arrange lectures on the fundamentals of Islam. Special lectures, seminars and conferences are also organised frequently. Often guest speakers from overseas are invited. Local Muslims are also encouraged to speak on Islam to special interest groups. Muslim community leaders are brought together to discuss and solve the problems facing the Muslims.

In order to improve the image of Islam, liaison with the media, the government and the public is maintained methodically. Carefully-worded reading material is circulated to dispel misrepresentations about Islam. The AFIC brings out the following two publications: (1) The Australian Minaret – a bi-annual journal published in English, Arabic, Turkish and a local language: Serbo-Croat; (2) The News Update – a quarterly newsletter in English. The following three publications also go a long way in furthering the Da‘wah objectives: (1) Al-Oud Aplallah – monthly journals of the Lebanese Muslim Association, in English and Arabic, (2) The Bridge – a quarterly publication of the Islamic Council of New South Wales, mainly giving news, and (3) Al-Qibla – a bimonthly magazine of the Islamic Council of Victoria.

Muslims Promoting Development and Exports

Right from the era of the cameleer Muslims, the Australian Muslim community has been earnestly involved in the development of the continent. It is these very strong and sturdy Muslims who opened up new vistas for exploration and discovery of unknown interiors of the rough and rugged deserts and forests. They contributed substantially to the growth of telegraph and railway services.

Currently, one of the significant trade activities of Australia is massive export of live animals and processed meat products. From July 1988, to June, 1989, for instance, the exports of these products were worth over $ 2200 million. Over $ 300 million of this trade is with the Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. who insist on proper fulfilment of the Islamic religious slaughter requirements (Halāl). The certification of H~alāl observance is provided by AFIC. In 1983, a national system of Halāl certification to cover all meat production and export to the Muslim world was introduced. Apart from ensuring supply of proper Zabīhah, the Halāl certification service has generated income for the Australian Muslims community.

Lessons from the Australian History of Islam

The history of Islam in Australia is full of fascinating details. Some of the major lessons provided by this big huge continent are as follows:


1. Role of Commitment of the Muslim Settlers;

2. The Fruits of Planned Endeavours;

3. Results of Patronisation by Muslim States, etc.


1. Role of Commitment: The early Muslims in Australia were no more than plain cameleers and poor labourers. Yet their hearts overflowed with a deep sense of commitment and enthusiasm for Islam. their unique missionary zeal and zest stimulated local interest in Islam. They were later joined by more enlightened Muslim settlers. With the passage of time, the process of dissemination of Islam went on assuming a more and more dynamic shape. Eventually, the Australian Muslims rose to the status of the biggest minority and the most enlightened community of the continent. Australian life and economy has also gained tremendously by the unusual development potential of the Muslim population.

2. Planned Endeavours: After laying solid foundations of Islam on the soil of the Australian continent, the Muslims started proceeding according to a system of planned projects and programmes. Mosques, cultural centres and educational institutions were opened methodically. Their activities were regulated and harmonised by a well-organised co-ordinating body, the AFIC. Consequently, the inherent dynamism of Islam soon began to provide a unifying force for the local Muslims. It also acted as a source of unique inspiration for the native non-Muslims.

3. Patronisation by Muslim States: Planned and enthusiastic efforts at internal, national levels are, no doubt, indispensable for the germination and growth of new ideas and values. But if such missionary endeavours are patronised periodically by the Muslims states, the cherished goals are bound to be achieved much more speedily and effectively. Such a patronisation has actually worked wonders in Australia. This is an eye-opening lesson from the Australian history of Islam. It should provide inspiration for all other Muslim states and organisations.

(Extracted from the author’s book ‘A History of Islam)


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