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 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
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
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
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
Lessons from the Australian History of
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
2. The Fruits of Planned Endeavours;
3. Results of Patronisation by Muslim
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)