Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)
Having explained to the concierge that I would like to visit Seoul Mosque, I listen to his efforts in explaining its location to the taxi driver. As I watch his confused response, I realize that I may be late for Friday Prayers.
Islam in Korea took off about 50 years ago when two Turkish soldiers, Zubercoch and Abdur Rahman, participated in the Korean War as military service members of the Turkish Army under the United Nations. The first “mosque” was a tent in a refugee camp where both the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam were taught.
A Korean Muslim organization was set up, led by a convert named “Umar” Kim Jin Kyu, who became its president, and the first mosque was opened in 1976 with 55 representatives from 20 countries at the opening ceremony.
My first encounter with a South Korean was through the Internet where I met a friendly lady named Kim. We exchanged dialogue over time, and whenever I am in Korea, we meet up. She provides an insight into Korean culture, and I, my understanding of Islam as a British Muslim.
Whenever I think of Korea, memories of Kim and me sitting on one of the couches of the Intercontinental come to mind, sipping on hot chocolate, discussing Islam, politics, and, of course, my favorite subject, chocolate.
I had visited Seoul Mosque a number of times before, but on this occasion I managed to attend Friday Prayers. Taking a seat to the back of the mosque so I could lean against the wall, I had a wonderful view of everything. I looked on in amazement as Muslims of many ethnicities strolled in. Africans, Pakistanis, Indians, Koreans, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Chinese, Arabs, the list went on: a melting pot of Muslims. I wondered whether I was at the same mosque I had visited on previous occasions—why hadn’t I noticed such diversity before? Was I really in South Korea and not another cosmopolitan center such as London or New York?
The khutbah (sermon) began as usual, an Arab imam with a greeting in Arabic, some prayers in Arabic, some verses of the Qur’an in Arabic, etc. I started to wonder whether I should approach the imam after prayer and ask him “How many people in the audience do you actually believe understood anything of what you were saying?”
True, there were some Arabs, but no more than five percent of the congregation. When I had just confirmed to myself that I would approach him after Prayer, there was a sudden change of pace. He didn’t switch to Korean—trust me, having seen Korean Muslims outside greeting one another with “as-salamu `alaykum” anything was possible. He switched to English!
An Arab imam, in Korea, speaking English! To help you appreciate this occasion: We are lucky if the khateebs (preachers) speak English in England, but in Korea? How comforting.
The imam recounted the story of how the Adhan (call to Prayer) came about. He talked about the discussion of the Prophet and his Companions about how to call the people to Prayer—whether to use a bell like the Christians or a horn like the Jews.
The day following the discussion, one of the Companions came to the Prophet and said that he had dreamed that people were called to Prayer with a voice. After hearing this, the Prophet summoned Bilal, who climbed the Ka`bah and made the Adhan with the words that the Companion had heard in his dream. As the first Adhan was being made, one by one, the Companions came to the mosque, and all said that they had had the same dream the previous night. The Angel Gabriel had come to them and showed them how to make the Adhan.
Imagine that—to go to bed wondering how to call people to Prayer, and then not one, but a large group of Companions all having the same dream about how to make the Adhan!
Now as the imam was an Arab, his English accent was marked by a heavy Arab accent. It was actually quite pleasant, as even though he struggled, he spoke with a passion that made his speech seem elegant and made it so much more enjoyable to listen to.
The imam continued then to refer to an incident where the Prophet Muhammad was walking with Angel Gabriel in Paradise. The Prophet heard a man walking ahead of him, so he quickly followed behind him, asking Gabriel who the man in front of him was. Gabriel replied that it was Bilal. Prophet Muhammad wondered, what did Bilal do in his life that gave him such an esteemed position in the Hereafter? The following day he went to see Bilal and asked him whether he did anything special, something out of the ordinary. The only thing Bilal could think of was that every time he lost his wudu’ (ritual ablution), he redid it, so that he was always in a state of purity.
I have read this specific hadith many times, but it was only here, in the words of an imam whose command of English was weak, that it actually had a real impact on me. From that moment onwards as the imam spoke, it seemed that almost every time I thought of something, the imam would actually answer my question before I could voice it in my mind.
He continued the khutbah with the position given to those who make the call to Prayer, citing the hadiths that state that on the Day of Judgment the muezzin will be raised to a high position. Explaining the meaning of these hadiths, he observed that the reason for this is that a muezzin has a very close, unique relationship with God.
To demonstrate this point, he asked us a few questions. Seriously! In the midst of his khutbah, he turned the dialogue into a question-and-answer session. Never in my life have I witnessed such a thing: an interactive khutbah (you can imagine my excitement)!
He asked if any of us would ask a stranger to invite someone to our homes. Would any of us go into the street, stop someone and say, “Excuse me, can you invite some people to my home for a meal?” Of course we wouldn’t, who would ask a stranger to ask another stranger to eat in their home? The imam continued to explain that the muezzin, when he makes the call to Prayer, is inviting people he doesn’t know to Prayer. He is calling them to the house of God (the mosque) to attend Prayers. He is inviting them to find and achieve prosperity.
What an inspiring khutbah!
The khutbah continued and as questions came to my mind, he answered them. As tradition prescribes, there was a brief break before he continued with the second khutbah and then initiated the Prayer.
After the Prayers something truly amazing happened. The imam said, “Before you begin your sunnah Prayers, does anyone have any questions?”
After hearing this khutbah, the explanation, its beauty, its simplicity, its clarity, and then being asked if we had any questions, I realized that this imam rocks! He spoke about the true values of Islam: peace, justice, and fairness. This approach puts him in that small club of decent imams, the like of which we need more of in this world. All praise be to God, Who blessed the Muslims of Seoul with such a friendly guide in Prayer.
At the onset of the khutbah, I wondered whether this would be a typical khutbah at a typical mosque, with half the congregation not understanding what is being said and the other half who can understand not being interested because the subject and method of delivery are so depressingly boring. How glad was I to realize that this imam was not calling upon deaf ears.
May God Almighty have mercy and guide us all. Ameen.