A Korean-Muslim man prays inside Seoul Central Masjid. The country’s
first-ever mosque was opened in 1976 during the administration of the late
former President Park Chung-hee. / Korea Times File
By Bryan Kay
Fasting 12 hours a day, for 30 days ― it's an activity in which most
non-Muslims would probably rather not partake. But the view that it is a
negative experience is perhaps just a little misplaced.
Followers of the Islamic faith would probably beg to differ. Currently
observing the month of Ramadan, one of the most important periods on the
Islamic calendar, they have just passed the halfway mark.
For Khaled Rahman, a Bangladeshi Muslim who works at an Arabic restaurant in
Itaewon, Seoul, the period of fasting starting before dawn and ending after
dusk has led to health benefits.
In the past, Rahman had suffered from a persistent internal health problem,
but the commencement of fasting helped to assuage the effects.
Like many Muslims, Rahman said the daily fasting also results in a
"tremendous" sensation at the day's end. He described the feeling
as a euphoric experience, enhanced further by the sense of brotherhood that
comes through such a communal event.
Millions of Muslims around the world are currently observing Ramadan, which
started on Aug. 22.
Continuing through Sept. 20 ― the period covers a lunar month, with the
dates altering each year in relation to the cycle of the moon ― it is a
time when Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and engaging in any activity
in excess in observance of the period when the first verses of the Islamic
holy book, the Koran, are said to have been revealed to the prophet Mohammed.
The 100,000 foreign Muslims in Korea from countries such as Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Iran and Uzbekistan, along with the more-than-30,000 native
adherents to the religion, are no different.
Seoul Central Masjid in Itaewon, Yongsan, built in 1976 and the only mosque
in the city, has been hosting around 200 to 300 fasters during the week so
far, with weekends seeing that amount swell to between 400 and 500 ―
numbers that are considered relatively small.
But Korean Muslim Jang Huseyin, a translator for the bilingual (Korean and
English) Muslim Weekly Newsletter published by the Korea Muslim Federation,
said that does not stop the mosque from serving its community well.
A number of special events and activities are organized during the month,
One example is an open fast, which is accompanied by special foreign speakers
known as Khutbah, who entertain the crowd of fasters with their ability to
recite entire sections of the Koran from memory.
For children, a competition is held on the last Friday of the Ramadan period,
during which they must read aloud from the Koran, focusing primarily on their
Fasting begins at first prayer and continues until the completion of the
fourth at around 7 p.m.
Typically, fasters wake one hour before dawn to have a small meal; eating and
drinking is then only allowed after the fourth prayer, when all meet in the
mosque and eat together, ceremoniously known as "opening" fast.
Ramadan is supposed to bring purity, and combined with increased prayer,
total focus and devotion to Allah.
It is also a time for charity and sharing, with donations made through the mosque,
or to someone directly.
Indian man Shariq Saeud, who has been in Korea for 10 years, said he puts
great stock in the central tenets of Ramadan that preach no food or drink,
containing desires, maintaining a positive orientation and refraining from
For Muslims like him, particularly special in Ramadan is one particular
night, about which the only detail known is that it occurs on an odd-numbered
The significance of this time is that whatever one asks of Allah will be granted,
Islamic scholars believe that it falls during the last 10 days of the event,
which sees many Muslims choose to decline sleep in order not to miss the
opportunity granted them by Allah.
This year marks the 59th Ramadan since the modern Islamic community emerged
in Korea back in 1951, the bearers being Turkish soldiers who formed part of
the U.N. forces stationed here during the 1950-53 Korean War. The Seoul
community, more of a latecomer, has gradually formed around the Itaewon mosque
and today contains Arabic restaurants, outlets for Arabic clothing, as well
as an Islamic school and preschool.
With increasing national interest in Islamic and Arabic culture, the area has
now become quite an attraction for Koreans.
Immigrants such as Rahman who point to the other benefits their religion can
offer ― in his case health ― are reassured by this development.
They hope aspects such as Ramadan act as another area of keen interest and an
avenue through which Islam is better understood.
Korea Times Intern JR Breen contributed reporting to this article.