The Entry of Islam and the history of Muslims in Australia


Islam made its entry into Australia much before Christianity. Macassar trepangers from the southwest corner of Sulawesi in Indonesia visited the coast of Northern Australia since 1700’s. The contact between both the cultures is speculated to have begun at least a century before the Europeans. Makassan fishing boats frequented Australian shores to collect and process trepan, aka sea cucumber.  Anthropological studies points to the fact that Makassans negotiated with aboriginals for the right to fish in some areas of Australian waters. Makassans also established trade with the Aborigines.  Rock art and bark paintings confirm that some Aboriginal workers accompanied Makassar back to their homeland in Sulawesi. Anthropologists also give credit to the Makassans for teaching the aborigines to make dugout canoes. Regina Ganter and Peta Stephenson, drawing on the work of Ian Mcintosh (2000), argue that aspects of Islam were creatively adapted by the aboriginal community of Yolngu, and Muslim references survive in certain ceremonies and Dreaming stories even today.

Matthew Flinders,  English navigator and cartographer, who was the first to circumnavigate Australia and identify it as a continent, in 1803, met a Makassan trepang fleet near present day Nhulunbuy. Through his Malay speaking cook Flinders communicated with the Makassan captain, Pobasso.  He observed in his book ‘ A Voyage to Terra Australia’ that Macassan Enterprise had predated this period by at least twenty years, probably longer.

The British Invasion of Australia, eventually resulted in the decline of Mocassans presence in Australia. Unlike British, Mocassan traders did not encroach on the land or way of life of Aborigines. It is also noteworthy that these visitors interacted only with the communities inhabited the northern coastal regions.

The second wave of the entry of Muslims  to Australia began with the entry of Malays in the Pearl industry. Pearling in Western Australia existed much before European settlement. Once the Europeans engaged in the Pearl trade, initially aboriginal labour was used to retrieve the Peals. The labour shortage prompted the businesses to look elsewhere.  The use of ‘Malays’ on the north-west coast grew dramatically and reached its peak in 1875. Nearly two thousand Malay Muslims were employed in the industry during that period. They were primarily recruited from Keopang under an agreement with the Dutch colonial Authorities. The formation of the federation and the introduction of the white Australia policy resulted in a decline in the number of Malays employed by the industry in the coming decades. Malay labourers were also brought to Australia to work in the sugar Industry.

The First Muslim settlers in Australia

Afghan Camel drivers were the first Muslims to settle in Australia. Before that a small number of Muslims arrived during the convict period. There were a few Muslim settlers in Norfork island, who were previously employed in British ships.  They left after the penal colony was closed and was moved to Tasmania.

Afghan cameleers arrived between 1860 and 1910. By the mid 1800’s exploration of Australia to locate natural resources and to map the continent was at its peak. The inhospitable terrain was proving to be a hard task for traditional horses and wagons. The solution was to introduce camels. Along with the camels came, Afghan Cameleers. The first three cameleers and twenty-four camels disembarked from the Chinsurah in 1860. Out of the three Cameleers two were Muslims and one was a Hindu. More followed. Soon they became the backbone of Australian economy. Though all are generally called Afghan Cameleers, they came from many countries and places like Baluchistan, Kashmir, Sind, Rajasthan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Punjab. No Afghan women or children accompanied these cameleers. Afghan men found their partners or wives from among women marginalised by the society like aboriginal women or deserted white wives.

The Muslim cameleers faced enormous hardships in Australia as they were largely shunned by the European communities and were subjected to racist behaviour. As a result, the Afghans formed close knit communities on the outskirts of outback towns close to their depasturing camels. These Afghans clung tenaciously to their Muslim code.

Ghan towns developed near freight depots, rail heads and isolated ports. They were a collection of small corrugated iron huts were cameleers could rest and depasture their animals on Government reserve land. In Beltana station in South Australia, first Muslim settlement was developed. In those towns Cameleers built mosques which would serve as place of worship and community meeting places. The remains of the oldest mosque in Australia, built in 1861, are near Marree (Hergott Springs) in South Australia. This was once one of the country’s most important camel junctions and in its heyday was called Little Asia or Little Afghanistan.

The second city mosque was built in Perth in 1905. At the Ghan town settlements less substantial “Bush Mosques were built”.

With the introduction of motorized transport in Australia, camels were gradually replaced. The Naturalization Act introduced in 1903 by the Commonwealth Government was a double whammy for the Muslim community. They were excluded from their right to apply for citizenship and was also not permitted to bring their families to Australia. This prompted many of the early Muslims to return to their home land. A few went to work in the Goldfields.

Apart from the restrictions imposed by the White Australia Policy, Muslims in Australia had to face many hurdles in the early years. When the Coolgardie gold rush occurred in 1892, the cameleers were quick to move in. In 1898 a few members of the Western Australian Parliament argued for the banning of Asiatics or Afghans from working in the mines in any capacity whatever.

Over the next few decades, Australia’s discriminatory migration policies and lack of job opportunities resulted in a decline in the number of Muslims in Australia. In 1921, there were fewer than three thousand Muslims in Australia.

In the 1920’s Albanian Muslims started migrating to Australia in search of better prospects. Albanians being from South-eastern Europe, were spared from the restrictions of White Australia Policy. But being non – British, they were subjected to work restrictions and a dictation test. Most found work in the cane farms of Queensland. Many Albanians also settled in Shepparton, Victoria.

In the 1920’s many Muslims moved to Victoria from the mining centres of Western Australia. A lot of them took up hawking.

After the second world war displaced migrant Muslims came to Australia from the refugee camps of Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Russia. The entry was granted under an agreement made between the International Refugee Organisation and Australia.

The Official abandoning of the white Australia Policy in 1972 resulted in more and more Muslims coming to Australia for settling. After the 70’s there was an influx of Muslim migrants from Lebanon and Turkey.

Muslims still face racial segregation in Australia. In 1976 Australian Federation of Islamic Councils was established for lobbying the Government on behalf of Muslims for religious tolerance and institutional support. In 1982, the first Islamic School offering established syllabus for Australian Primary Grades were opened in Melbourne.

Muslims and violence in Australia

In General, Australians view Muslims with an eye of suspicion. Even though incidents relating to terrorism, involving the Muslim community are only a few, any wrong move from any community member or group are treated with greater importance and are usually considered as an act of terrorism.

In 2007, Professor Israeli, an expert on Islamic history from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, when visited Australia was quoted saying, “When the Muslim population gets to a critical mass you have problems. That is a general rule, so if it applies everywhere it applies in Australia.” He also said Muslim immigrants had a reputation for manipulating the values of Western countries, taking advantage of their hospitality and tolerance. He also said some Muslims wanted to impose sharia (Islamic law) in their adopted countries, and when propaganda did not work they turned to intimidation.

These sort of comments have only helped to enhance the segregation of Muslims from the main stream.

Broken Hill Incident

on 1 January 1915 Two Muslim men fired at a picnic train in Broken Hill and killed four people and wounded seven more. Every New year’s day local lodge of the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows held a picnic at Silverton. Thirty to forty shots were fired at the train which was crowded with 1200 picnickers. The assailants were brandishing a Turkish Flag. . The two men were later identified as Muslim “Ghans” from the British colony of India, modern day Pakistan. They were Badsha Mahommed Gool an ice-cream vendor, and Mullah Abdullah a local imam and halal butcher. They were chased by the Police and were shot dead. Later it was claimed that the Turkish flag was planted in order to rally the Australian public for the war. But the local press compared the tragedy to holy war raged by Muslims. With this incident many Muslims lost their jobs in Mines.

Terrorism Charges

In 2005, five Muslim men were arrested on charges of planning an act of terrorism in Sydney. In October 2009, the group was found guilty and sentenced for terms upto 28 years in 2010.

Cronulla riots

The 2005 Cronulla riots were a series of race riots stemmed from tensions between youths from Sydney’s Lebanese Community and Anglo Celtic Population. It began on 11th December 2005 in Cronulla in Sydney and spread to other suburbs. Attacks against one group and retaliatory attacks resulted in extensive property damage.

Gangs of Lebanese Youths used swarm on to Sydney’s Cronulla beach for months before the incident happened abusing Australian families and beach goers threatening to rape ‘Aussie Sluts’ for wearing biknis.  The situation became worse when two young Australian life savers were bashed by Lebanese gangs the weekend before the violence began.  Following a series of text messages 5000 Australians turned up on 11th December 2005 at Cronulla determined to reclaim the beach.

The demonstration gradually turned in to mob violence which has become a black mark on Australia’s otherwise peaceful co-existence of cultures and religious groups.

The Café Siege

A self-proclaimed Muslim sheikh, Man Haron Monis, took 17 people hostage inside a chocolate café in Sydney on 15th December 2014. Police Force entered the Café the next day morning and the resultant shoot out killed two hostages and the hostage taker and injured many.

Muslims Today

In the 2011 Census there were 476,290 Muslims in Australia. They constituted 2.2% of the Australian population. Islam was the third largest religion in Australia after Christianity and Buddhism. According to a Pew Research Centre projection prepared in 2015, Muslims will account for 5% of the population in 2050. Altogether Australian Muslims came from 183 countries, making them one of the most ethnically and nationally heterogeneous communities in Australia. New South Wales and Victoria are home to 78% of Muslim Australians.

Worrying Trends for the Muslim Community

According to Corrections Victoria, as of 27 April 2015 there were 507 Muslim prisoners in Victoria. The total prison population is around 6300 prisoners. This shows that, while 2.9% of Victorians were Muslim, 8% of prisoners in Victoria were Muslims. Muslims comprise 3.2% of the NSW population but 9.3% of the state prison population, according to the NSW Corrective Services 2013 Census (Khoury 2014).

As per the Federal Government figures, around 20 Australian Muslim civilians are estimated to have killed in fighting in the Syrian Civil War and around 60 are still in the combat zone. Around 20 Muslims are serving prison sentences in Australia for serious terrorism related crimes.


An Australian Pilgrimage. Muslims in Australia from the Seventeenth Century to the Present

Edited by Mary Lucille Jones

Australian Muslims – A DEMOGRAPHIC, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC PROFILE OF MUSLIMS IN AUSTRALIA 2015 – University of South Australia.









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