Australian society raises each successive generation to etch out a place for themselves in the world.
Doing so has become a prerequisite for success in our time. Yet, despite being engulfed in the culture of white society, Australia’s Indigenous people are struggling to create a space for themselves in a country that has been theirs for over 40,000 years.
It is now acknowledged that Australia was built on the ashes of a nation that has had more than 18,500 generations, while since the first fleet arrived on Australia’s shores in 1788 there have only been eight generations of settlers.
Connecting with Muslims
Indigenous Australians have been in contact with Muslims from various parts of the world for centuries. It began with Muslim fishermen from Indonesia in the 1700s and these visitors left a lasting imprint. Islamic motifs have been in found in some north Australian Aboriginal mythology and ritual.
In funeral ceremonies in Elcho Island today, the Galiwinku community refer to ‘walitha’walitha’; an adaptation of the Arabic phrase ‘Allah the Exalted’. It is confirmed that from the mid-1880s, Muslim Malays came to northern Australia to work in the pearl-shelling industry.
The famous Afghan Cameleers came to Australia between the 1860s and the 1920s to help expedite the development of the inner regions of Australia. They were easily able to cope with the rugged conditions in Australia’s interior and facilitated the development of train lines throughout the country and overland telegraph lines. They were also hawkers; mobile department stores and were friendly faces in outback Australia and for this reason they came in close contact with Indigenous people and made lasting relations. They built the first mosque in Australia in Adelaide and after that, small and very simple mosques opened up in many places, like Broken Hill.
The Afghans were known as upstanding and hospitable people who were willing to share whatever they had and many married into Indigenous communities.
At that time in Australia’s history, it was illegal for Indigenous people and Afghans to marry into white society without permission. At the same time, it was common for white men to hunt down Indigenous people, raping the women and committing murder. The Afghans took up arms to defend the Indigenous people. Australia failed to acknowledge and respect their unions, and deported many Afghans and they were not permitted to take their families with them.
Some Afghans went back home, but some did not and are buried in Australia. There are many tombstones scattered throughout central Australia with Arabic script.
|Within the Muslim community there is increased acknowledgement and respect for the past and present Indigenous population in Australia.|
Back to the Roots Through Islam
As both the Malays and the Afghans intermarried into the Indigenous population, until now some still carry Muslim names like Khan, Sultan and Akbar. Today, many Indigenous Muslims see that in embracing Islam they are, in fact, returning to their origins.
The 2006 census indicated that 1014 people identified themselves as both Muslim and Indigenous. Islam and Indigenous Australians have three hundred years of history. They have traded, socialized and intermarried. The number of Indigenous people embracing Islam is on the rise.
In the past, white society wanted Indigenous people to live like them, and because of harsh and oppressive laws they lost much of their identity. However, Islam spares people from being restricted to one cultural standpoint and deferring one group of people over another.
The Qur’an states (what means): “I have created you into nations and tribes to know one another.” (49:13).
Therefore, Islam recognizes the differences between groups and nations and sees these differences as enriching. Islam rejects racial distinctions and instils a sense of universal brotherhood in the hearts of believers. In adopting such beliefs Indigenous Australians are able to rethink their roles in their families and communities with increasing self-esteem and solidarity.
|Indigenous Australians do not have to ‘assimilate’ in order to be accepted into the fold of Islam, as they are expected to do in white society.|
Excluded in Their Homeland
Indigenous Australians have been immersed in every aspect of white society. Yet, despite being entangled in this society they are excluded, degraded and at times enslaved mentally. Many feel they are denied their basic rights to land, authority, and justice and because they did not move to anywhere, they have nowhere to return to as Australia is their homeland.
In this oppressive context, Islam offers them a way to deal with their intense anger as it teaches that justice will eventually come.
Islam also offers a strict code of conduct in a moral and ethical framework that links Indigenous Australians to their traditional heritage. Moreover, as Islam sees all people as intrinsically equal, adherents experience increased self-esteem.
Indigenous Australians do not have to ‘assimilate’ in order to be accepted into the fold of Islam, as they are expected to do in white society.
Within the Muslim community there is increased acknowledgement and respect for the past and present Indigenous population in Australia. Notably, at the beginning of all its events, Al-Ghazzali Centre, and Benevolence Australia, publicly acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which every event they organize takes place.
- Editor's note: Follow the second part of this series where Selma Cook will display true stories of Indigenous Australians.