Muslim conversion is growing in Indigenous communities.
This recent rise in conversions among Indigenous Australians may seem to be a political gesture. But unknown to many is the long history between Aboriginal people and Islamic culture and religion.
Three centuries of history
Indigenous and Muslim communities have traded, socialised and intermarried in Australia for three centuries.
From the early 1700s, Muslim fishermen from Indonesia made annual voyages to the north and northwestern Australian coast in search of sea slugs (trepang). The trade that developed included material goods, but the visitors also left a lasting religious legacy.
Recent research confirms the existence of Islamic motifs in some north Australian Aboriginal mythology and ritual.
In mortuary ceremonies conducted by communities in Galiwinku on Elcho Island today, there is reference to Dreaming figure Walitha’walitha, an adaptation of the Arabic phrase Allah ta’ala (God, the exalted).
The first Muslims to settle permanently in Australia were the cameleers, mainly from Afghanistan. Between the 1860s and 1920s, the Muslim camelmen worked the inland tracks and developed relationships with local Aboriginal people. Intermarriage was common and there are Aboriginal families with surnames including Khan, Sultan, Mahomed and Akbar.
From the mid-1880s, Muslim Malays came to north Australia as indentured labourers in the pearl-shelling industry.
They, too, formed longstanding relationships with the Indigenous people they met. A significant number married local Aboriginal women, and today there are many Aboriginal-Malay people in the top end of Australia.
A culture in common
My research has found a broad spectrum of Indigenous identification with Islam. It ranges from those who have Afghan and Malay Muslim ancestors, but are not practising Muslims, to those who have no Muslim ancestors, but are strict adherents of the faith.
The Indigenous Muslims I met perceive a neat cultural fit between their traditional Indigenous beliefs and the teachings of Islam. Many hold that in embracing Islam they are simultaneously going back to their Indigenous roots.
They find cultural parallels in the shared practices of male circumcision, arranged marriages, polygyny (a form of marriage in which a man has more than one wife), and the fact that men are usually older than their wives in both Islamic and traditional Indigenous societies.
Interviewee Alinta, for example, finds “Islam connects with [her] Aboriginality” because of a shared emphasis on gendered roles and spheres of influence. “In Islam, men have a clear role and women have a clear role, and with Aboriginal people, that’s how it was too”.
Others commented on the similar attitudes that Muslims and Indigenous people have towards the environment. According to another interviewee, Nazra, “in the Qur'an it tells you very clearly don’t waste what is not needed … and the Aboriginal community is the same. Water and food are so precious you only take what you need”.
Change what you do, not who you are
Indigenous Muslims are also attracted to Islam because it does not subscribe to the kind of mono-culturalism Christian missionaries imposed on Aboriginal people.
The Qur'an states that Allah made human beings into different nations and tribes. These racial and cultural differences, far from being wrong, are a sign from God.
According to Shahzad, another interviewee from the group, Islam doesn’t just say “you’re Muslim, that’s it. It recognises we belong to different tribes and nations. So it doesn’t do what Christianity did to a lot of Aboriginal people, [which] was try and make them like white people.”
Indigenous Australian Muslims (in common with black Britons and African-Americans), understand conversion to Islam as a means of repairing the deep psychological scars they suffer as a people.
But there are also gender-specific reasons why Islam appeals to Indigenous women and men.
Indigenous women have long been stereotyped as sexually available, and they suffer disproportionate levels of sexual abuse. Wearing the hijab is a practical as well as symbolic deterrent to unwanted attention.