The stories of Koreans in Kyrgyzstan who converted to Islam

Abdusabr, Korean Muslim in Kyrgyzstan, sharing the story of his conversion to Islam. Screenshot from the Islamskii Jurnal “Umma” YouTube channel.

The story of Soviet Koreans in Central Asia keeps getting more fascinating. The YouTube video released by the Islamic magazine “Umma” in April 2023 tells the stories of six local Koreans in Kyrgyzstan who converted to Islam.

Koreans first came to Central Asia almost 90 years ago. In 1937, 171,781 Koreans living in the Soviet Union’s Far East provinces were forcibly sent to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which were under Soviet control. The authorities sent these Koreans away because they feared they were Japanese spies who might aid the enemy in the war between the Soviet Union and Japan.

Some of these deportees moved to and settled in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which is home to 17,000 Koreans. Koreans in Kyrgyzstan are mainly Christian, spread across Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant religious groups. Several dozens belong to Kyrgyzstan's small Buddhist community, consisting of around 120 members.

Local Koreans in Kyrgyzstan are substantially different from South and North Koreans. They have their own traditions and customs. They are integrated into the Kyrgyz society through local culture and interethnic marriages with Kyrgyz and other ethnicities.

Here is a YouTube video about the life of Koreans in Kyrgyzstan.

Their integration has become more complex as some started converting to Islam in the early 2000s. The six personal stories shared by “Umma” showcase this trend. All six men changed their names to fit their new identities. This name change has some precedence — Soviet authorities forced Koreans to change their names to Russian ones after their relocation to Central Asia in 1937.

Here is the YouTube video by Umma about how Koreans converted to Islam in Kyrgyzstan.

Yurii Muhammad Yusuf was the first among them to convert in 2004. His transformation is unbelievable, even to himself. “If someone told me in the early 2000s that I would read the Quran in Arabic, I would have replied that it was impossible and fantasy,” he says.

Their motivations for converting are different. Abdulvahid, formerly Vladimir, became Muslim in 2008 after his close Russian friend died after converting to Islam. After his friend had converted, he was the only non-Muslim in their three men friend group consisting of a Kyrgyz, Russian, and Korean person. He shares: “I took it [friend’s death] as a sign. Allah was telling me not to be late [to convert to Islam].” He adds, “Allah told me to be his servant, and I agreed.”

Four of them found answers to their questions about the meaning of life in Islam. Muhammad Ali shares that he converted to Islam to better deal with the voices inside his head. He believes he was possessed by jinn, evil spirits. Within a year after his conversion to Islam, the voices disappeared, and his life returned to normal.

They confess about being worried about the reactions of their friends and family to their decisions. Solih confessed: “I was anxious about what other people would say about my conversion to Islam.” In some cases, as it was with Muhammad Ali and Solih, their family members supported them and also converted. For Yurii Muhammad, it was different, and he had to cobble together a new support system. “Allah changed my family,” he explained, noting that he remarried and started a new family.

Their conversion is also the result of the re-Islamization of Kyrgyzstan, which started in 1991 after Kyrgyzstan gained independence. This process has led to an explosion in the number of mosques and madrasas (Islamic religious institutions), from 38 mosques and zero madrasas in 1991 to 2,699 mosques and 125 madrasas in 2023. Proselytization has kept pace as well, resulting in an ever-growing number of practicing Muslims and new converts. Among them are these six and other Koreans whose transformation in Central Asia is still taking place.

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