▲ Professor Kim is respected for his knowledge of Islamic law and culture and speaks at events across the Asia-Pacific region. Photo courtesy Kim Daeyong
Kim is a bubbly character with an infectious laugh. Welcoming me into his Islamic Center, adorned with sound-muffling Persian rugs, the warmth is more than figurative. His attitude to life is refreshing, emphasizing the importance of the heart over rules and dictates: “I’m a simple Muslim, a common man.”
He is anything but common, however. A professor of tourism by trade, he has not only visited over 90 countries, but is also a shaikh [Islamic scholar] and a 7th dan black belt in judo. Hajji Bashir Kim, as he is otherwise known, served as director of the Korea Muslim Federation, Vice President of the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific (based in Kuala Lumpur) while also being Secretary General of the Korea and Qatar Friendship Association.
An expert in Islamic law, Kim runs the Jeju Islamic Center in Shin Jeju, founded in 1994. As one of only four Korean sharia experts, Kim has published two books on Islam: Mohamed’s Life and Sayings of Mohamed (Hadith). He also serves the needs of the Muslim community, or ummah, either passing through or living on Jeju Island, by either providing personal religious guidance, or consulting with local officials, hoteliers and restaurateurs on the needs of Muslim visitors.
“This is my small contribution, to share ideas, such as with hotel people and tourism officials. ... Cultural understanding is a basic service and policy ... This is not religion, this is about understanding people and their culture,” says Kim.
Much like a mosque, Kim also provides parochial services to the roughly one thousand Muslim migrant workers and spouses across the island. Kim’s Facebook wall is plastered with a diverse array of travelers and well-wishers, as is his actual apartment wall, images jostling for space with pictures of Mecca and Medina.
“As I’m a shaikh, if anyone in the ummah has a problem, they come to me. This is a musallah [a place of worship not formally sanctified as a mosque], this is an important place. I am often like a counselor for the people,” he said. “I can interpret Islamic law and guide people on what is halal or haram. It is just guidance, like lifestyle counseling,” says Kim.
▲ Members of the ummah congregate at Jeju Islamic Center. Photo courtesy Kim Daeyong
Kim’s interest in Islam was piqued during the 1970s, when Korean companies were increasingly active in the Middle East. In 1971, having just graduated from high school, Kim decided to visit a mosque, where his preconceptions were challenged: “I was surprised they believed in the same god as me,” he said. “It was very easy to agree.”
From a family of Catholics, it was the start of a quite unique journey. At the age of 28, Kim was “very lucky” to be sent by the Korean government to Qatar to train police recruits in judo. His liberal work schedule - “I worked for just two hours a day” - allowed him to pursue his interest in Islam.
Kim was already the holder of an MA in Tourism from Kyunghee University, yet his relationship with his faith grew deeper and more academic. He ended up living in Qatar for 12 years between 1980 and 1992 and went on to study for a BA in Sharia (Islamic law) at Qatar University, before gaining a second BA at the Faculty of Islamic Law. Despite his studies stretching over nine years, his true education was received elsewhere.
“You cannot just get it from the books ... you have to get out there and travel and feel Islam,” he stresses.
In Islamic countries, experts in sharia usually become judges or Imams, yet Kim returned to the tourism field - “no jobs for shaikhs in Korea,” he laments. He then completed a PhD in Tourism Development and is now Professor of Chinese Tourism at Halla College, Jeju City. Kim sees little conflict in his twin vocations.
▲ The faithful face west toward Mecca to pray. Photo courtesy Kim Daeyong
“Tourism is about relations between humans, connecting the people, and so is Islam,” he says.
In Korea, Kim often has to counter people’s “dark opinions” about his religion, and he stresses his relaxed attitude to doctrine - “Rules are not so important, your heart is important.” Despite this, he is clear there is a need for a basic level of intercultural awareness, as indicated by an unfortunate incident from the 1990s when a group of Muslim Uzbeks were sent to work on a pig farm.
“They came to me crying, they were heart-broken. ‘We can’t work on a pig farm, we are Muslim,’ they said.”
Understanding has improved, but services are still lacking, particularly with 165,000 travelers coming last year from Southeast Asia, many of whom are Muslim. Kim says a truly international destination would do more to address their needs.
“Go anywhere around the world and you will see prayer rooms at airports and halal restaurants. I can find them at Incheon, Tokyo, Beijing: why not Jeju? It is a basic service,” he said.
As the interview ends, Kim shows me around his room, pointing to the images from his visits to all of the world’s Islamic countries. The courtesy he felt while traveling is something he clearly endeavors to repay to all who find their way to his door.
“Everyone treated me like a brother, like a friend. Now, I just want to give back what I received.”
Kim welcomes all visitors to the Jeju Islamic Center.
Jeju Islamic Center
Address: 1208 Junghan officetel. 939 Nohyeongdong, Jeju City, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province 690-180
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