Hong Kong's chief imam celebrates city’s openness to multi-ethnic worshippers
Hong Kong's Muslim heritage dates back more than 160 years
Kowloon Mosque is quite a majestic structure at the end of Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui. The current mosque building has been there since 1984, but Hong Kong’s Muslim heritage stretches back more than 160 years. At the mosque, three sermons on a Friday cater to multi-ethnic worshippers.
“We have Asians including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians as well as Africans and Arabs,” says the current chief imam for Hong Kong, Mufti Muhammad Arshad. Voted one of the world’s top 500 Muslims in 2009, Coming from Muslim dominiated Pakistan, Arshad says he delights in the number of nationalities he has come to know in Hong Kong and the mix of religions. “There is much more open-mindedness here,” he said. “Also I get the chance to travel!”
Arshad oversees a population of about 200,000 Muslims in Hong Kong.
Born in Multan in central Pakistan, Arhad’s father was also an imam. An award-winning student, Arshad went on to become the imam for the Pakistani armed forces after having studied Islamic studies at university. “So I started my career in the Pakistan army as an imam, so similar to a chaplain in the army. So I looked after the other imams and religious affairs.”
He then spent eight years as an imam in Pakistan’s air force before he learned of a vacancy for a senior imam in Hong Kong, moving here with his family in 2001.
His role involves the religious affairs at the mosque, but also social services for the different communities. Arshad also goes on halal inspections of restaurants. At the moment, he is also helping with organising airlines and ticketing for the Haj - or holy trip to Mecca - he with a group of 110 of different nationalities will be attending this year.
One of Arshad’s key passions is inter-religious dialogue. “On the 25th of this month we will have an inter-faith meeting in the mosque. Previously, we have gone with a group to the synagogue, the Jewish community come to visit us here. I have also visited many churches here and temples of the Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu and other religions.”
Arshad is also pleased that he has had the opportunity to attend memorial services following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. He feels the situation has improved over the past decade. “Islam is not a religion of extreme terrorists,” he said. “Everywhere all over the world Muslims are living. Islam is not an ethnic religion.”
He said airport checks in the United States had become easier for Muslims in recent years.
With three imams to assist him, Arshad doesn’t have to dash to the mosque for the pre-dawn call to prayer. He’s usually in by 10am, but the fact that he often doesn’t get home till 9pm doesn’t always make him popular with his family.
His wife Kullsoom teaches the Koran to young girls at the Mosque. His older son, Assad, was educated here until he completed form six and is now studying in Saudi Arabia. His daughter, Zahra, has just completed her secondary school studies in Pakistan. And their second son, Ahmed, who is mentally disabled, studies in Hong Kong.
At the mosque there are six teachers, three imams and Arshad. Last year Arshad called on the government to make Eid - the day at the end of Ramadan when Muslims break their month-long fast - into a public holiday here, saying that it is unfair for Muslims to have to work on that day when there are public holidays for several other religions here. He is still working on that and recently met Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing to discuss the matter. “Principally he agrees,” said Arshad.
Arshad enjoys his life in Hong Kong. When relaxing, he enjoys sightseeing in Hong Kong with his family and holidays abroad, a recent one was to Malaysia. But he still laughs at the culture shock of coming to Hong Kong. “So many people! So congested! And the houses are so small!”