Australia quite rightly prides itself on its diversity of peoples, of lifestyles and of religions and indeed the Constitution itself protects the freedom of religion.
Australia’s founding fathers, unlike their mostly European and mostly Christian founders, enshrined that Australia would not adopt a State Religion nevertheless Australia is predominately a Christian country.
Whilst the level of religious observance and uptake is not a competition nevertheless it does have great significance.
How much Australia owes to Islam is less well understood, or appreciated. History always has lessons for the now and we perhaps should recalibrate our appreciation of this countries Islamic history which significantly predates the first fleet of 1788 and indeed is found in many aboriginal observances.
Indeed, we can now acclaim that Islam arrived in Australia at least 400 years ago, and possibly earlier, indeed the maps of the sea of Java by Muhammad Ibn Musa al- Khwarizmi of circa 800 CE (in his major geography work “Book of the Description of the Earth) includes parts of northern Australia some 900 years before colonial settlement and significantly before western maps made the identification.
In the 1720s organized groups of Indonesian Muslims fishermen from Makassar began to arrive on our shores creating an industry of cultivating sea cucumber to sell to the Chinese markets as medicine.
Evidence exists however that less organized Markassian ventures took place many centuries before that and their Islamic influence can be seen in the culture of several aboriginal peoples in northern Australia to this day. Carbon dating of Cave paintings places Makassians and their Islamic practices in Australia as early as 1500.
Anthropologist John Bradley from Melbourne’s Monash University provides that “If you go to north-east Arnhem Land there is [a trace of Islam] in song, it is there in painting, it is there in dance, it is there in funeral rituals….It is patently obvious that there are borrowed items. With linguistic analysis as well, you’re hearing hymns to Allah, or at least certain prayers to Allah.”
The importance of when Islam first arrived in Australia is not merely an exercise in history or anthropology, nor just of relevance to Australia’s half a million Muslims it’s a crucial building block in our nationhood whose recognition could have profound importance as to how our nation today values its founding grandfathers, I appreciate the provocativeness of that term “grandfathers” but fact is fact.
Let us not forget how long it took Australia to finally recognize the importance of its aboriginal legacy.
Perhaps a discussion of the importance of Islam to Australia’s early development may inform our current appreciation of that legacy in a time when it is becoming so easy to castigate a world faith of such importance and relevance.