The following is by no means a comprehensive history of Islam in Australia but only an overview to give us a sense of the breadth of the impact that Muslims have made on this country.

Brief History

Muslims believe that Islam is not just a belief system established in 632 CE, but a continuation of the same message established by other prophets such as Adam (peace be upon him) and following prophets like Abraham, Moses, Jesus and so on. Muslims also believe that there will be no further revelation and that Muhammad is the final and last messenger of  God.  While Muhammad was the founder of the final version of Islam as we know it today and he delivered the Quran for all humanity to share, Islam as a practice of true submission to God, (Islam means to submit to God) has been around from the beginning.  We believe that a prophet was sent among the Aboriginal people of Australia many, many years before any European or Asians came.  However, over time that message was diluted and eventually lost.  The Aboriginal people are amongst the most ancient people of all.

However it was not until around the 1500’s that Muslims came to the north of Australia and traded with Aborigines.

The Makassans

Many centuries before any Europeans had even heard of Australia, Muslims from the island of Sulawesi (today in Indonesia) sailed their small ships called prahus to the northern tip of Australia.

These people were Makassan from the islands of Makassar.  In the 15th and 16th centuries it is believed that they traded Trepang or sea cucumbers with the Aboriginals in places now called Elcho Island, Gove Island and on the mainland in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The Makassans established a long term relationship with local Aborigines and eventually married with many of the women and some settled in Australia.  There is evidence of Makassarese language in Aboriginal dialects and evidence of cave paintings depicting the prahus and Makkassan huts.

In the 1900’s the newly federated nation of Australia enacted new legislation making it impossible for Makkasans to continue their trade in the north and the Makassan influence was lost with the Anglo-centric dominance of the new government.

The ‘Afghan’ Cameleers

It was not until the 1860’s that Muslims from Afghanistan and Northen India (Pakistan today) were brought to Australia as contracted labourers.  There main work involved handling the camels used for outback exploration and for carting and supplying important materials to outback settlements. These men were collectively known as Afghans although there were people from the Punjab, Baluchistan, Peshawar, Karachi, Rajastan and others.

The contribution of the Afghan cameleers as they came to be called was enormous.

However, their life in Australia was by no means an easy one.

“Camel strings was the worst job, as every morning the camels were loaded and in the

evening sometimes midnight offloaded. Many a time a windlass was used to draw

water, No sooner were we in bed we would have to rise and after the camels we would

go, and the same old routine would start over again.”
Bejah Dervish 1896 Calvert Expedition
In the 19th century Australia was still a vast and largely unexplored land. Much of the interior was known to be a barren desert, with soaring temperatures and little or no water. Camels seemed a good idea for these conditions and were imported to Australia.

Six camels from the Canary Islands were brought to Australia but only one survived the journey to Australia. In 1846, John Ainsworth Horrocks bought the remaining bull camel and used it for exploration in the Flinders Ranges north of Adelaide.

During the expedition, the camel named Harry,  jostled its owner as he loaded a muzzle-loading gun causing Horrocks to lose two fingers and his jaw. The unfortunate died four weeks later and his last request was that they put down Harry the bull.

The next major group of 24 camels came out in 1860, this time for the famous and ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition. They were accompanied by three Muslim sepoys or camel handlers.  Not much is known about the fate of these men after the expedition, except for one named Dost Mahomet whose grave is situated by the roadside about 2km out of the outback town of Menindee (where the original expedition set up their base camp).

It wasn’t until 1866 when the first large scale importation of camels begun. They arrived on a ship named the Blackwell which disembarked in Port Augusta, loaded with 122 camels and 31 camel handlers, commonly referred to as Afghan cameleers.

This was the beginning of a new adventure and an uncertain future.  These men worked for Sir Thomas Elder and engaged in a number of roles, one of them was exploration.

The camel was an effective mode of transportation into the dry interior of Australia and  several expeditions were made that mapped out places like the Simpson Desert and even involved the discovery of Uluru.

Extract from a journal entry:

 “After walking and scrambling two miles barefooted over sharp rocks, succeeded in reaching the summit, and had a view that repaid me for my troubles, Kamran accompanied me.  How I envied Kamran his hard feet; he seemed to enjoy walking about with bare feet while mine were all in blisters.”

William Christie Gosse Sunday July 20th 1875

An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 camels, imported into Australia between 1860 and 1907, were used as draft and riding animals by people pioneering and exploring the dry interior. In 1870 to 1872 camels were the transport used for the establishment of the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin. Camels were also used for the supply of goods to Alice Springs, cattle and sheep stations, missions and Aboriginal communities.

With the introduction of the motor vehicle in the 1920′s, the camel was replaced and many were let loose into the Australian Outback. Today, Australia has the largest wild camel population in the world.

These Afghan cameleers contributed greatly to the community of Muslims. They were from diverse backgrounds, tribal regions and age ranges. There was almost not one place in  Australia’s vast interior that these men did not traverse and where they went they built mosques.

The first mosque built in Australia was in Marree.  It was a simple structure made from mud and logs supporting palms and a thatched roof.  Today only a replica of the original mosque stands in the town centre. In Adelaide, the oldest mosque in Australia still in use is in Little Gilbert St, is a wonderful brick structure and the only mosque in Australia with four minarets.  It was commissioned in 1885 and completed in 1889.

In Perth, the Afghans raised every single penny from the Cameleer community

across the nation to build their own place of worship, which was finalised in 1905.

In 1901 the new Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act which excluded ‘coloured people’ from immigration to Australia. The Act imposed a dictation test, in any language, to be administered to migrants. This was applied to intending immigrants from non-European sources and the language chosen for the test was always one which they did not know.

After this Immigration Restriction Act, resident ‘coloureds’ even had to apply for a special certificate to cross over into another State. This prevented the free movement of the Muslim camleers and their camels around the interior of the country.

Well known Afghan Khan Zada had applied no less than five times for naturalisation and was rejected in every instance.

In 1902 under amendments to the Roads Act cameleers were forced to obtain a special licence to operate in the camel carrying business and had to pay a registration fee for each camel.  In 1903 the editor of the “Barrier Truth” newspaper in Broken Hill, a Mr R.S. Ross, wrote of the ‘Afghan menace’, claiming that the Afghans were a threat to the morals of the community, that their camels were a danger to horses and that they were living in conditions even worse than those of the Chinese.

Along with the prevalent racism in society, government pressure and  local newspapers demonised the Afghans.  Among the most vehement enemies of the Afghans was newspaper editor of the Coolgardie Miner, Frederick C. B. Vosper who received support from 2000 miners to establish the Anti-Afghan League in 1894.

The Life of a Cameleer

From the 1870′s to the 1930′s, Afghan cameleers exercised an important influence in the arid outback. They engaged in exploration, rescue parties and police tracking, laying railway and telegraph lines, setting up water pumps and bores, carrying supplies to and wool from pastoral stations, erecting fences, carrying mail and supplying new mining areas.

Most Afghan cameleers came out on one to three year contracts. After their discharge, a small number settled in inland Australia and set up their own camel-breeding and carrying establishments. However, the majority returned to their homelands and to their families in the North-West Frontier borderland of British India, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

In 1901, there were some 600 persons of Indian and ‘Afghan’ origin in the “camel areas” of inland Australia. Today, many of the old cameleers’ descendants live in Central Australia, in Alice Springs, Port Augusta in South Australia  and in West Australia and many more live throughout Australia, though still often in the towns most associated with them.

Post war Migration

The first major migration of Muslims to Australia began in the mid 1950’s with the Snowy Mountains Scheme which brought labour from Southern Europe including at the time Yugoslavia.  This meant Muslims from Bosnia, Kosovar and Albania came to work on the scheme and many eventually settled in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. There was no formal organisational structure at this juncture and the first attempts to formalise the loose network of Muslims began in 1964.

Structures in place for Muslim communities

The Islamic community in Australia was, in 1964 only a very small community of Turkish-Cypriots, Arabs, Bosnians and Albanians, Fijian Indians, Indians and Pakistanis as well as some smaller ethnic groups. There were enough people concerned about preserving their faith to begin a loose federation of the various communities across the country. The Australian Federation of Islamic Societies (AFIS) was formed and this small organisation administered the affairs of the community, especially in terms of raising money to build mosques and schools.

In 1968 the Australian government signed a treaty with Turkey to strengthen the labour force with unskilled migrants through the assisted passage program. This program brought thousands of Turkish migrants who settled in Melbourne and Sydney.  By the early 70’s the community was in need of its own places of worship and their first mosque was acquired in 1973.  This was an old church in Erskineville which became the first mosque in Australia since the post war immigration boom.  The following year the Pakistani community with the help of AFIS built a mosque in Surry Hills.

These mosques catered for the small communities which existed in and around Redfern and South Sydney. The first plane loads of Turkish migrants were housed in hostels around Zetland and the inner city. These communities in the early eighties moved out to western suburban centres such as St Marys, Mt Druitt, East Lakes and Auburn.  The Indo-Pakistani community also moved out to Rooty Hill and Blacktown. Today there are two large mosques in Mt Druitt which was built by the Turkish community and in Rooty Hill built by the Indo-Pakistani community.

In 1976 the professional Muslim members of AFIS decided to over-haul the organization structure and formed the peak body called the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). This was based on a three tier structure of federal council, state councils (9 councils including Christmas Island and Canberra) and local societies. The original aims of the body indicated a wide sphere of influence especially in areas of halal certification, mosques, schools, and youth.  In 2010, the organization re-branded to Muslims Australia.

Today there are over 300 community organizations (both ethnic and religiously aligned), over 100 Mosques and about 40 schools across Australia. Most are not a part of the AFIC structure and all have their own specific purpose, usually religious and cultural preservation, education, language schools, mosques and media and publications as well as youth, arts and social welfare.