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Islam in PNG: Long journey towards tolerance & understanding

Imam of Mt Hagen  Ahmad Didat
Imam of Mt Hagen, Ahmad Didat - “When I built this mosque, I was alone. Then the community came"


LAE – At midday, as a small group of men and boys prepare for Friday Prayers in Kagamuga, Western Highlands, a local Imam makes the Muslim call to prayer.

The Arabic language sounds very foreign here. This is one of the few Islamic communities in the Western Highlands finding its way in a country that describes itself as predominantly Christian.

Inside the small mosque, the men and boys line up in front as the prayers begin. The women, as per Islamic teaching, are in another room.

“When I built this mosque, I was alone. I had not received any formal training yet when I converted to Islam,” says the local Imam, Ahmad Didat. “Then the boys nearby came and joined me. Then the community came.”

Ahmad Didat, used to be known as Nixon.  About 10 years ago he converted to Islam after three years of prior travel and intense study.  He says, the similarities of Islamic culture to Melanesian customs was one of the things that drew him to the religion.

Mt Hagen’s Muslims are a group struggling to find their place both in PNG and in the global Islamic community of 2.4 billion Muslims.

Soon after Ahmad Didat converted to Islam, his whole family including his mother and father converted as well.  The family adopted Islamic religious  practices, Arabic names and middle eastern style clothing and Didat began teaching a small group of children in Arabic, a language he had started to learn himself.

“We have Arabic teachers who teach us the basics. You know, like, boy…girl…they are running.  The Koran is written in Arabic. It is the original language.”

Islam is a controversial subject in Papua New Guinea. With many people professing to be Christians, Islam is viewed with a lot of suspicion.

Over 40 years, many people have tended to judge the religion based on how international media links it religion to global terrorism. This has triggered ongoing discrimination against this small group of Muslims in Mt Hagen.

“I was one of those who questioned members of the Muslim communities,” says Didat. “Then I became a Muslim myself.”

Islam is relatively new in Papua New Guinea.  In 1982, the Papua New Guinea government under Sir Julius Chan gave permission for a mosque to be built in Port Moresby.  It was the start of a 30 year journey that has resulted in the conversion to Islam of more than 6,000 Papua New Guineans.

Former boxer  Khalid Apai  converted to Islam 30 years ago
Former boxer,  Khalid Apai, from Bougainville,  converted to Islam 30 years ago

Khalid Apai, a former representative boxer from Bougainville, converted to Islam in the late 1980s.  Since then he has become a prominent member of the Islamic community in PNG.

“It is the interpretation of the book that is confusing. It’s not the people.

“If we teach them, if we come together and talk about it, then they will understand.

“The holy books, the Bible and the Koran, they are the same. But it is how people are interpreting it that we think is wrong.”

At the Hohola Islamic Centre, the Grand  Imam of Port Moresby, Ibrahim Aziz, who has been in the country for more than 30 years, says it has been an interesting three decades for PNG’s Islamic community.

“I am thankful to Almighty God. I came here in 1989. When I came there were a few people who became Muslims. Twelve of them. Now, they are all over the country,” Imam Ibrahim says.

Like Judaisim and Christianity, Islam is a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion. In other words, Muslims believe there is one God and according to tradition they trace the roots of their religion to the time of Abraham.  The same Abraham mentioned in both Christian and Jewish writings.

Christians and Muslims differ on fundamental teachings.  Where a majority of Christianity accepts the trinity, Muslims believe in the singularity of God.

What usually triggers religious disputes and intolerance is the Muslim view that Jesus, according to Islamic teaching, is just one of the many important prophets of God.

“We are not anti-Christ, we are not anti-Noah, we are not anti-Moses.  In fact, we accept all of them,” Imam Ibrahim says.

This is the part of Islam that many outside the religion have not grasped.  Khalid Apai regularly speaks to people willing to listen.  Even after practicing Islam for more than 30 years, he feels no need to impose his religious beliefs on other Papua New Guineans.

“Those who do not understand, I say, come and let’s talk together.

“You can jump over the fence. It is there to keep the dogs out.  Come and we talk and you will understand Islam.”


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