The History of Muslims in Australia

The short film documentary entitled "Before1770" is a film designed to encapsulate the history of Muslims in Australia before 1770. Abu Hanifa Institute, a centre for education in Islamic traditional learning and community services, utilised its resources and community sponsors to document the facts in this space. This meant embarking upon a journey to key locations in the Northern Territory, such as Arnhem Land, Bawaka, and Groote Eylandt to see first hand, the places and people who hosted the Macassan Muslims. This endeavour also meant speaking to academics specialised in the field as well as elders in the Aboriginal community from the Yolngu clan. The idea of this short film is to establish Islam's long standing connection with Australia. It is not designed to cause pain or disrespect to any figure, person, organisation or particular community.

The Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley (Northern Territory) interacted with Macassan Muslims from Southern Sulawesi as far back as 1517. Recent rock art and archaeological work undertaken in northwestern Arnhem Land has contributed to this date. The work involved the radiocarbon dating of a beeswax figure overlaying a painting of a Southeast Asian sailing vessel in the Wellington Range. This vessel (prau), was painted prior to 1664 AD, and there is a 99.7 per cent probability that the overlying beeswax was made between 1517 and 1664. 

Further, recent archaeological excavations and re-evaluation of earlier excavated materials at the Anuru Bay site have also provided insights into the timing of Macassan visits (Theden-Ringl et al. 2011). The team analysed two skeletons excavated by Macknight in the 1960s and confirmed Macknight’s argument that the skeletons were of Southeast Asian origin (Theden-Ringl et al. 2011, p. 41). They also suggest that one of the individuals died before 1730 AD (Theden-Ringl et al. 2011, p. 45). Overall, we are entering an exciting new era of archaeological research into Macassan sites and new findings will almost certainly rewrite our understanding of the timing and the nature of early Asian contact with Australia.   

The connection was strong, peaceful and respectful. The Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land and Macassan Muslims traded, married and exchanged. To this day, words like Allah can clearly be heard in the songs of the Yolngu people. In a recent journey made by 21 people from Abu Hanifa Institute to Arnhem land, the stories of this historic connection were told to us as we heard from the chief of the Yolngu leader himself. 

John Bradley from Monash University says, "They traded together. it was fair - there was no racial judgment, no race policy." He also maintained that alongside the cave painting and other Aboriginal Art, Islamic beliefs influenced Aboriginal mythology. He says, "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. With linguistic analysis, you hear hymns to Allah or least certain calls to prayer." One example of this is a figure called Walitha Walitha, which is worshipped by the clan of the Yolngu people off the northern coast of Arnhem Land. The name derives from the Arabic saying "Allah ta'ala", meaning God the Exalted. 

The history of and heritage of the Macassan fishers form an important chapter of Australia’s history. It also greatly significant to the lives of Muslims living in Australia, who for so long have heard the hurtful chants, "go back to where you came from." 

Additionally, acknowledgement must be given to professor Regina Ganter from Griffith University who has written extensively on this subject of Maccassan and Aboriginal contact and has influenced a wide array of academics and historians through her ground-breaking research and prize-winning writings. Professor Regina has also toured many parts of Australia to assist in the screening of the short-film documentary "Before 1770". 

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