Afghans, Islam and Australia: From Cameleers to the Present Day
Afghans, Islam and Australia from cameleers to the present day
Written and researched by Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Aside from some pre-colonial contact between Makassan traders and the Aboriginal Yolgnu people in Arnhem Land, the start of Islam’s permanent presence in Australia was in the 1860s, with the arrival of Afghan cameleers who came and worked in the Australian outback as explorers and exporters. Large scale immigration of non-European Muslims to Australia only started with the dismantlement of the White Australia Policy, and the encouragement of multiculturalism. As of the 2016 census, Islam is the second largest religious grouping in Australia, with 604 200 Muslims living in Australia, or 2.6 percent of the population.
Afghan cameleers' mosques across Australia
The first four cameleers on Australian soil arrived in 1860 to assist on the Victorian government’s Burke and Wills expedition. These four Mohammedans [the universal term used until about the 1920s when it was replaced with Muslim or Islamic] and the camels originated from Peshawar, north-east India. After 1861 they did not establish any community.
1866 marks the arrival of the first commercial importation, funded by Thomas Elder of Beltana Station in South Australia, of 32 cameleers and 121 camels. The camels were purchased in camel markets in the Scinde and Rajasthan, and Kandahar in Afghanistan. The cameleers, contracted in the Scinde, Rajasthan and Afghanistan, were predominantly of Afghan descent and Moslem. Elder imported more Afghan cameleers and camels in 1884 and in 1893 to be used in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In the 1880s to 1910s Afghan camel merchants were travelling back to India and Afghanistan to purchase and import more camels and cameleers to work in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. By the 1890s there were estimated to be about 1,000 Afghan cameleers in Western Australia and by 1901 3,000 overall in Australia.
The cameleers set up regular camel transport routes radiating out from depots in remote central locations and at railheads and married local women and set up families in Afghan camps or “ghan towns”. By the 1880s these Moslem haulers commenced erecting their spiritual centres, mosques, in their ghan camps or towns, in colonies across Australia. Camel community leaders or “jemidahs” or camel merchants required camel drivers to contribute to finance building the mosques frequently made of frail materials including wooden slabs or poles, mud walls, galvanised iron sheets and grasses for rooves. The call by the muezzin to prayer was heard from the 1880s to about the late 1920s across the outback. Eventually with more wealth accumulated in the cameleers’ population three large, permanent mosques were constructed. Today, the three permanent mosques are active, while the more remote mosques have been preserved or have disappeared. In total, about 16 mosques were erected across Australia by cameleers’ funds between 1884 and 1930s.
There were distinctive common characteristics noted in the Afghan cameleer mosques across Australia. Between the 1880s to the 1920s reporters, authors and travellers, such as in Coolgardie and Marree, recorded hearing the sound of the “call of the muezzin to prayer” across towns. There was no furniture in the interior of mosques. The faithful prayed on their prayer mats. No shoes were worn into the mosque. A “pond” or trough provided a source of water for ablutions. Inside a niche in the walls held the Koran. A picture of Mecca hung in each mosque. Particularly in the 1890s to 1910 a number of mullahs acting as “visiting priests” or “missionaries” sailed from Karachi to serve their distant faithful, at least in South Australia and Western Australia, who were far from home. As at the Adelaide and Broken Hill mosques there would be a separate smaller building, a kitchen. This was used for visiting mullahs, or holy men such as “sayids”, from distant countries or desert settlements visiting city mosques, and for cooking community feasts after the end of Ramadan. Trees such as date palms or fruit trees were planted in the grounds adjacent to the mosques. Today, the surviving mosques, active or preserved as historical memorials, built and funded by the Afghan cameleers, are visited by Australian tourists and overseas visitors. They are a part of the cameleers’ legacy and of Australia’s heritage.
Marree/Hergott Springs: The “Ghan town” at Hergott Springs in northern South Australia was found by cameleers who moved from the camel depot at Beltana station to establish a new camel depot closer to the interior of the continent where camel transport was in great demand. By the 1870s the largest cameleer Ghan town in South Australia and Australia was known as “Little Asia” or “Little Afghanistan”. The site of the first Hergott Springs mosque, built in about 1884, was near natural springs or artesian water away from the town and on “Faiz Mahomet’s pad”. The building was a crude, rectangular structure of hand-made low bisque clay or mud walls, timber sticks as supports, and a cane thatched roof. The advantage of open walls was to allow breezes to cool the men at prayer during hot summer months. Nearby was the ablution pool filled with water supplied by an irrigation pipe system built by the wealthy camel driver and trader Sheik Abdul Kader. Wooden steps lead the washed worshippers from the pool to the entrance of the mosque. The spiritual leader was Mullah Assam Khan whose birthplace was Peshawar, located between Afghanistan and India. Date palms were planted near the ablution pond. This building lasted until about 1901.
After the first mosque became dilapidated the cameleers built by 1910 a second thatched roof mosque, called the “Mahomadan temple”. It had a larger ablution pool, a water tank, a wooden pole lined platform for standing on to do ablutions, and some brush fencing. It was located closer to Sheik Abduk Kader’s date plantation. Inside the floor was carpeted and prayer mats laid on the carpet. This building was used until the 1920s when it was replaced by the third mosque.
First mosque in Hergott Springs [Marree] on “Faiz Mahomet’s pad”. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
By 1920 the Afghan cameleers funded a third mosque made of more permanent materials, such as walls of galvanised iron sheets and pine poles, a pitched iron roof and a wood lined ablution pool. A verandah over the entrance was shaded by tall trees. When this mosque became disused it was pulled down. Local Afghan descendants recycled the sheets of galvanised iron in their own homes in Marree’s Ghan town. The carpets were taken to the Afghan mosque in Adelaide.
The second mosque in Marree built closer to Sheik Abdul Kader’s date plantation. Source: State Library of South Australia https://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+1534
In the early 1930s the Marree holy man Syed Goolamadeen, in white, stands beside the ablution pool of Marree’s iron mosque. Photo Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Since the 2010s in Marree a replica of the first mosque stands in the second main street on the Ghan side of the town. It was a project from funds raised by Afghan cameleer descendants.
The replica of the first mosque in Marree’s second main street.
The “jemidar” of the first cameleers to arrive at Beltana station in 1866, Faiz Mahomet of Kandahar, also eventually an owner of camel strings and camel importer and employer of cameleers, managed the Afghan cameleers at Beltana station and at Hergott Springs from the 1870s to 1880s. Seeing that many would be permanently residing in Australia he wanted to provide them with a permanent mosque, a “home away from home”, as a spiritual centre where they could receive charity and care. In 1887 Faiz Mahomet purchased a piece of land for 450 pounds from the Adelaide City Corporation in Little Gilbert Street in the south-west corner of Adelaide. The square blue stone building with a stately dome was constructed over two years and opened in 1890. The grounds included an ablution pool with a fountain in its centre. Hadji Mullah Merbain, born in Kandahar, came from Coolgardie to be the first mullah in the Adelaide mosque. As the mosque’s mortgage was unlikely to be paid off in its two year time limit in 1893 Abdul Wade / Wadi, another wealthy camel merchant, camel importer and employer of cameleers in New South Wales, paid off the mosque’s mortgage debt with 293 pounds so that the mosque stayed in the hands of his fellow countrymen. He became the trustee of the mosque.
Cameleers funds financed the extensions of the Adelaide mosque. Camel drivers gave ten shillings a year and camel merchants gave one pound a year. By 1901 to 1903 funds, including a significant amount donated by Basha Gool, a Western Australian camel owner, afforded the addition of four red brick minarets, painted white, and a high red brick wall.
The Adelaide mosque or “Afghan chapel” was the first permanent mosque in Australia, the first city mosque and is the oldest permanent mosque in Australia.
By the 1940s the population of Afghan cameleers declined, and their sons took on different occupations, so there was no need for more Afghan cameleers to migrate to Australia. Few followers of the Moslem faith visited the Adelaide mosque. From the 1950s the congregation of the Adelaide City mosque was boosted by Muslims arriving from Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Africa and Indonesia.
The Adelaide mosque sketched in July 1890. Hadji Mullah Merbain, with a tall white turban and walking stick, stands near the centre. Four minarets were added in 1901 – 4. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Today the Adelaide City mosque, seen here with the white painted minarets and tall red brick wall, is state heritage listed. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Coolgardie: The development of the Western Australian goldfields in the 1880s and 1890s attracted hundreds of Afghan cameleers and camels. Jemidar Faiz Mahomet, Tagh Mahomet and other South Australian cameleers travelled to the goldfields and eventually independent camel owners sailed to Karachi to collect camels with camel handlers to bring into Western Australia. By 1892 the growing population of Afghan cameleers built two mosques in Coolgardie and they had two mullahs. The first mosque in their Afghan camp at Fly Flat at the eastern end of Coolgardie, the largest centre in the goldfields, was financed by Faiz Mahomet. Tagh Mahomet, his brother, and Goulam Mahomet were joint owners of the mosque. The mullah of the first mosque was a Kandahar man, Hadji Mullah Merbain. Later its gardener was another Kandahar man, Goulam Rassoul. Steps led to the entrance of its galvanised iron structure and a trough provided water for ablutions. If there was no water in the ablution trough because of extremely hot weather the faithful washed themselves with sand.
In 1987 Faiz Mahomet brought out a priest Mullah Il Lasman who had sailed from Karachi to say prayers in front of 200 “Mohammedans” squatted on carpets and prayer mats. Above the faithful was “a flag bearing the star and crescent “. After the service Faiz Mahomet provided a feast for his visiting mullah and congregation
The second mosque was based in the “Beloochi camp”. Its mullah, Mullah Mirza Khan, could deliver services in four languages [three were Arabic, Parsee, Pushtun or Afghan]. In 1897 after his service a banquet was organised for the congregation by Sirdar Abdul Baki, related to Faiz Mahomet and both related to the Ameer of Afghanistan. No photos survive of either of the two mosques in Coolgardie. [Coolgardie Miner, WA, 8 March 1897, pg 6, “Mahommedan festival, Afghan rejoicings.”]
Between the 1890s to the 1910s the large and dispersed cameleer communities had built seven small mosques across the goldfields. In 1910 the Collector of Customs, based in Fremantle, Perth’s port town, recorded mosques built near mining settlements distributed throughout the goldfields which had Afghan camel depots or camps. These were in Coolgardie [two], Mount Malcom, Leonora, Mount Magnet, Bummers Creek and Mount Sir Samuel. The Perth mosque made the eighth mosque in Western Australia.
Perth: The cameleers’ first permanent mosque in Western Australia, and the second such one in Australia, was located in Perth. It was designed and built between 4 June 1904 and 1906. By the 1890s Faiz Mahomet operated many camel strings from his five offices across the goldfields and employed many Afghan cameleers. Faiz Mahomet played a key role in founding the first permanent mosque in Western Australia. He provided funds to purchase a piece of land for 680 pounds in William Street in the city of Perth. The building of the “Mohammedan mosque” was supervised by Muhamed Hassan Musa Khan, another jemidah and principal Afghan boss of the camel men of the Coolgardie goldfields, and created by the Kandaharian Mahomet Allum. Faiz Mahomet collected funds from the goldfields cameleers to finance the building of the mosque. The structure of a rectangular building included a second storey, gilt tipped mouldings and steps up to a verandah. It was surrounded by a high wall.
On 13 November, 1905, Faiz Mahomet, initiator and financier of at least four mosques, two being Australia’s first two permanent mosques, that served the far flung cameleers Muslim community which was far from their homelands, and highly respected by the head of state of Afghanistan, Emir of Afghanistan, laid the foundation stone. The Emir Habibullah Khan was appointed trustee of the Perth mosque. Later both the building and the high wall surrounding the mosque were painted white. The Perth mosque was heritage listed in 1995. It has a vibrant congregation today.
The Perth Mohammedan mosque pictured in the 1930s. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Perth mosque as it was painted in the 1970s. Source: ABC https://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2012/04/12/3476007.htm
New South Wales
Broken Hill: Broken Hill had a larger North Camel Camp and a smaller West Camel camp and a mosque in each. The mosque in the North Camel Camp in Broken Hill was erected between 1887 to 1891. It was near a running stream which provided the worshippers with water for their ablutions. The men washed their feet over a ground level cement trough then walked on stepping-stones into the mosque. The corrugated iron and wood structure with a pitched roof was divided into two rooms, an ante room used to prepare the dead for burial and a prayer room. Prayer mats covered the floor. The mirab, the niche where the mullah stood reciting the prayers, was suggested by a painted arch on the north-west wall. In 1967 this mosque was saved from demolition by the Broken Hill Historical Society and in 2010 was placed on the NSW Heritage register. In 2018 to 2020 NSW has a restoration project underway to restore the mosque and yard and arrange its memorabilia in an added museum.
The Broken Hill’s North Camel camp iron mosque with date palms.
The smaller, one roomed tin and wooden mosque located in Broken Hill’s West Camel Camp. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
Bourke: Bourke was the base of Abdul Wade / Wadi’s large camel carting company and many Afghan cameleers worked on routes that radiated out of that own. A camel owner Bye Khan built a one roomed, wood and galvanised iron house near the back door of the old house of Norbeen Perooz in the ghan town in Bourke. Perooz ‘s group of camelmen used the mosque. It had a pitched roof and small verandah. In 1996 the Bourke mosque was relocated from Hope Street to the Afghan section of the cemetery, in the hope of preserving it. It has been saved and is today preserved as a tourist attraction.
Bourke mosque. Source: Pamela Rajkowski OAM
In the ghan town in Cloncurry in south-west Queensland the cameleers built a mosque from wooden slats. Until the late 1940s many pack saddles were seen beside the mosque. The last deed holder was Otta Khan. This mosque was pulled down after 1947 and its fruit orchard dried up.
Alice Springs: The cameleers were more scattered in Alice Springs but still built a simple mosque near the camp of Satour, a significant camel merchant. It was made from timber with a thatched roof and open sides. Date palms were planted near the mosque. As it disintegrated, funds were raised for local cameleers and Moslems to build a permanent structure which still stands today. It is the third permanent mosque funded by Afghan cameleers.
Modern Afghan mosques in Australia
Blacktown Afghan Osman Mosque, New South Wales: The Blacktown Mosque, built by the Afghan community in Western Sydney, finished construction in 2014. It has since been involved in community projects for troubled youths in the Blacktown area, alongside its regular religious services.
Afghan Islamic Centre & Omar Farooq Mosque, Doveton, Victoria: The already established Afghan Islamic Centre and Omar Farooq Mosque, is set to be relocated to a state-of-the-art facility in Doveton, Victoria. The new mosque, currently under construction, and is set to have large prayer, recreational, educational and conference facilities.
Photo source: Mosque Finder http://mosque-finder.com.au/mosque/blacktown-afghan-osman-mosque/
Today, Muslims play an integral part in Australia’s social, political and economic life. All major cities and regional hubs have notable Muslim communities from a wide range of national backgrounds, from Europe, Africa and Asia. Muslims are represented in both houses of Federal Parliament.
As of the 2016 Census, there are 46 800 Australians who reported as being born in Afghanistan. They are highly concentrated in the Ryde and Blacktown areas of Sydney, as well as Dandenong in Melbourne, where the second and third most spoken languages at home are Hazaraghi and Dari. Afghan Australians are active in political life, with Afghanistan-born Mina Zaki running in the division of Canberra in the 2019 Federal election for the Liberal Party. Afghanistan and Australia share a close relationship, with ever increasing economic and cultural ties.
Table: List of Mosques developed and owned by Australian-Afghans and their locations throughout Australia
Date of Construction
Marree, South Australia
Broken Hill Mosque
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Central Adelaide Mosque
Adelaide, South Australia
Coolgardie, Western Australia
Perth, Western Australia
Afghan Mosque Alice Springs
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Blacktown Afghan Osman Mosque
Blacktown, New South Wales
Afghan Islamic Centre & Omar Farooq Mosque
Under Construction, 2022
This article was written and researched by historian and expert Pamela Rajkowski OAM, and added to by Ethan Vujanovic, an intern at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Canberra. Material presented in this article is for the purpose of public awareness and learning and is only as accurate as the sources allow. The views and opinions expressed in this version are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Embassy of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Canberra or the Government of Afghanistan.
Text and Research by Pamela Rajkowski OAM, 28-30 April 2020
Maley, William. 2019. “Australia-Afghanistan relations: Reflections on a half-century". Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Cover Photo Credit: IMPACT 3D/infinity render through Kabeer Azadzoy, Melbourne