Silla Song Tells How Islamic Medicine Cured Small Pox
Lee Tae-su

Staff Reporter
Yonhap News

“Islam and Korean Culture”
Lee Hee-soo, Chunga Books, 365 pages, 20,000 won


"The Iranians braved the high waves to sail to Silla. Upon their arrival, they asked an official to send a message from the king of Mâchin to the ruler of Silla, who was duly pleased and made preparations to welcome the foreigners.” (p. 104)
Silla was the part of the Korean peninsula that served as a major backdrop for the Persian epic poem “Kush Mana.” Also known as “Kushnameh,” the ancient epic tale depicts the travels of Persians residing in China who decide to relocate to Silla due to a political chaos in that country.


These references to Silla are a testimony of the active relations between Silla and the Sasanian Dynasty of Persia at the time, according to Professor Lee Hee-soo, whose latest book “Islam and Korean Culture” travels back in time to retrace the history of trade and friendship between Korea and the Islamic world.


Professor Lee has dedicated himself to studying the Middle East and Islamic culture for more than three decades. In this volume, he painstakingly traces the remnants of the Islamic culture through Korean historical records and artifacts to show that part of the world, which seems so distant and unfamiliar to present-day Koreans, was an avid partner in trade for our ancestors.


"Under the bright moon of Seorabeol / I reveled late into the night. / When I came home and returned to my bed / I found not two but four legs. / Two are mine but whose is the other pair? / They used to be mine but what I can say / Now that they have been robbed?” (p. 99)


The protagonist of this poetic song “Cheoyongga” (The Song of Cheoyong) is Cheoyong, a foreigner naturalized to Silla under the reign of King Heongang in the year 879. The author’s take is unique, proposing that Cheoyong’s wife was not claimed by an “evil spirit,” but small pox, which her husband cured with Islamic medicine, known as the best at the time.


As evidence, Professor Lee refers to the parallel literary structures of “Cheoyongga” and “Kush Mana,” and how the lines depicting Cheoyong’s night-time excursions highlight the similarities in the Islam and Oriental cultures, both of which enjoyed nocturnal entertainment.


By the mid-ninth century, Muslim merchants had established direct trade with Silla, discarding China’s mediator role. The change hailed the advent of an era where the fashions of Constantinople were immediately available in Baghdad, Changan and Gyeongju so that they became simultaneously in vogue.


Tombs of Unified Silla yielded artifacts such as inlaid glass beads (Treasure No.634) and a jeweled gold sword (Treasure No.635), from Hwangnam-dong, in Gyeongju, all bearing the influence of cultural exchange and trade with Central Asia and beyond. These ties lasted well past Goryeo to early Joseon Dynasty.


"In 1407, a Muslim religious leader sought home in Joseon with his wife and children. The King (Taejong) granted him a house to live in.” (p. 181) Records from early Joseon are another testimony of how the Muslim culture took root in the Joseon society, while the Islamic community grew in size. But relations between Korea and the Muslim world began to taper off toward the end of the 15th century. The author cites internal and external reasons, including the persecution of Muslims in China and Joseon’s changing academic traditions, which were becoming increasingly conservative and passive.


Particularly interesting among the episodes in the book is that of Abdul Rashid, a Turkish religious leader from Russia who visited Seoul, Busan and Incheon in 1909. Through him, readers can glimpse at Joseon seen through the eyes of a foreigner as the country’s fate hung in the balance with the imminent annexation by Japan.


"The national spirit has been paralyzed and the people are being colonized, which may be why all appears lifeless. The areas inhabited by the Japanese are the only places where the spirit of life can be sensed. If a neighborhood appears clean and decent, it usually has Japanese houses.” (p. 285) The Turks may have felt some sympathy toward Joseon as they, too, had endured Russian rule for four centuries.


The author goes on to touch upon relations between modern-day Korea and the Islamic world, including how the Turkish Islam communities peaked when Korea was a Japanese colony and how the Muslim community has grown since the 1990s on the influx of Muslim workers. The 1,200-year history of exchange is proof of a steadfast friendship between the two sides.

[April 3, 2012]