Muslims in New Zealand

by Dr William Shepard1

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Retired University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.[Article written & published in the late 1990s]
Source Details



The Muslim community in New Zealand is small, remote and relatively new, but in the last quarter century it has become an effectively organised and has grown vigourously. New Zealand, a member of the British Commonwealth, is located in the South Pacific and consists of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island. Its current population is about 3.8 million, of which the majority live in the North Island and about a million live in Auckland, its largest city and commercial capital. 2

All New Zealanders, or Kiwis, as they commonly call themselves, are in a sense immigrants. Even the indigenous inhabitants, the Maori, now about 15 percent of the population, see themselves as having came from elsewhere some five hundred to a thousand years ago. British (including Irish) settlement began in the 1820s and 1830s and immigration from Britain has continued to the present, so that the majority of the current population is of British background. These, along with much smaller numbers from other (predominantly Northern) European countries, are commonly called "Pakehas". There is also a significant number of Pacific Islanders, accounting for about five percent of the population. While there are dozens of other ethnic groups, they are present in very small numbers. The largest Asian groups are the Chinese, with 2.3 percent of the population, and the Indians, with 1.2 percent. 3 In the last decade New Zealand has given greater encouragement to non-European immigration than in the past and is beginning to see itself as a multicultural society, but the dominant discussion is about bi-culturalism, relations between Maori and Pakeha, which sometimes detracts from multiculturalism.

The Muslim community in New Zealand is rooted in South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Fijian Indian) immigration, with Fijian Indians being particularly prominent. It now includes, however, some 35 nationalities and among these are Arabs, Malaysians, Indonesians, Iranians, Somalis, people from the Balkans, and some Pakehas, with many others represented in smaller numbers.4 It has increased numerically almost ten-fold in the last twenty years and more than doubled in the last five. According to the latest census, that of 1996, there were 13,545 Muslims in New Zealand, representing 0.37 percent of the population.5 Muslim leaders today estimate a figure of 20,000, which is not unlikely in view of the most recent growth. The majority of Muslims live in the Auckland area, while most of the rest live in Wellington, the nation's capital, or four other major cities.6 Of these, up to a thousand are overseas students who will mostly leave after completing their studies, but many of whom contribute significantly to the community while they are here.


The census records report small numbers of Muslims from 1874 on, but those that came before the early twentieth century have left no further record. Some may have been Chinese working in gold fields in the south of the country.7 The continuous and remembered history of the present community goes back to a handful of Gujarati Indian men who arrived from about 1907 and opened small shops, mainly in towns south of Auckland. In time they brought their sons to New Zealand to help in the shops, while their wives, daughters and younger sons remained for the most part in India and the men would visit them with some frequency.8 They do not appear to have viewed their stay in New Zealand as permanent. In 1920 the government adopted what amounted to a "White New Zealand" immigration policy which precluded further significant Asian immigration and the Muslim population of New Zealand remained at less than a hundred until after the Second World War.

In the early 1950s, however, the children of the early arrivals did bring their wives and children and settled in on a more permanent basis. The third and later generations of these families have been raised in New Zealand although they appear to keep in close contact with members of their extended families elsewhere in the world. At about the same time the government accepted a limited number of war refugees for immigration and among these were some Muslims from Turkey and the Balkans, including perhaps twenty to thirty who came to the Auckland area, where the resident Indian Muslims helped them to settle in. This group appears to have been more inclined to assimilate into Pakeha society and attenuate their Muslim identity. Some, however, have remained active in Muslim and ethnic matters and have publicly expressed their concern in the recent crises in Bosnia and Kosova. The censuses of the1950s reported about 200 Muslims in the country.

Further significant but limited Muslim growth began in the mid-1960s when a period of liberalised immigration policy opened the way for a small number of mainly South Asians and Fijian Indians, including some professional and white collar workers. A few overseas Muslim students also came to the universities.9 The number of Muslims reported in the census between 1961 and 1971 trebled, from 260 to 779. Rapid growth in relative terms continued in the 1970s and 1980s with Muslim numbers, as recorded in the census figures, reaching 2500 by 1986, while the actual number may have been higher than what the census indicated.10 The years from 1977 to 1980 saw major Muslim organisational developments, including the establishment of a national federation, which will be described below.

Since the late 1980s numbers have risen dramatically, partly as a result of political events elsewhere and partly as a result of changes in the government's immigration policy. The 1987 coup d'etat in Fiji caused a considerable influx of Fijian Indians, many of them Muslims, particularly to the Auckland area. Since1993 at least two thousand refugees have come from Somalia, and Somalis currently form the single largest Muslim ethnic group in at least two centres, Christchurch and Hamilton.11 Smaller numbers of Bosnians, Kosovars, Kurds and Afghans have also come as refugees. Apart from refugees, new immigration regulations put in place by the government in November 1991 established a "point" system that favours immigration by wealthy or well-educated people from any ethnic background. Under this system a number of Muslim professional people have entered, especially from the Middle East. Unfortunately, many of these have found that their qualifications are not recognised here and some are likely to move on to places where opportunities are better. According to the census figures the number of resident Muslims stood 5772 in 1991 and 13,545 in 1996, and they may now number as many as twenty thousand, as indicated above.

The are also a small number of Kiwis who have become Muslims, often in the context of marriage to a Muslim. They are probably less than five percent of the community but some have made significant contributions to it.12


The recent immigrant character of most of the community is reflected in the fact that only about 20 percent of Muslims have been born in New Zealand (as compared to over 80 percent for the general population). 13 There is a preponderance of males over females, although it is less than it was earlier. According to the 1996 census 55 percent of Muslims were male, as compared with 49 percent for the New Zealand population as a whole. The Muslim population is also younger than the population as a whole. Almost 60 percent of the Muslims were under thirty years of age while in the general population the percentage is about 45. The numbers over 65 years old are particularly low, 1.5 percent compared to 11.7 percent. 14 The Gujeratis who came early in the twentieth century were almost all small shopkeepers, and many Muslims are still owners of small businesses. Some of these are doing quite well. A larger proportion comes in the category of unskilled or semi-skilled labourers, particularly in Auckland, but there are also a fair number of professionals, as already indicated. Those raised in New Zealand often have gained tertiary qualifications that have led to good jobs. The 1986 and 1991 censuses reported a median income for New Zealand Muslims only slightly below the average for the country as a whole and the unemployment rate, among men who had settled in, did not seem much different either.15

For those who have come in the last decade or so the situation is generally more difficult, but this varies with ethnic groups. Fijian Indians on the whole have probably had the least difficulty since there was already a strong community here. At the opposite extreme are the Somalis, who have suffered particularly severe trauma prior to arrival, and have a high incidence of health problems and gaps in education for the young people. Moreover, the gulf between their culture and the Pakeha culture is greater than it is for most other Muslim immigrants.16 Very few of them have been able to gain employment, even though they generally come from well educated middle or upper class background.17 Added to all this is the high cost of bringing their relatives in.18 In between are groups such as the Bosnians and the Kosovars, who have some countrymen here and whose culture is European. Those professionals who have come in under the "point system" have very often found that their qualifications are not recognised here and have had to earn their living in some other way, e.g. ethnic restaurants, or rely on unemployment benefits while they seek to pass the necessary professional exams (which often require levels of English or local knowledge not relevant to their skills as such) or train for some other occupation.19 For both them and the Somalis, the loss of status has been hard to bear. One Somali has commented, "Somehow you can turn from a hero at home to a fool here. I mean I was a very important man in my village at home and here I cannot get a job."20 It is thus not surprising that the relative median income for Muslims in the 1996 census is considerably lower that in the previous two.21

Muslim women who are not recent arrivals appear to be employed in the labour force in fairly large numbers though at a rate somewhat less than that of the general population.22 Allowing for family responsibilities and cultural traditions, women among the newer arrivals may not be too much worse off than the men, but the Somali women are generally less willing or able to work than those from other groups. Due to the circumstances that brought them here they have a high proportion of families headed by women.

In moral and cultural terms, Muslims have some problems adjusting to a society that has traditionally prided itself on "rugby, beer and racing". Beer and racing clearly run counter to Muslim moral values. Few Muslims relate to rugby, but other sports such as cricket and soccer do appeal to many. As is true elsewhere, clothing and particularly women's clothing, has been an issue. Many but not all Muslim women wear distinctively Islamic garb or at least a headscarf in public, and this makes them quite noticeable. Informants differ on the degree to which this makes it harder for them to get jobs, but it surely does to some extent. School uniforms for girls are skimpy by Muslim standards, but to my knowledge state schools have been for the most part reasonably accommodating at this point, allowing headscarves and variants to the uniforms and even to bathing suits. It has been suggested that the problem of getting Muslim girls to wear headscarves is greater than the problem of getting schools to allow it. On the other hand, I have also been told that some second-generation Muslim girls have had the cultural confidence to be quite assertive on their right to wear Islamic garb in school and on other matters. Schools also appear to be accommodating on matters of diet and allowing time for salat. There are at least a few schools that set aside space for salat. They do not, however, provide any specifically Islamic education and they perforce reflect the general community mores. There have been some problems for Muslim workers getting time to perform salat, or attend Salat al-Jum'a, but mainly in assembly-line conditions where one person stopping stops the whole line. I am told that office workers rarely have problems today.

Matters of this sort are usually handled in an informal and low-key manner. An example of the low-key approach is provided by the issue of female genital mutilation. With the arrival of the Somalis, New Zealand Health authorities became concerned about this and it was made a criminal offence at the beginning of 1996, but this was done with virtually no publicity or media discussion and the emphasis has been on education more than prohibition.

Racial and religious discrimination is illegal in New Zealand, but New Zealanders on the whole are not well informed about Islam and therefore prejudice and negative stereotypes do exist in the minds of many people. This is partly because the media, drawing heavily on overseas sources, tend to stress violence and extremism in the Muslim world. There has sometimes been local resistance to granting building permits for building mosques. In 1990, during the Gulf War, graffiti was sprayed on the Islamic centre in Wellington, but the Muslims received considerable support and sympathy from the local churches, a Jewish congregation and other agencies.

Muslims do suffer occasional discrimination, harassment and violence. For example, Somalis have suffered personal assaults in several cities, in Christchurch a group of Egyptian Muslims were harassed while picnicking and in Auckland a Fijian was badly bashed.23 Incidents of this sort, however, are isolated and result more from racial than religious motives. They are generally downplayed by Muslim spokespeople and are handled in a very low-key manner, both by the Muslims and by the local authorities.

The most serious incident took place in Hamilton in 1998 and shows New Zealand at both its worst and its best in this respect. There had been considerable resistance to the building of a mosque in 1997 and about six months after it was opened it was burned and gutted in an arson attack. The city was deeply shocked by this event and people rallied to assist the Muslims. The City Council provided space for prayers while they were rebuilding and donations from the community, spearheaded by some church groups and the local Jewish community, assisted them in building a protective fence and installing a security system. One Muslim leader has commented that the whole event showed them how many friends they have.

In fact, Kiwis are on whole tolerant and prejudice is mainly a matter of ignorance and thus amenable to education. Local Muslims do get some positive attention from the local media, especially the press and radio, and efforts to counter negative reporting are sometimes successful. In some cases local Muslims are on quite good terms with the local press. Representations by the national federation probably contributed to a decision not to air the docu-drama, "Death of a Princess", on television in the 1980s. Also in the 1980s, legal action against a particularly unfair article on Islam in a media-related magazine resulted in giving the federation the right of reply.24 The Muslims took a low-key approach to the Rushdie affair, largely limiting their response to a series of public debates organised at the universities.25

So far few Muslims have participated prominently in politics, though some have attained high positions in their professions. In fact, even the largest Asian ethnic group, the Chinese, got its first MP only in the1996 election. Nevertheless, one Muslim has been president of the Ethnic Council of New Zealand for several years and came close to winning a seat in Parliament as a representative of the Labour party in 1999. Two other Muslims stood for one of the smaller parties.26


Not all Muslims in New Zealand are actively associated with the organised Islamic associations, of course, but it is these associations, along a few trusts and schools, that constitute the specifically Islamic institutions in the country. The oldest local association is the New Zealand Muslim Association, which was established in 1950 in Auckland. Initially its membership consisted of the few Gujerati families present at the time, joined shortly by a few families coming from Turkey and the Balkans. Fijian Indians and others were added from the1960s on. In the early years its meetings were held in homes or shop premisses, then from 1963 in houses owned by the association. For larger celebrations such as Eids a hall would be rented.

By the mid-1970s three other Muslim groups had also been formed in Auckland. The Anjuman Himayat al-Islam was a mainly Fijian-Indian group. The New Zealand Council of the World Muslim Congress was led by a businessman of Albanian background and seems to have focused mainly on publicising Muslim social and international political concerns. There was also a "Sufi" group led by a Kiwi convert who was much influenced by Gurdjieff and whose following was mainly Pakeha. The existence of these several groups in a small community posed problems and a visiting delegation from Saudi Arabia in 1976 advised them to unite. As a result the Anjuman and the NZMA did unite that year to form a new New Zealand Muslim Association. The other two groups went their separate ways and, to my knowledge, are no longer active.27 The new association promptly began to plan and raise funds to build a mosque. The foundation was laid on March 30, 1979 and by 1983 the main prayer hall, with a capacity of 400 worshippers, and the ablution block had been completed and furnished. A meeting hall and flat for the imam were completed by 1990.

The NZMA has grown recent years and currently has an average of about 500 worshippers at Salat al-Jum'a. Other associations and groups have come into being in the Auckland area, as Muslims have grown in numbers and spread to various areas of the city. Beginning as an offshoot of the NZMA in the early 1980s, The South Auckland Muslim Association became a separate association in 1989 and is currently building a mosque. Several other centres have been established since the late 1980s. A mosque has been built in West Auckland under the aegis of the NZMA. The Mount Roskill Center, meeting now in a converted church, is run by an Islamic trust independent of the other associations and of the national federation and appears currently to have the largest attendance at Salat al-Jum'a, about 800 on average. There are apparently some six other places where salat is performed in the Auckland area, at least one of which is under the aegis of the NZMA, but I do not have much information about them. For the last two years salat Eid al-Adha has been held in a park. In 1999 about 4000 attended and this year there were 7-8000.28

There are several other Muslim communities in the North Island. The Muslim community of Hamilton dates pretty much from the 1970s and was for a time associated with the NZMA in Auckland. They founded the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Muslim Association in 1980 and it has developed into a very active association, which built a mosque in 1997, as mentioned above. The Muslim community of Palmerston North also dates from the 1970s and was for a time associated with organisation in Wellington. Its association, the Manawatu Muslim Association, was incorporated also in 1980. Beginning as outreach efforts from the associations based in Hamilton and Palmerston North respectively, associations have been formed very recently in the cities of Tauranga and Wanganui. Efforts have also been made to form associations in Hastings and Rotorua.

The International Muslim Association of New Zealand (IMAN) was established in Wellington in 1966. Initially it was made up mostly of university students, but this is no longer the case. It has an Islamic centre and has been planning to build a mosque for some years, but has had difficulty working out its plans. The growth and spread of the community has led to the opening of two or three new facilities in the greater Wellington area, one under the aegis of IMAN and at least one independent. Salat al-Jum'a is also held at the headquarters of the national federation in Wellington. The average attendance at Salat al-Jum'a for all of these centres combined currently is about 500 to 600.

In the South Island, Muslim communities are found in Christchurch and Dunedin. The Canterbury Muslim Association was established in Christchurch in 1977 and, though a small group, was able to build a mosque in 1985. This association has suffered seriously from internal division in the last few years, although it has grown in numbers. It has an average attendance of 300-400 at Salat al-Jum'a at present. It has drawn some leadership over the years from graduate students at the two universities in its area (Canterbury and Lincoln), although the universities are not heavily represented at present. There were a couple of abortive efforts to establish an association in Dunedin in the l980s before the present the Otago Muslim Association was formed in 1995. Students and others connected with the University of Otago appear to form a large proportion of its constituency, something which reflects the character of the town itself. 29

Depending on numbers and resources, these associations provide for the main religious services, including regular salat and prayers and activities for Ramadhan and the main festivals, as well as basic religious teaching, Arabic instruction and various social activities. Some have also organised the provision of Halal food, although this is also often obtainable from some shops in the larger cities or informally by other means. Most have marriage celebrants and burial space in a local cemetery. Several of the centres in Auckland have full time imams, as has IMAN in Wellington, whose long-serving and highly respected imam died in 1999. Some of the others have had full time imams from time to time.

Women are active in the local associations and some of these have women's groups, more or less formally organised, but I do not have up-to-date information about these. In some of the centres outside Auckland during the 1980s some women would perform salat in the back of the same room as the men but now they use a separate room or perform salat at home. This is partly because growing numbers have put pressure on facilities. Most of the communities have activities for youth, especially sports activities, which may or may not be organised by the associations. Youth camps and family camps are also held with some frequency.

A start has been made in Auckland in providing for Muslim day schools. l-Madinah School, backed by the Islamic Education and Da'wa Trust, began on a "home schooling" basis in 1989, was registered by the Ministry of Education in 1992 and moved into its present building in 1995. In 1999 it had over 300 students in forms 1 to 6 (ages 11-16 approximately). Another school for younger students ran for a few years but has been discontinued, at least in part due to financial problems. I understand there is a plan to reopen it in a new location. A girls' school, Zayed College for Girls, is in process of construction and is expected to open in 2001. 30


The national level organisation is the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), which was formed in 1979 in order to coordinate the activities the individual associations, several of which were just beginning at the time, and to regulate contacts between New Zealand Muslims and Muslims abroad, especially in such matters as the solicitation of donations and representation at international gatherings. Its offices are in Wellington and its membership now of consists of seven local associations, NZMA, South Auckland Muslim Association, IMAN, and the associations in Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin. The other newer groups in Auckland and Wellington, as well as those in Tauranga and Wanganui, do not, or do not yet, belong. Under its present structure the local associations select representatives to its Council and this in turn chooses the officers and Executive committee.

Its objectives are currently described in the following terms: "To establish and maintain the highest standard of Islamic practice in accordance with the teaching of the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah. To undertake da'wa, education, welfare and other Islamic activities. To strengthen Islamic unity and assist in the development of the Muslim community." 31 Among other things, it assists local associations in fund raising, arranges visits by overseas speakers, distributes books, videos and other literature, and holds Qur'an recitation competitions. It has a committee to determine the dates of Eids, a matter on which there has been some diversity in the past. It is concerned to publicise Muslim viewpoints to the wider public on issues specifically concerning Muslims, such as the situations in Kosova and Chechnya, and a couple of its actions vis-a-vis the media have been mentioned above. It avoids comment on other political issues, however, as do the local associations. We may note also that FIANZ and two university associations have web sites on the Internet. 32 In 1990 FIANZ [DR incorporated in 1992] created a business entity called AMANA Corporation with the goal of generating revenue for the Muslim community and making FIANZ financially self-sufficient. So far as I am aware, however, it has had only limited success to date. There has been some talk of establishing Islamic banking.

Since about 1990 there has been an active national Women's Council, affiliated to FIANZ, which holds one or more conferences and camps a year. In April 1999 the national conference was held in Hamilton on theme of "Education in Islam", with about 120 attending. 33 Two seats (out of 19) on the FIANZ governing council are reserved for women.

It is worth noting that the cities that have Muslim associations linked to FIANZ are precisely the same cities that have universities. Not only have the Muslim university students contributed to the regular associations but there have also been Muslim student associations at the universities, varying in size, activity and continuity, over the years. At present there are as many as 2000 Muslim students in universities and also about the same number in polytechnics, and all of the New Zealand universities and a number of the polytechnics currently have Muslim student associations. In 1997 a nation-wide university students' organisation was formed, and at the end of 1999 it took the name Muslim Students and Youth Organisation of New Zealand.34 While focusing on university students, it also seeks to encourage activities among polytechnic and high school students. Some involved have studied in the United States and the organisation draws considerable inspiration for its programming from Muslim student activities there. There is also a New Zealand Muslim Sports Association, affiliated to FIANZ, which raised money to send a soccer team to Fiji in 1999 for a five-nations Muslim tournament. 35

The associations, both local and national, have received significant financial assistance from sources in Muslim majority countries for their major building projects such as mosques and Al-Madinah School and for salaries for some of the imams. This has come especially but not exclusively from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They are active in trans-national organisations such as Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the Regional Islamic Da'wah Council of South East Asia and the Pacific (RISEAP).

An important economic development for New Zealand in the last quarter century has been the introduction of Halal meat slaughter. Sheepmeat has been one of the main New Zealand exports for more than a century, but exports to the Middle East began only in the mid-1970s. When the revolutionary government in Iran signalled a willingness to purchase large quantities of New Zealand lamb on the condition that it be Halal, the New Zealand meat industry moved promptly, and with relatively little opposition, to comply. A small group of farmers objected that this was anti-Christian and got brief media attention but little else, to my knowledge. In the process, a considerable number of New Zealand abattoirs shifted to Halal slaughter and New Zealand is now the world's largest exporter of Halal lamb. Sales to Iran have decreased in recent years but have been replaced by sales to other Muslim countries. Since 1984 FIANZ has provided a Halal certification service, which is its main economic activity. At present it is qualified to certify for the whole Muslim world and is the sole certifier for the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It deals with 26 abattoirs which employ about 130 Halal slaughterers. At the beginning most slaughterers were brought on a temporary basis from overseas, but now most are local Muslims. There is one other certifying agent, New Zealand Islamic Meat Management, an independent Wellington-based company run by a Muslim of Egyptian origin. Iran makes its own separate arrangements with the meat producers [processors ck]. The meat industry authorities believe that having more than one certifier increases the credibility of the certifying process, as well as controlling costs.36


Da'wa refers both to efforts to reach non-Muslims and to efforts to strengthen the commitment and activity of those who already are Muslims. In the latter category we may put the Tabligh movement, which began with the work of Maulana Ilyas in India in the 1920's and has since spread throughout the world. Its major concern in New Zealand and elsewhere is to recall Muslims to regular practice of the major obligations of Islam, such as salat, and it has tended to avoid involvement in political issues. In addition to regular local meetings, groups of volunteers travel about within a country and internationally to spread their message and stimulate existing activity. This movement is quite strong among New Zealand Muslims. There is Tabligh activity in most local areas and an informal national network. These are distinct from the local associations and FIANZ but they cooperate and many of the same people are involved. Since 1979 there has been an annual national gathering ( ijtema ) and at present there is also an effort to hold other meetings on a national or regional basis. While some criticise Tabligh as being a conservative force and too associated with Indian ethnicity, its informality, its use of "lay" leadership and its stress on the basics makes it well suited to the New Zealand situation.

A movement called Milaad has come to New Zealand quite recently . I have limited information about it but it appears to combine elements of popular Sufism and Fijian Indian folk practice, as well as to take a strong position favouring the celebration of the Prophet's Birthday. It is apparently very critical of the Tablighis and I am told that some centres in Auckland are identified with one or the other, but members of both groups cooperate within the associations.

All of the communities are engaged to a greater or lesser degree in da'wa activities directed toward non-Muslims. This takes various forms, such as advertisements and announcements in the local press, receiving visitors to the centres and providing them with literature, and inviting speakers from outside. The Dunedin community held an "Islam Awareness Week" in 1999 which included a radio program, films, an exhibition of Islamic artifacts, a public forum, and an invitation to the general public to witness Salat al-Jum'a.37 There is an Islamic Da'wah and Converts Association of New Zealand, which is concerned to invite non-Muslims to Islam and to support them afterwards. It claims up to a hundred members, mostly in Auckland. One Muslim leader estimates that there have been 150 converts to Islam in the last three years.

Significant inter-faith dialogue activities are taking place at least in Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton. In Auckland the Council of Christians and Muslims was formed in 1998 and meets four times a year, including one meeting held jointly with the Council of Christians and Jews. In Wellington, there are at least two interfaith groups in which Muslims participate and discuss theological and other topics, one involving the Iranian Embassy and the Council of Churches and another sponsored by Anglicans. Interfaith activities also take the form of cooperation in matters of mutual concern. When the Department of Religious Studies at the Victoria University in Wellington was under review, the Muslims cooperated with others to support it, with favourable results. The Auckland Council of Christians and Muslims recently discussed three television programs that were considered to denigrate Islam, and the Christian members laid a complaint. Early in 1998 both Christians and Muslims demonstrated against an offensive display in the National Museum in Wellington and a Muslim spokeswoman participated in a televised debate on this. Beyond the formal events, the personal contacts and acquaintances developed are invaluable.


The New Zealand associations are not divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. This is primarily because of the small size of the Muslim community, but also reflects the policy and efforts of the leadership. Ethnic feelings are not absent, to be sure, and they contribute to some intra-community disputes along with personality factors. More than once I have been told by someone from one ethnic group that another ethnic groups confuses its customs with Islam. There is some resentment at the perceived predominance of South Asians although this is far from universal and the leadership does make efforts to be ethnically inclusive. Leaders to whom I have spoken recognise the possibility that ethnic mosques may appear some day, but not in the immediate future, and they appear committed to trying to avoid this development.

New Zealand Muslims are overwhelming Sunni although some Shi'is are present. My impression is that the associations are strongly but not officially Sunni in ethos. The NZMA limited its membership to Sunnis until 1980. An Iranian mullah who had been sent to oversee the Halal slaughterers was assisting in the teaching activities of the association at the time and appears to have played a role in changing this. A few Ismailis came from Uganda after they were expelled in 1972 but I have little information on their activities. In at least two cases they sought to bury their dead in the Muslim section of cemeteries and permission was granted by the associations after some investigation. It also appears that Ahmadis, strong in Fiji, have appeared in Auckland in the last few years, but again I have little information on this.38

At another level, there have been debates within the community over the propriety of celebrating the Prophet's Birthday and the permissibility of drinking Kava, a Fijian drink said to be alcoholic.39


In the early 1980s I was told that the main purpose of the recently formed associations was "to keep them Muslim." That goal continues to be relevant but now should be easier now given the increased numbers. Still, one may ask how firmly established the community is. At the collective level it has reached a size and a degree of activity such that its continued and flourishing existence seems assured. At the individual level, however, I would judge that the majority of the Muslims are not firmly rooted in New Zealand. Even many of the South Asians who are of the second or third generation here have family connections and overseas interests that could draw them away. Some of the more recently arrived will return to their homelands if and when things settle down or will move elsewhere if they cannot find suitable employment here. (It should be noted, for perspective, that economic and professional opportunities send many Pakehas overseas, but the proportions among Muslims will be much greater.) To my knowledge most have taken out New Zealand citizenship, or will do so when they are eligible, but this will not necessarily keep them here. A New Zealand passport can be a significant asset in many parts of the world. This has serious implications for the character of the community and, in particular, for the continuity of its leadership, which has always been something of a problem. It could inhibit the process of taking root.

A couple of people have drawn a distinction between being "Muslims in New Zealand", that is an immigrant community surviving in an alien environment, and being "Muslims of New Zealand", that is a community developing forms of Islamic expression appropriate to the local society and interacting significantly with that society. At present the community is predominantly "Muslims in New Zealand", more so indeed than ten years ago, given the recent influx. It will take time and suitable circumstances to become also "Muslims of New Zealand", but at the very least the institutional basis has been laid. To use an agricultural analogy, the seed has been well sown and is growing vigourously though it is still in the process of striking its roots and labouring to adapt to its environment.


1Back  Much of the information for this article has been obtained through personal interviews with members of the Muslim community and others both in recent weeks and earlier, over a period of about twenty years. This material is usually not footnoted. I wish to express my appreciation to those who have kindly taken the time to answer my questions and share their knowledge with me. I have also included or summarised material from my earlier articles on this topic, especially, "Muslims in New Zealand", The Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 4/1-2 (l982): 60-81; "Muslims in New Zealand", The Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 16/2 (l996): 211-232 [Updates to 1991]; "Australia and New Zealand", authored jointly with Michael Humphrey, in Islam Outside the Arab World, eds. David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999, pp. 278-294. Further information about some of the matters touched on briefly can be found in these articles, although the first two are very dated by now. At the same time as I am preparing the text for this article I am also preparing articles on this topic for two other volumes, directed to somewhat different audiences. These three articles will inevitably overlap to a considerable degree in terms of material covered, though the formats, many of the details and much of the wording will be different.

2Back  The 1996 census reported a total population of about 3.6 million, about 2.7 million in the North Island and. The figure of 3.8 million comes from a report from the Statistics New Zealand on television, 29 April 2000. Census figures come from Census 96, 1996 New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings, National Summary and Regional Summary. (Wellington: Statistics New Zealand)

3Back   For ethnic figures, see Census 96, Ethnic Groups, pp. 108, 111, 114, 117 and elsewhere. The census lists fifty ethnic groups on the basis of self-identification, with more than a thousand representatives; of these seventeen could be considered Northwest European.

4Back   For the figure of 35 nationalities, see "Muslim Community in New Zealand", FIANZ, 5 May 2000, Internet
The following breakdown is derived from the table on "Ethnicity and Sex by Religious Affiliation" in the 1996 census figures:




Other Asian



Middle Eastern






Other Southeast Asian






These figures are of limited help here, partly because of the way they are collected and categorised and partly because of the growth and change in the Muslim community since then. In particular, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are included under "Other Asian" rather than "Indian". Another table, "Ethnicity - Total Response by Sex and Religious Affiliation" (used in the previous footnote) suggests the South Asians may be 35-40%.

A source from the FIANZ office estimates the following:





S.E. European & Turkish


Southeast Asian






"Indian" here includes Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Fijian Indian.

5Back   Census 96, Ethnic Groups, Ethnicity and Sex by Religious Affiliation, pp. 108, 111, 114; cf. Census 96, 1996, National Summary, p. 37 and elsewhere.

6Back   The Muslim population of Main Urban Areas according to the 1996 census along with the percent of the total (figures in parenthesis represent estimates of late 1999 numbers by various Muslim informants): [DR] (figures in parenthesis represent a rough estimate of late 1999 numbers from the FIANZ office):












[100-500 Tauranga & Hastings]

Palmerston N



[100-500, including Wanganui]













Total above




Other urban areas




Rural areas






99.8 %


Based on Census 96, 1996 New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings, National Summary (Wellington: Statistics New Zealand), pp. 82-102.

7Back   Information in the 1874 census reports suggests that 14 of the 17 Muslims reported were in this category. "Muslim Community in New Zealand", ref. cit., gives 1868 as the date of Muslim first arrival, but I don't know what the evidence for this is.

8Back   Part of this information is based on my interviews with the descendants of the earliest arrivals, along with J. V. Leckie, They Sleep Standing Up: Gujaratis in New Zealand to 1945, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1981. The three early arrivals most often mentioned are Ismail Bhikhoo and Joseph Moses (Isap Musa), who settled in the North Island, and Muhammad Suleiman Kara, who settled in settled in Christchurch. Kara may have come as early as 1907. Bhikhoo probably arrived between 1909 and 1914. Daughters-in-law of Moses and Bhikhoo came in 1936 and 1940 respectively. As of 1981 there were at least 44 descendants of Bhikhoo and Moses in New Zealand. Moses came between 1920 and 1923 according to information from his descendants, although later than 1920 seems unlikely in view of the "White New Zealand" immigration policy adopted at that time. According to Leckie (p 212) the above three were the only Gujerati Muslims to enter New Zealand before 1920. Tiwari, however, mentions other Indian Muslims, such as Muhammad Khan and Gulam Kedarmia, for the inter-war period. (K. Tiwari, ed., Indians in New Zealand, Wellington: Price Milburn, 1980, p. 83, fn. 42, and p. 151).

9Back  Under the Colombo plan, according to "Muslim Community in New Zealand" but I have not been able to get further information on this. One of my sources suggests that there was a relatively liberal period between 1960 and 1975 but another limits this the period of the third Labour government, 1973-5.

10Back   This was commonly claimed by Muslim leaders in the 1980s. See Shepard, "Muslims in New Zealand" (l996), fn. 3.

11Back   Technically most of these are not refugees, since those who have come as refugees have brought members of their families under "family reunion" provisions of the law, but in reality they are all refugees. The 1996 census recorded only 348 Somalis but this figure is certainly out of date. My figures are based on Community service as well as Muslim sources and estimate 600 for Christchurch, 600 for Hamilton and 800 for Auckland, with smaller numbers elsewhere.

12Back   The estimate is that of one of the current leaders. I have received varying estimates over the years of number of recent converts (see below).

13Back   Census 96, People Born Overseas , p. 65.

14Back   The following are based on pre-publication figures from the 1996 census but are not significantly different from the published figures:

Age bracket


General Population %













15Back   Extrapolating from the census figures that I have, 1986 Income figures appear to put Muslim median income at $10000-12500 and that of the general population at $12,500-15,000. I calculate that in 1991 the Muslim and general medians were both in the $10,000-15,000 bracket, but the Muslim median was nearer the bottom and the general median nearer the top of that bracket; for 1996 see fn. 22 below. The comment on unemployment is based on my impressions and that of my informants.

16Back   In the case of women, most informants say simply that most Somali women do not go out to work, but a community worker in Christchurch tells me that Somali women could work in nursing homes if they were willing to wash male patients.

17Back   This is the view of most of my sources, although others tell me that a fair proportion come from the countryside and do not have such a high level of education. Some Somalis have gained employment as Halal-slaughterers (see below) but even here they complain that slaughterers are often brought in from Malaysia and Fiji in preference to them. Humpage cites a figure of 95% unemployment for Somalis (Louise Humpage, Refuge and Turmoil, Somali Refugee Adolescents in Christchurch Schools, MA Thesis, Sociology, U of Canterbury, 1998, p. 65).

18Back   For those who come in under the "family reunion" (see fn. 11) category, they must pay the cost of transportation here and a deposit to the government.

19Back   From November of 1991 to October of 1995 the point system considered general level of education but took almost no cognisance of the degree to which particular skills were needed. There is also a separate category for immigrants with entrepreneurial skills and considerable capital, but I have no information on how many Muslims have come in this way. The general impression is that people from such places as Taiwan and Hong Kong have come in this way.

20Back   Katherine Hoby, "More to multiculturalism than just eating Chinese food", Christchurch Press, 21 March 2000.

21Back   The 1996 the figures put the Muslim median in the $ 5000-10,000 bracket and the general population in the $15,000-20,000 bracket. (This last figure is considerably lower that the figure of close to $30,000 usually given in the media as the average income and I do not know the reason for this, but I believe the relativities are accurate.) On employment, 1996 statistics for Asians over 15 years indicate that 47.7% are employed full or part time, 7.8% are unemployed and 44.5% are not in the labour force, as compared to 60%, 5% and 35% for the general population. How close the Asian figures are to the Muslim figures is hard to say, but they probably tell us something.

22Back   According to the 1986 census 44% of Muslim women were in full or part-time employment, as compared with 53% of women in the general population (1986 New Zealand Census of Population and Dwellings, Series C Report 14, pp. 44-45). I do not have these figures from the later censuses. One current estimate for the community as a whole is 30%.

23Back   The case of the Egyptians is from the minutes of the Refugee and New Migrant Forum for 17 April 1998, the others are personal reports.

24Back   The article was "The Sword of Islam", reporting the views of John Laffin, NZ Listener, 7 March 1987. The main problem with the article was the totally uncritical manner in which Laffin's views were reported. I do not believe that this could happen today.

25Back   It has been reported that the N.Z. government banned import of the book (Shabbir Akhtar, Be Careful with Muhammad! , London: Bellew, 1989, p. 93) but I have been unable to confirm this.

26Back   Under the system of Mixed Member Proportional Representation, which began in 1996, half the members of Parliament are elected from single member districts and half from national party lists. All of the Muslims were on party lists and was the Chinese person elected.

27Back   There are several Sufi groups and/or teachers who follow the teachings of Inayat Khan, but they appear to consider Sufism as a form of universalism rather than specifically Islamic. To my knowledge they have no connection with any of the Islamic associations.

28Back   According to Al-Mujaddid, December 1999, p. 11 and personal communications. Al-Mujaddid is a recently founded Muslim newspaper issued monthly in Auckland but not officially connected with any association, to my knowledge, though it contains news of their activities.

29Back   Also, it appears the association was started by university students in 1979 and again in 1988. The first was abortive and I do not know whether the present association, incorporated in 1995, is a continuation of the second. I have been informed that it now has a core of permanent residents. It is evidently raising funds to build a mosque but my information is not totally up to date on this association.

30Back   See the articles in Al-Mujaddid, October 1999. In New Zealand parents are allowed to instruct their children at home under certain conditions rather than sending them to school. Registration by the Ministry of Education brings with it a certain amount of state funding.

31Back   From Profile on the FIANZ web site

32Back   FIANZ
and the Auckland University group is The association at the University of Waikato in Hamilton also has a website and I believe IMAN does, too.

33Back   Al-Mujaddid, July 1999. I have seen slightly varying forms of the official name of this group.

34Back   This organisation plans to be associated with FIANZ in the same manner as the women's association, but I do not know if this arrangement has been completed.

35Back   Al-Mujaddid, July 1999. The five nations are Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada and the U.S. A later report says the team did well. (October 1999) Another informant has given the name as West Auckland Muslim Sports Assn. I am informed that there are plans to link this to the Muslim Students and Youth Organisation.

36Back   On Halal Slaughter in New Zealand, see, inter alia, "Halal, lawful and safe", The New Zealand Meat Producer, Last Quarter, 1996. I do not have much current information about the NZIMM but their point of view is expressed in an article, "Tender raises questions over $200 million Muslim meat trade" in The National Business Review (NZ), March 10, 2000, p. 13.

37Back   Al-Mujaddid, October 1999. An independent witness from Dunedin reports that it was quite well received but did not attract as many non-Muslims as had been hoped.

38Back   The situation relating to Shi'is may be changing slightly. There is an evidently Shi'i New Zealand site on the Internet, "Ahl-ul-Bayt Islamic Centre", but neither I nor my informants know anything about it and my latest efforts to open it have failed. Iran has an embassy in Wellington but I do not know if it is making any significant effort to influence local Muslims. I have been told that in the mid-1990s a group of Shi'i graduate students at the University of Otago in Dunedin were meeting separately because the Muslim Association had taken an aggressive Sunni position and that at one point the Iranian ambassador intervened in some manner.

39Back   Sermons by Shaykh Khalid of IMAN have been circulated opposing both of these.


This paper written by Dr William Shepard, the retired Associate Professor of Religious Studies from Canterbury University, from the book Muslim Minorities in the West: Visible and Invisible. To purchase a copy of a revised version of the book or for further information click HERE.

This page last updated 10/11/2009 12:39 p.m.