A lot of global political attention in recent years has been on China as it emerges as a heavyweight in the global economy. Mention is often made of its Muslim minorities in the West of China and their push forindependence, but not many people know much about the background to Islam’s emergence in China.
The Chinese started to absorb ‘formal religion’ at a time when prophets were active throughout the world. At a time when Socrates(as) was active in Athens, Krishna(as)in India, Zoroaster(as) in Persia, in China, Kung Fu-Tsu(as) (Confucius(as), 551-479 BCE) began to preach on the means of social harmony.
Confucius(as) was followed by Lao Tzu(as) who laid the seeds of Daoism. So for many centuries, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism gained popularity across China. This began to change as China opened its doors to foreign cultures largely as a result ofthe opening of trade routes such as the Silk Route.
‘Seek knowledge even if from China.’
Although there has always been robust debate about the authenticity of this quote, there is little doubt that the Holy Prophet(saw) would have been aware of China, as the Arabs had strong trading links with China via the Sri Lanka and Malaysia sea routes.
Islam entered China through Arab and Central Asian traders. Actually, the first ‘official’ delegation went in 651 CE under the auspices of the 3rd Caliph, Hadhrat ‘Uthman(ra) who despatched Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas, the Prophet’s maternal Uncle.
He sent a message of peace to the Chinese Emperor encouraging him and his people to embrace Islam. The Emperor Yong Hui, in the second year of his reign, had no interest in adopting these foreign ideas and beliefs, but out of respect, responded by ordering the building of the Memorial Mosque in Canton City (Guangzhou), China’s first Mosque which still stands today. The Annals of the T’ang Dynasty make the first mention of the Muslim Arabs.
Often the Muslims adopted the names of their Han wives or the nearest Chinese name or letter to their original Arabic names; for example settlers with the name Muhammad or Mustafa would often adopt the name Mu or Mo, those named Hasan would become Ha, Said would become Sai and so gradually, the names became integrated into Chinese culture.
A century later, the Annals again record that an ambassador called Sulaiman was sent by the Muslim Caliph Hisham in 726 CE to the Chinese Emperor Hsuan Tsung. Many years later in 756 CE, his son Su Tsung called upon the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur to help him recover his capital cities. The Arab troops that assisted him remained in China, married local women and settled.
Up to now, the Muslims were tolerated as foreign guests, but in the 13th century, having already taken control of the Muslim Middle East, the Mongol hoards devastated China. At this time, many Muslims from Central Asia were forced by the Mongols to migrate to Western China to assist with the administration of their empire. When Kublai Khan became the Emperor in 1259 CE in Khanbaliq (Beijing), he appointed ‘Umar Shams al-Din (commonly known as Syed Ajall) from Bukhara as his treasurer, and eventually as Governor of Yunnan, the region in the South-West towards Vietnam.
There had been a period of instability when the Mongols were removed from China as the Muslims were seen as their administrators. Ming Emperor Hung-Wu offered the Muslims many privileges and as their conditions improved, they were provided with new facilities and many new Mosques were built. These conditions continued to flourish throughout the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE).
In the late 17th century, the great Chinese Muslim scholars Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu and Liu Jielien wrote many books in Chinese on Islam and the Holy Prophet(saw). These books helped to increase the knowledge of the Chinese Muslims, although the wider population were still largely ignorant about Islam as the Muslims did not preach publicly.
There was an uprising of Hui and other ethnic Muslim groups against the Qing Dynasty from 1862 to 1877 in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang. There were many grievances and to some extent, the coming together of the different sects and ethnic groups was out of convenience, but it is claimed that they wanted to create an independent Muslim country west of the Yellow River.
Whatever their motivation, the rebellion was crushed, and estimates of the number of Muslims killed vary from 1-8 million. Many Hui and other ethnic Muslims migrated from Western China to neighbouring Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from 1878 and their descendents still live there whilst maintaining their Chinese roots.
Things stabilised again after the fall of the Qing Dynasty when Sun Yat Sen established the Republic of China and told the people that the country belonged equally to all citizens, including the Han, Hui Muslims, Tibetans and the Mongols.
Modern Islam in China
As mentioned previously, China is a Communist state, and as such, faith was not encouraged and went underground for many years. The China Islamic Association was formed in 1952 but was forced to go underground in 1958. It was the reform years from 1978 that brought religion back to the surface. Five religions wereofficially recognised in China: Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Protestantism andIslam.
The religions and their Mosques, Churches and Temples were revived, and many new converts were attracted to them. By 2000 CE, official estimates claimed that there were now 200 million religious believers in the country, 11% of those being Muslims. The largest community is the 9.8 million Hui Muslims, followed by the 8.4 million Muslims of the Uyghur in the West of the country.
Across the country, there are ten main Muslim groups: Hui, Uyghur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Tatar, Tadjik, Dongxiang, Salar and Bao’an. In many parts of the country, they live separately and have limited interactions with each other in the same way that religious sects co-exist, but in the major cities where the Muslims are a minority, theyoften come together in unity realising that they have more in common than their theological differences.
In cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, the Muslims cannot be distinguished from ordinary Chinese as beards are not exclusive to Muslims, nor is modest dress exclusive to Muslim women. Perceptions of Muslims from the mainstream population are that they eat lamb kebabs and do not eat pork, and observe strict cleanliness. In Beijing, the Muslims of the city live in several pockets and are often involved in the butchery trade where they provide Qing Zhen (Halal) meat for their own communities and also ‘clean’ meat for the wider population who respect Qing Zhen.
China has over 45,000 Mosques, most with a hybrid style of Arabic and Chinese. A typical example is the Niujie Mosque in the Hui district of Beijing which looks like a Chinese Temple from the outside, and on the inside has decorated pillars, walls and ceilings with red and other traditional colours, and gold Qur’anic lettering. The mosque dates from the 10th century and indeed the graves of two Arab missionaries are within the compound.
The main features of a mosque are there: a mihrab (niche), prayer mats facing Makkah, an ablutions hall, and a nearby Qur’anic School. The style is definitely Chinese and the minarets are built as pagodas and not that tall. One account describes that the Muslims did not build tall minarets so as not to offend the superstitious locals.
The mosque stands on a major crossroads in a Muslim area of Beijing not far from the Temple of Heaven, and across the road, there are Muslim shops and boutiques selling Halal meat, books and Islamic clothing (hijabs, hats etc).
However, the State is still wary of religion as a catalyst in breaking up the country (memories of the rebellion of the 19th century remain strong), and so maintains tight control over all clergy and religious instruction. Imams in China are educated at oneof ten Qur’anic Schools where they are also educated in state law and religious policy. Imams attend regular meetings at the China Islamic Association and are also encouraged to attend inter-faith meetings to promote understanding and goodwill. Indeed many of the Imams are aged 20-40 unlike in the Middle East where they are often from the elders of the community.
China has also had some innovations such as women Imams who lead congregationsof women in Mosques, but in general, the Muslims follow the same basic worship as Muslims elsewhere, and 10,000 attend the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah every year.
There are many cities and regions in China that have maintained a significantIslamic heritage and a strong Muslim population to this day including Xi’an and the Xinjiang autonomous region.
Influential Chinese Muslims
Yusuf Ma Dexin
Chinese Muslim Cities
The much-maligned Chinese are a very thoughtful, respectful and spiritual people. Although the political engine of China is facing criticism, the Chinese themselves are very disciplined and considerate and embrace spiritual concepts very easily.
It is interesting that despite being forced to go underground for decades under Communist rule (as did the Muslims of Central Asia under Soviet rule), since restrictions were lifted, the Muslims are back in strong numbers and with their culture and understanding of Islam intact.
Regular contact with the Middle East and South Asia has also ensured a continuous flow of information and active experience back into the Chinese Muslim community and a revival of religious zeal, though there is a difference amongst the Western Chinese who seek political leverage and the Eastern Chinese Muslims who seek to assimilate into main-stream society and practise their faith quietly.
Extracts from :http://www.reviewofreligions.org/1595/islam-in-china/