Islam’s Path East: China

One of Islam’s main entry points into China was the Pearl River port of Quanzhou.

The majority of China’s Muslims are Turkic peoples living in the vast Xinjiang region of northwest China. The rest are mainly Hui – either descendants of Chinese converts to Islam or the offspring of Chinese intermarriages with Muslim immigrants whose appearance is distinctly Chinese. They live in sizeable communities in the former Silk Road oases of western and central China, in the southern province of Yunnan, and in the industrial cities and ports of the east. 

Contacts between Muslims and Chinese began very early. Arab merchants traded in silk even before the advent of Islam, and tradition has it that the new religion was brought to their port-city trading colonies by Muslim missionaries in the seventh century.

In 755, a contingent of 4000 soldiers, mostly Muslim Turks, was sent by the Abbasid caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur to help the Chinese emperor Su Tsung quell a revolt by one of his military commanders, An LuShan. Following the recapture of the imperial capital, Ch’angan (today’s Xian), these soldiers settled in China, married Chinese wives and founded inland Muslim colonies similar to those established by the traders on the coast. 

Islam made its first real inroads into what is now western China in the middle of the 10th century, with the conversion of Sultan Sutuq Bughrakhan of Kashgar and his subsequent conquest of the Silk Road oases of Yarkand and Khotan in southwest Xinjiang. 

During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), China experienced spectacular economic growth. This stimulated expansion of the Muslim mercantile communities – particularly in Ch’ang – an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads, and in the port cities of Quanzhou and Guangzhou, where Muslims largely governed the internal affairs of their own neighborhoods, building mosques and appointing qadis to adjudicate according to Islamic law.

But although some Chinese merchants involved in international trade did become Muslims, other converts were few, and Islam in China was confined largely to Muslim immigrants and their descendants. Until, that is, the Mongol invasion overthrew the Song Dynasty and ushered in what Chinese Muslims regard as the “golden age” of Islam in China.

Inscriptions on Muslim tombstones like the one at Guangzhou have helped scholars piece together the early history of lslam in Southeast Asia.

Although the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1260 – 1382), founded by Kublai Khan, was the only one of the four great Mongol khanates whose rulers never converted to Islam, they nevertheless gave Muslims special status, often-placing individual believers in responsible, even powerful, positions of state. In addition, when Yunnan fell to the Mongol invaders and most of its population fled, leaving an empty land, Kublai Khan sent the tough Muslim soldiers from Central Asia who had helped him conquer China to repopulate the south – though this was probably partly to keep them out of mischief and far from his own capital. It was also during the Mongol period that the Uighur Turks of northwestern China converted to Islam. 

Following the conversion of the Chaghatai Mongols of Central Asia in the 13th century, large stretches of northwest Xinjiang were won over to Islam. In 1513 the oasis of Hami in eastern Xinjiang put itself under the sovereignty of Mansur Chaghatai, who two years later made it his capital and a base from which to spread Islam even further east. The religion advanced as far as Lanzhou, in today’s Gansu province, where a Muslim seminary still operates on the banks of the Yellow River. 

When the indigenous Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) overthrew the Mongols in their turn, however, the Muslims’ position began to deteriorate. They lost their special status and under the Ch’ing, or Manchu, Dynasty (1644 – 1911) were so oppressed that they rebelled repeatedly – most notably in the Panthay Rebellion, which lasted from 1855 to 1873, but was crushed with great cruelty. Because of such repression, the Hui Muslims developed a strong sense of community, living in segregated enclaves usually focused on a single mosque. The roofs of their prayer halls flared, Buddhist-style, and their minarets were built like squat pagodas so as to blend with neighboring Chinese architecture. Mosques in the predominantly Uighur northwest maintained the traditional Muslim architectural style of domed roof and tall, slender minarets, however.

Mosques in China reflect a mixture of architectural styles, sometimes in the same building. The minaret of Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou (left) is simple and smoothly finished like traditional buildings of Arabia. Its courtyard, however (right) is purely Chinese in woodwork and rooflines.

In the 20th century, Muslims throughout China continued to practice their faith discreetly following the advent of Communism, despite the ideology’s atheistic principles. But during the savagery and purges of the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1971, most mosques were destroyed or closed down. Then, following the death of Mao Zedong, Muslims were again given a limited amount of religious freedom. Mosques and religious schools were reopened and few hundred  Muslims were permitted to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

And when I visited China in 1984 with Nik Wheeler, to write and photograph a special issue of Aramco World on the country’s Muslims, and again in 1987 with photographer Tor Eigeland to research another issue, on the Silk Roads, we found China’s renovated mosques crowded and the call to prayer echoing once more from the minarets of the northwestern province.

In Beijing, also, we saw the recently repainted Niu Jie mosque, its pillars lacquered in red and gold and its walls covered with a mixture of Arab and Chinese motifs. In Man we watched workmen restoring the Great Mosque – China’s largest – said to have been built by the 15th-century Muslim hero Cheng Ho, who cleared the South China Sea of pirates and rose to be admiral of the emperor’s fleet. 

In Xinjiang we found that, despite government attempts to dilute the Muslim population by settling masses of Han Chinese among them, the region still retains a distinct Muslim atmosphere. Here the men wear gaily embroidered skullcaps and go regularly to the mosque to pray. They also proudly tell visitors that Wuer Kaixi, who headed the 1989 democracy movement that culminated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, was a Uighur from Xinjiang. 

Grand Mosque in Xian, which has the elaborately flared eaves typical of Chinese pagodas.

Policies introduced by the Chinese government since then, limiting Muslim families to two children per couple in urban areas and three to four in rural areas, along with curbs on religious education, have caused new friction between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese. In the Xinjiang village of Baren last May, for example, 22 people died in clashes with security forces following Beijing’s denial of permission to build a mosque. 

There was no sign of friction, however, when we arrived in Quanzhou, this year, on the last leg of our journey along Islam’s path east. In fact, Hui Muslims played a prominent part in official ceremonies welcoming the UNESCO Silk Roads survey ship Fulk al-Salamah, which Wheeler and I had rejoined in Guangzhou, known in he West as Canton. 

Over 2400 kilometers (1500 miles) from Beijing and only a short train ride from Hong Kong, Guangzhou has always been more open to foreign influence than other Chinese cities, and its mosque is generally considered to be the oldest in China. Said to have been founded by one of the first Muslim missionaries to China some 1300 years ago, Huaisheng Mosque displays a mixture of architectural styles: a 36-meter (118-foot) cone shaped minaret, built during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906), towers over a cloistered court-yard and the sweeping tiled roofs of the prayer hall, rebuilt to replace the original that was destroyed by fire in 1343. It is also known as the Beacon Tower mosque, because during the Tang and Sung Dynasties, when the Pearl River flowed close to the minaret – before silting shifted it away – a light was hung at night from the top of the tower for navigational purposes.

We sailed down the Pearl River estuary and out into the South China Sea, running into thick fog and then heavy rain as we approached Quanzhou. But it failed to dampen the spirited reception for the Fulk alÆSalaniah: massed bands, lion dancers, acrobats – and Hui Muslims – gathered jubilant at dockside.

A section from an early 19th-century Quran, with Chinese

Once one of the world’s largest ports, Quanzhou reached the peak of its prosperity during the Sung Dynasty’s commercial revolution, with Muslim merchants playing a leading role. Today, however, the bustle of big-time commerce has gone, leaving the city a rich cultural heritage of classical Chinese buildings and an opera unchanged in song, dance and music since the Ming era. 


Of the city’s mosques, which once numbered seven, only one remains. But the massive granite walls of Masjid al-Ashab, built in 1009 in this, one of Islam’s easternmost outposts, reflect the enduring vitality of a faith born in the deserts of Arabia and spread across Central Asia and India, all the way to China’s Pacific shores. 

And that is only its diffusion in one direction: eastward. Islam’s way west is another story.

Source: Aramco World


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