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. Continue reading “Islam’s Path East: China”

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