Sunday, February 24, 2008

History of Islam in China

History of Islam in China

Islam in China

History of Islam in China

Tang Dynasty
Song Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Dynasty
Qing Dynasty
Islam in China (1911-present)


Chinese mosques
Niujie Mosque

Major figures

Yusuf Ma DexinZheng HeLiu Zhi
Haji Noor

People Groups


Islamic Cities/Regions



Islamic Association of China
CuisineCalligraphyMartial arts

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The History of Islam in China begins just a few decades after Prophet Muhammad began preaching Islam. Trade existed between pre-Islamic Arabia and China's South Coast, and flourished when Arab maritime traders converted to Islam. It reached its peak under the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

China's long and interactive relationship with the various Steppe tribes and empires, through trade, war, subordination or domination paved the way for a large sustained Islamic community within China. Islamic influence came from the various steppe peoples who assimilated in Chinese culture. Muslims served as administrators, generals, and other leaders who were transferred to China from Persia and Central Asia to administer the empire under the Mongolians. Muslims also entered China from Vietnam where sizeable Muslim communities had sprung up due to Muslim rule in India. This played a large part in the creation of a large Islamic community in Yunnan, which became the largest concentration of Muslims outside of the Northern provinces.

Muslims in China have managed to practice their faith in China, sometimes against great odds, since the seventh century. Islam is one of the religions that is still officially recognized in China.[1]



Uthman, the third Caliph of Islam, sent the first official Muslim envoy to China in 650. The envoy, headed by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, arrived in the Tang capital, Chang'an, in 651 via the overseas route. Huis generally consider this date to be the official founding of Islam in China. The Ancient Record of the Tang Dynasty recorded the historic meeting, where the envoy greeted Emperor Gaozong of Tang China and tried to convert him to Islam. Although the envoy failed to convince the Emperor to embrace Islam, the Emperor allowed the envoy to proselytize in China and ordered the establishment of the first Chinese mosque in the capital to show his respect for the religion. In Arab records there are only sparse records of the event.

Tang dynasty

The Great Mosque of Xi'an, one of China's oldest mosques
The Great Mosque of Xi'an, one of China's oldest mosques

Arab people are first noted in Chinese written records, under the name Ta shi in the annals of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). (Ta shi or Da shi is the Chinese rendering of Tazi--the name the Persian people used for the Arabs) Records dating from 713 speak of the arrival of a Da shi ambassador. The first major Muslim settlements in China consisted of Arab and Persian merchants.[2]

In 756, a contingent probably consisting of Persians and Iraqis was sent to Kansu to help the emperor Su-Tsung in his struggle against the rebellion of An Lushan. Less than 50 years later, an alliance was concluded between the Tang and the Abbasids against Tibetan attacks in Central Asia. A mission from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid(766-809) arrived at Chang'an.[3]

It is recorded that in 758, a large Muslim settlement in Guangzhou erupted in unrest and the people fled. The community had constructed a large mosque (Huaisheng Mosque), destroyed by fire in 1314, and constructed in 1349-51; only ruins of a tower remain from the first building.

During the Tang Dynasty, a steady stream of Arab (Ta'shi) and Persian (Po'si) traders arrived in China through the silk road and the overseas route through the port of Quanzhou. Not all of the immigrants were Muslims, but many of those who stayed formed the basis of the Chinese Muslim population and the Hui ethnic group. The Persian immigrants introduced polo, their cuisine, their musical instruments, and their knowledge of medicine to China.

See also: Great Mosque of Xian

Song dynasty

Many Muslims went to China to trade, and these Muslims began to have a great economic impact and influence on the country. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Muslims in China dominated foreign trade and the import/export industry to the south and west.[4]

In 1070, the Song emperor, Shen-tsung (Shenzong) invited 5,300 Muslim men from Bukhara, to settle in China. The emperor used these men in his campaign against the Liao empire in the northeast. Later on these men were settled between the Sung capital of Kaifeng and Yenching (modern day Beijing). The object was to create a buffer zone between the Chinese and the Liao. In 1080, 10,000 Arab men and women migrated to China on horseback and settled in all of the provinces of the north and north-east.[5]

The Arabs from Bukhara were under the leadership of Prince Amir Sayyid "So-fei-er" (his Chinese name). The prince was later given an honorary title. He is reputed of being the "father" of the Muslim community in China. Prior to him Islam was named by the Tang and Song Chinese as Ta-shi fa ("law of Islam"). He renamed it to Hui Hui Jiao ("the Religion of Double return").[6]

Yuan dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty of China, continued to maintain excellent relationship with other nomadic tribes of Mongolia. The Mongol rulers of Yuan Dynasty elevated the status of Muslims versus the Chinese, and placed many foreign and non-Han Chinese Muslims in high-ranking posts instead of native Confucian scholars, using many Muslims in the administration of China. The state encouraged Muslim immigration, as Arab, Persian and Turkic immigration into China accelerated during this period. This was part of a larger strategy of the Mongol dynasties to divide subject peoples from an administrative class. In addition, native Chinese and their descendants were sent out of China to administer other parts of the Mongol Empire, including West Asia, Russia and India (as Mughal dynasty) in successive centuries.

The earliest of the Arabic tombstones with dates unearthed in Quanzhou, 1171 CE

It was during this time that Jamal ad-Din, a Persian astronomer, presented Kublai Khan with seven Persian astronomical instruments.[7]

In the fourteenth century, the total population of Muslims was 4,000,000.[8]

Ming dynasty

Muslims continued to flourish in China during the Ming Dynasty. During Ming rule, the capital, Nanjing, was a center of Islamic learning. It is during this time that Muslims truly adopted Chinese culture. Most became fluent in Chinese and adopted Chinese names. As a result the Muslims became "outwardly indistinguishable" from the Chinese.[9]

Mosques in Nanjing are noted in two inscriptions from the sixteenth century.

Immigration slowed down drastically however, and the Muslims in China became increasingly isolated from the rest of the Islamic world, gradually becoming more sinicized, adopting the Chinese language and Chinese dress. During this period, Muslims also began to adopt Chinese surnames. One of the more popular Muslim family names is Ma (馬), a shortened form of Muhammad.

The Ming dynasty saw the rapid decline in the Muslim population in the sea ports. This was due to the closing of all seaport trade with the outside world. However it also saw the appointment of Muslim military generals such as Mu Ying and Chang Yuchun who campaigned in Yunnan and central Shandong. These two areas became leading centers of Islamic learning in China.

The emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was the founder of the Ming Dynasty. Six of his most trusted commander wher Muslims

All of the Commanders were Wushu masters[citation needed] .. See Muslim Chinese Martial Arts

The Ming dynasty also gave rise to the famous admiral Zheng He.


Muslims became fully integrated into Chinese society. One interesting example of this synthesis was the process by which Muslims changed their names.

Many Muslims married Han Chinese women and simply took the name of the wife. But others took the Chinese surname of Mo, Mai, and Mu - names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.

Some Muslims, who could not find a Chinese surname similar to their own, adopted the Chinese character most similar to their own - Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa'I for Said and so on.

In addition to names, Muslim customs of dress and food also underwent a synthesis with Chinese culture.

The Islamic modes of dress and dietary rules were maintained within a Chinese cultural framework. In time, the Muslims began to speak local dialects and to read in Chinese.

Qing dynasty

The rise of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) made relations between the Muslims and Chinese more difficult. Muslims suffered a decline in status, and numerous Hui rebellions, such as the Panthay Rebellion (1855-1873), Dungan revolt (1862-1878),sprung up during the Qing Dynasty in reaction to repressionist policies. The dynasty prohibited ritual slaughtering of animals, followed by forbidding the construction of new mosques and the pilgrimage to Mecca.[10]

The Qing rulers were Manchu, not Han, and were themselves a minority in China. They employed the tactics of divide and conquer to keep the Muslims, Hans, Tibetans and Mongolians in conflict with each other.

However, even in the Qing Dynasty, Muslims had many mosques in the large cities, with particularly important ones in Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and other places (in addition to those in the western Muslim regions). The architecture typically employed traditional Chinese styles, with Arabic-language inscriptions being the chief distinguishing feature. Many Muslims held government positions, including positions of importance, particularly in the army.

As travel between China and the Middle East became easier, Sufism spread throughout the Northwestern China in the early decades of the Qing Dynasty (mid-17th century through early 18th century).[11] The most important Sufi orders (menhuan) included:

Twentieth century

The end of the Qing dynasty marked an increase in Sino-foreign interaction. This led to increased contact between Muslim minorities in China and the Islamic states of the Middle East. A missionary, Claude Pickens, found 834 well-known Hui who had made hajj between 1923 and 1934. By 1939, at least 33 Hui Muslims had studied at Cairo's Al-Azhar university. In 1912, the Chinese Muslim Federation was formed in the capital Nanjing. Similar organization formed in Beijing (1912), Shanghai (19250 and Jinan (1934).[12]

Academic activities within the Muslim community also flourished. Before the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, there existed more than a hundred known Muslim periodicals. Thirty journals were published between 1911 and 1937. Although Linxia remained the center for religious activities, many Muslim cultural activities had shifted to Beijing.[13]

In the first decade of the 20th century, it has been estimated that there were between 3 million and 50 million Muslims in China proper (that is, China excluding the regions of Mongolia and Xinjiang). [3] Of these, almost half resided in Gansu, over a third in Shaanxi (as defined at that time) and the rest in Yunnan.

The Manchu dynasty fell in 1911, and the Republic of China was established by Sun Yat Sen, who immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Hui (Muslim), Meng (Mongol), and the Tsang (Tibetan) peoples. This led to some improvement in relations between these different peoples.

Early communist era

The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Through many of the early years there were tremendous upheavals which culminated in the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution the Government attempted to dilute the Muslim population of Xinjiang by settling masses of Han Chinese there, and replacing Muslim leaders. The government constantly accused Muslims and other religious groups of holding "superstitious beliefs" and promoting "anti-socialist trends".[14]

Since the advent of Deng Xiaopeng in 1979, the Chinese government liberalised its policies toward Islam and Muslims. New legislation gave all minorities the freedom to use their own spoken and written languages; develop their own culture and education; and practice their religion.[15] More Chinese Muslims than ever before are allowed to go on the Hajj.[16]

China today

Under China's current leadership, Islam is undergoing a modest revival and there are now many mosques in China. There has been an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nation-wide Islamic associations have been organised to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims.

In most of China, Muslims have considerable religious freedom, however, in areas like Xinjiang, where there has been unrest among Uighur Muslims, activities are restricted.

China is fighting an increasingly protracted struggle against members of its Uighur minority, who are a Turkic people with their own language and distinct Islamic culture. Uighar separatists are intent on re-establishing the state of East Turkistan, which existed for a few years in the 1920s.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China feared potential separatist goals of Muslim majority in Xinjiang. An April, 1996 agreement between Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyztan, however, assures China of avoiding a military conflict. Other Muslim states have also asserted that they have no intentions of becoming involved in China's internal affairs.[17]

China fears the influence of radical Islamic thinking filtering in from central Asia, and the role of exiles in neighbouring states and in Turkey, with which Xinjiang's majority Uighur population shares linguistic ties.[18] After, September 11, many "ethnic" Muslims were forcibly evicted from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.[19]

Muslim nations like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey support Muslims in China. Turhan Tayan, the defense minister of Turkey, recently told China

"...many people living [in Xinjiang] are our relatives and that we will always be interested in those people's welfare. Our government is and will continue to be sensitive over the plight of our Turkic and Muslim brothers throughout the world."

China, however, continues to stress national unity.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Islam in China (650-present). BBC
  2. ^ Israeli (2002), pg. 291
  3. ^ Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-49712-4
  4. ^ BBC Religion and Ethics ISLAM Origins
  5. ^ Israeli (2002), pg. 283-4
  6. ^ Israeli (2002), pg. 284
  7. ^ Zhu (1946)
  8. ^ Israeli (2002), p. 285
  9. ^ Israeli(2002), pg. 292
  10. ^ Keim(1954), pg.605
  11. ^ Gladney (1999)
  12. ^ Gladney (1999), pg. 457
  13. ^ Gladney (1999), pg. 458
  14. ^ Israeli (2002), pg. 253
  15. ^ bbc religion and ethics ISLAM Integration [1]
  16. ^ New Encyclopedia of Islam, pg. 622-25
  17. ^ Gladney (1999), pg. 471
  18. ^ bbc religion and ethics ISLAM China today [2]
  19. ^ Wintle (2003), pg. 300
  20. ^ Gladney (1999), pg. 473


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