History of Islam in China
Muslims take great pride in citing a hadith that says "Seek knowledge even
unto China." It points to the importance of seeking knowledge, even if it meant
traveling as far away as China, especially as at t the time of the Prophet
Muhammad (pbuh), China was considered the most developed civilization of the
period. Islam in China began during the caliphate of 'Uthman ibn Affan (Allayhi
Rahma, ra), the third caliph. After triumphing over the Byzantine, Romans and
the Persians, 'Uthman ibn Affan, dispatched a deputation to China in 29 AH (650
C.E., Eighteen years after the Prophet's (pbuh) death), under the leadership by
Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqaas (Allayhi Rahma), Prophet Muhammad's (Salla Allahu wa
Allahai wa Sallam, pbuh) maternal uncle, inviting the Chinese emperor to embrace
Even before this, the Arab traders during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), had
already brought Islam to China, although this was not an organized effort, but
merely as an offshoot of their journey along the Silk Route (land and sea
Even though there are only sparse records of the event in Arab history, a brief
one in Chinese history, The Ancient Record of the Tang Dynasty describes the
landmark visit. To Chinese Muslims, this event is considered to be the birth of
Islam in China. To show his admiration for Islam, the emperor Yung Wei ordered
the establishment of China's first mosque. The magnificent Canton city mosque
known to this day as the 'Memorial Mosque.' still stands today, after fourteen
One of the first Muslim settlements in China was established in this port city.
The Umayyads and Abbasids sent six delegations to China, all of which were
warmly received by the Chinese.
The Muslims who immigrated to China eventually began to have a great economic
impact and influence on the country. They virtually dominated the import/export
business by the time of the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE). Indeed, the office of
Director General of Shipping was consistently held by a Muslim during this
period. Under the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) generally considered to be the
golden age of Islam in China, Muslims gradually became fully integrated into Han
An interesting example of this synthesis by Chinese Muslims was the process by
which their names changed. Many Muslims who married Han women simply took on the
name of the wife. Others took the Chinese surnames of Mo, Mai, and Mu - names
adopted by Muslims who had the names Muhammad, Mustafa, and Masoud. Still others
who could find no Chinese surname similar to their own adopted the Chinese
character that most closely resembled their name - Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussein,
or Sai for Said, and so on.
In addition to names, Muslim customs of dress and food also underwent a
synthesis with Chinese culture. The Islamic mode of dress and dietary
restrictions were consistently maintained, however, and not compromised. In
time, the Muslims began to speak Han dialects and to read in Chinese. Well into
the Ming era, the Muslims could not be distinguished from other Chinese other
than by their unique religious customs.. In spite of the economic successes the
Muslims enjoyed during these and earlier times, they were recognized as being
fair, law-abiding, and self-disciplined. For this reason, once again, there was
little friction between Muslim and non-Muslim Chinese.
Over the years, many Muslims established mosques, schools and madrasas attended
by students from as far as Russia and India. It is reported that in the 1790's,
there was as many as 30,000 Islamic students, and the city of Bukhara, - the
birthplace of Imam Bukhari, one of the foremost compilers of hadith - which was
then part of China, came to be known as the "Pillar of Islam."
The rise of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), though, changed this. The
Ch'ing were Manchu (not Han) and were a minority in China. They employed tactics
of divide-and- conquer to keep the Muslims, Han, Tibetans, and Mongolians in
struggles against one another. In particular, they were responsible for inciting
anti-Muslim sentiment throughout China, and used Han soldiers to suppress the
Muslim regions of the country. When the Manchu Dynasty fell in 1911, the
Republic of China was established by Sun Yat Sen, who immediately proclaimed
that the country belonged equally to the Han, Hui (Muslim), Man (Manchu), Meng
(Mongol), and the Tsang (Tibetan) peoples. His policies led to some improvement
in relations among these groups.
Since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, tremendous upheavals
occurred throughout China culminating in the Cultural Revolution. Muslims along
with all the Chinese population suffered. After the third congress of the 11th
Central committee, the government greatly liberalized its policies toward Islam
and Muslims.. Since religious freedom was declared in 1978, the Chinese Muslims
have not wasted time in expressing their convictions.
Under China's current leadership, in fact, Islam appears to be undergoing a
modest revival. Religious leaders report more worshipers now than before the
Cultural Revolution, and a reawakening of interest in religion among the young.
According to a publication on mosques in China(1998 edition), there are now
32,749 mosques in the entire People's Republic of China, with 23,000 in the
province of Xinjiang. There has been an
increased upsurge in Islamic expression in China, and many nationwide Islamic
associations have been organized to coordinate inter-ethnic activities among
Muslims. Islamic literature can be found quite easily and there are currently
some eight different translations of the Qur'an in the Chinese language as well
as translations in Uygur and the other Turkic languages.
Muslims have also gained a measure of toleration from other religious practices.
In areas where Muslims are a majority, the breeding of pigs by non-Muslims is
forbidden in deference to Islamic beliefs. Muslim communities are allowed
separate cemeteries; Muslim couples may have their marriage consecrated by an
imam; and Muslim workers are permitted holidays during major religious
festivals. The Muslims of China have also been given almost unrestricted
allowance to make the Hajj to Mecca. China's Muslims have also been active in
the country's internal politics. As always, the Muslims have refused to be
silenced. Islam is very much alive for China's Muslims who have managed to
practice their faith, sometimes against great odds, since the seventh century.