By Iman Amin
Before proceeding to talk about our rich history in China, I want to touch on the importance of learning about our Islamic history. In the Qur’an, Allah repeatedly narrates to us stories of different nations in order for us to extract lessons from them and steer clear from the mistakes they made, like the people of ‘Aad and Thamud. He also tells us of Muslims who stood firm to their belief in the Oneness of Allah, like Ashaabul Kahf (the people of the cave), and Ashaabul Ukhdud (the people of the ditch), and we take great lessons from their steadfastness and bravery. As writer Muhammad Asad perfectly puts it,“The study of history develops wisdom and insight, enhances vision, and creates a sense of caution and vigilance. It creates patience and firmness, and keeps the heart and mind refreshed by warding off sadness and gloom”. No matter how you look or where you’re from, being Muslim and professing the Oneness of Allah and the belief in the last messenger (saws) means Islamic history is part of YOUR history. Although the Prophet (saws) was Arab, our religion has been carried on the shoulders of scholars from all over the world, and learning about the contributions and efforts they went to in order to spread and preserve the Deen should instil honour and hopefulness in us.
Unfortunately, when talking about Islamic history, many of us know very little about Islam in China. If you asked me a few months ago what came to my mind when I thought about China, I’d say sweet and sour chicken, stir fry noodles, and egg fried rice – generic Westernised Chinese food (that tastes SO good). If you’re active on social media, you may also be aware of the systematic discrimination and persecution of the Uighur Muslims residing in Xinjiang. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang province in western China. Uighur Muslims make up to 10 million of the 20 million Muslims in China, which is insane to think about! And it makes, you wonder, if China has a whopping 20 million Muslims, how did Islam come to China in the first place? What did the early Muslims do to enable Islam be spread so far and wide, that it lead to such a large part of our ever-growing Ummah to be residing in China?
Unfortunately, I cannot share everything there is to know about our Islamic history in China as it’s so rich and vast, but I wish to share small bites of information that hopefully we can all benefit from.
Islam came to China as early as the time of the Khulafaa Rashidun. During the Caliphate of Uthman (ra), Uthman sent a delegation consisting of a few sahabah to China in order of propagate the message of Islam – the leader of them being a well-known sahabi Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas (ra). The delegation came bearing gifts to the royal court of the Tang Emperor at the time, Kao-tsung, and this was the first official visit by a Muslim ambassador during the Tang dynasty. Kao-tsung gave permission to Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas and the rest of the delegation to openly propagate Islam which allowed them to gain a firm foothold in the country. Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas later settled in Guangzhou, and it is said that he built what is known now to be the oldest mosque in China – Huaisheng mosque. Huaisheng mosque is approx 1300 years old, and has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times throughout history. Some claim Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas is buried there, however there is some speculation over this as other scholars say he was buried in Madina. Despite Muslims coming and settling in Ghuangzou, they were few in number, and it stayed this way for the next 300-400 years.
Trades between the Islamic state and China were fruitful, and this took place through the Silk Road, which refers to a loose network of overland trade routes stretching from the Mediterranean to East Asia. Most Silk Road traders coming from western Eurasia were Muslim, and they brought their beliefs and rich culture to millions of people. Many Arabs and Persians came to China for commercial and religious reasons, both under the Umayyids or Abbasids.
“They became middlemen in a most profitable trade which attracted ever greater numbers for commerce and the propagation of their faith, and as the new traders came to China, many Muslim communities became a strong force in Chinese society.” – Dawood C. M. Ting (Consulate of the Republic of China, Beirut, Lebanon)
Zhu Yuanzhang was the Emperor of China between 1368 – 1398 CE, he was the first Emperor and founder of The Ming dynasty, a period known to be the golden age of Islam in China and some historians go so far as to say Ming was the dynasty of the Muslims. Muslims fully integrated into Han (Chinese) society by adopting their name and some customs while retaining their Islamic code of dress and dietary restrictions. They were law-abiding and self-disciplined citizens of high economic status, and had good relations with the Han people. Despite being a non-Muslim, Emperor Yuanzhang had a strong admiration for Muslims, and had great respect for Islam’s customs and laws. In fact he ordered the construction of several mosques in Nanjing, Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had so much love for Islam, that he wrote a poem called “The 100 word eulogy” in honour of the Prophet (saws), with each verse containing 4 words (characters) and 4 syllables. He then ordered that this poem be put in every masjid. Here’s a translation of the poem:
The One-Hundred Word Eulogy:
Since the creation of the Universe,
God had decreed to appoint,
This great faith-preaching man,
From the West he was born,
He received the Holy Scripture,
A Book of thirty parts,
To guide all creation,
Master of all Rulers,
Leader of Holy Ones,
With Support from Above,
To Protect His Nation,
With five daily prayers,
Silently hoping for peace,
His heart towards Allah,
Empowering the poor,
Saving them from calamity,
Seeing through the darkness,
Pulling souls and spirits,
Away from all wrongdoings,
A Mercy to the Worlds,
Traversing the ancient majestic path,
Vanquishing away all evil,
His Religion Pure and True,
The Noble & Great one.
I strongly recommend everyone to look into the history of Islam in China; its vast legacy is something to be marvelled at and celebrated, especially given the context of how Islam is perceived in the region today. Once again Islam shows itself to be a way of life, adopted regardless of culture & in the past, was spread peacefully for the benefit of society. Today Muslims in Xinjiang are banned from fasting in Ramadan, and recent years have shown greater intolerance towards the faith. Chinese authorities could learn a lesson from history in observing how their relations with Muslims and the Islamic state were once on better terms.
Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China by Jonathan N. Lipman, Jewel of Chinese Muslim’s Heritage by Mohammed Khamouch, and Islam – The Straight Path: Islam Interpreted by Muslims by Kenneth W. Morgan (Chapter 9)