Islam is an officially recognized religion among the Buddhism, Taoism, Catholic and Christianity in modern China today. There are ten minority groups in China which believe in Islam: The Hui, Uygur, Kazak Uzbek, Kirgiz, Tajik, Tatar, Dongxiang, Sala and Baoan peoples. Among them two largest ethnic groups are conspicuous: the Uygurs, who live in the province of Xinjiang (Eastern Turkistan), and the Hui, who are dispersed throughout the entire country. Ethnically, the Uygurs are not Chinese but a Turkic people. The Hui, on the other hand, are ethnically and linguistically similar to the Han Chinese, but differ from them in their religion. Information on the number of Muslims in China varies considerably, however, since no reliable statistics are available. Estimates range from 20 to 130 million Muslims, the majority of whom live in western China. Belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam, Chinese Muslims follow Hanafiyyah in Shariah (the doctrine and law).
Islam: The Entry into China
Seagoing merchants brought Islam to coastal China, while overland traders brought it across the mountains of Central Asia to western China via Silk Road.
According to Chinese historical records, Islam was transmitted to China’s interior during the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279). There were two silk trade roads (a sea road and a land road) connecting China, Central Asia and the Middle East in those days. The two trade roads made tremendous contributions to the development of world culture by shortening the distance between the eastern culture and the western culture.
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.
According to the Turkish Islamic history records, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent a deputation to China headed by Vahb b. Ebi Kabsha a maternal uncle of the Prophet. (Chinese historical records always says his name was Sa’ad ibn Waqqas) to preach Islam. And then Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam sent a delegation to China in 29 AH 650 CE, eighteen years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) invited the Chinese Emperor (Yung-Wei) to embrace Islam.
The Chinese emperor Yung-Wei respected the teachings of Islam and considered it to be compatible with the teachings of Confucius. To show his admiration for Islam, the emperor approved the establishment of China’s first mosque . The magnificent Canton Mosque is known to this day as the ‘memorial mosque’ (Huai Sheng Si) and it still stands after fourteen centuries.
In the Chinese history, the year of 650~651 is considered to mark the beginning of Islam’s introduction to China. Chinese records say that during the period 651 to 798, 39 Arabian envoys visited China, and more and more Arabian and Persian traders came to China to do business. The frequent friendly exchanges between the governments and the frequent commercial intercourse, on the one hand, promoted the existing traditional friendship between China and the Arabic world, and on the other, provided good conditions for Islam to spread within China. The Umayyads and Abbasids sent six delegations to China, all of which were warmly received by the Chinese.
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.
In 1070, the Song emperor Shenzong invited 5,300 Muslim men from Bukhara, to settle in China in order to create a buffer zone between the Chinese and the Liao empire in the northeast. Later on these men were settled between the Sung capital of Kaifeng and Yenching (modern day Beijing). They were led by Prince Amir Sayyid “So-fei-er” (his Chinese name) who was reputed of being called the “father” of the Muslim community in China. Prior to him Islam was named by the Tang and Song Chinese as Dashi fa (“law of the Arabs”) (Tashi or Dashi is the Chinese rendering of Tazi–the name the Persian people used for the Arabs). He renamed it to Huihui Jiao (“the Religion of the Huihui”).
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.
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.
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 during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty that large numbers of Muslims settled in China. The Mongols, a minority in China, gave Muslim immigrants an elevated status over the native Han Chinese as part of their governing strategy, thus giving Muslims a heavy influence. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims immigrants were recruited and forcibly relocated from Western and Central Asia by the Mongols to help them administer their rapidly expanding empire. The Mongols used Persian, Arab and Uyghur administrators, generically known as semu (“various officials”) to act as officers of taxation and finance. Muslims headed many corporations in China in the early Yuan period. Muslim scholars were brought to work on calendar making and astronomy. The architect Yeheidie’erding (Amir al-Din) learned from Han architecture and helped to design the construction of the capital of the Yuan Dynasty, Dadu, otherwise known as Khanbaliq or Khanbaligh, the predecessor of present-day Beijing.
Under the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) also considered to be the golden age of Islam in China, Muslims gradually became fully integrated into Han society. 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. In order to spread and develop Islam and Islamic culture, the early Chinese Muslims attached importance to the development of Islamic education. Islamic Mosque Education, first advocated by Iman Hu Dengzhou of Shanxi province, gradually influenced the lives of Muslims in the areas of central and Northwest China. This kind of education helped to promote Islamic culture widely. The translation of Islamic scriptures into Chinese, which appeared at the same time as mosque education initiated and laid a foundation for the development of Chinese Islamic academic culture.
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 rise of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) made relations between the Muslims and Chinese more difficult. The dynasty prohibited ritual slaughtering of animals, followed by forbidding the construction of new mosques and the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Qing rulers belonged to the Manchu, a minority in China, and employed the tactics of divide and conquer to keep the Muslims, Hans, Tibetans and Mongolians in conflict with each other. These repressive policies resulted in five bloody Hui rebellions, most notably the Panthay Rebellion, which occurred in Yunnan province from 1855 to 1873, and the Dungan revolt, which occurred mostly in Xinjiang, Shensi and Gansu, from 1862 to 1877. The Manchu government then committed genocide to suppress these revolts, killing a million people in the Panthay rebellion, several million in the Dungan revolt and five million in the suppression of Miao people in Guizhou. A “washing off the Muslims” (Chinese: 洗回; pinyin: Xǐ Huí) policy had been long advocated by officials in the Manchu government. 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.
After Mao Zedong’s revolution in 1948 and the beginning of communist rule in China, the Muslims, as well as other ethnic minorities found themselves once again oppressed. They actively struggled against communists before and after the revolution. In fact, in 1953, the Muslims revolted twice in an effort to establish an independent Islamic state [in regions where Muslims were an overwhelming majority]. These revolts were brutally suppressed by Chinese military force followed by the liberal use of anti-Muslim propaganda. During the Cultural Revolution, under Mao’s slogan “Destroy the old world and build a new one,” Islam, like all other religions, was ruthlessly suppressed. During this period, almost all mosques and Islamic institutions were destroyed or desecrated and all of the clergy eliminated. And copies of the Quran were destroyed along with temples, churches, monasteries, and cemeteries by the Red Guards.
Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. Religious freedom was declared in 1978, the Chinese Muslims have not wasted time in expressing their convictions. 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 few 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.
Islam spread to the Xinjiang (Eastern Turkistan) Uygur area in the 8th to 13th centuries. The way the local people accepted Islam was different from the way people in other parts of China accepted it. Islam did not spread quickly after Muslim groups were formed, but only after the nobles were converted to Islam and claimed it as the state religion. The nobles preached Islam to their people. So a combination of politics and religion was the feature of the spread of Islam in Xinjiang.
Qutayba Bin Muslim, the Umayyads’ Caliphate’s commander and his army come near to the Kashgar in 713.