The Muslim community in China is very large and diverse and includes many ethnic groups such as the Uighers, Tatars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and so on. Furthermore, they are spread all over China with especially large concentrations in Beijing, Shaanxi province, Yunnan province, and the western provinces. The Muslims in China are generally referred to as the Hui and while they include the previously mentioned groups, they also include communities which claim descent from Arab and Persian (Middle Eastern) merchants who, over the centuries, intermarried with the local Han Chinese communities.
In cities with large native Muslim populations such as Beijing and Xi’an, the larger proportion come from this latter community. Outside of the predominantly Muslim provinces such as Sinkiang and Gansu, many cities, including Guangzhou and Shanghai have significant native Muslim populations but in Xi’an and Beijing the communities are especially prominent. The Arab and Persian merchants and traders first arrived in China at least 1,400 years ago when they controlled much of the trade along the Silk Route, both land and maritime.
The descendants are most often indistinguishable from the Han Chinese with their religion being the sole differentiating factor. Over the centuries, the two cultures, Middle Eastern and Chinese, mixed and blended the Islamic and Confucian traditions and gave rise to a new distinct culture. They retained certain Confucian principles while adapting to maintain compatibility with Islamic practices. According to local lore in China, Islam first arrived in China in 627 AD during the actual lifetime of the Prophet PBUH and it was the Prophet himself who sent a diplomatic delegation to China in which Islam was introduced to the Tang emperor and his community.
It is believed by many that the delegation was led by an uncle of the Prophet, Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas and although there is no actual documentary evidence to confirm this, the Chinese (including non-Muslim Chinese) believe this to be true and there is even a shrine in Guangzhou which contains his grave. The oldest mosque in China, Huaisheng Mosque, is said to have been founded by Ibn Abi Waqqas in 627 AD although again, there is no documentary evidence for this. However, it is generally agreed that this was the first mosque in China and that it was in existence in the 7th Century, making it not only the oldest mosque in China but also one of the oldest mosques in the world.
Huaisheng in Chinese means sage and it is believed to have been named by the Chinese in honour of the Prophet Mohammed PBUH. A Middle Eastern mercantile community existed in China and primarily in Guangzhou, even before the introduction of Islam to China and this community expanded greatly with its introduction and with the appearance of diplomatic delegations to the Tang emperors. When Huaisheng Mosque was first built, a minaret was added and this became the tallest structure in China and remained so for many centuries.
The mosque later acquired the name “Lighthouse Mosque” as the light from the top helped guide boats on the river at night. Many people considered the area around the Lighthouse Minaret as the starting point of the maritime Silk Road. This minaret was the only lighthouse in China until a modern Western style one was built in the 1860s. The entrance gateway bears an inscriptive plaque in Mandarin that reads: “Religion that holds in great esteem the teachings brought from the Western Region.” Huaisheng mosque features six important buildings, the Imam Hall, the Wangyue Attic, the Covered Corridor, the Storehouse of Islamic Scripture, the Stone Steles Pavilion and the Minaret.
On our visit to Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou, we were met by the keeper of the mosque who lived in a small room by the main gate. He insisted on showing us his room and he proudly informed us that this was the room in which Saad ibn Abi Waqqas slept. The mosque was impressive and was built in a mix of Chinese and Middle Eastern architectural styles and various corners of the mosque were being renovated after having been neglected for many decades.
Huaisheng Mosque does not however compare in grandeur and in beauty to the Great Mosque of Xi’an which was built in the 8th Century when Xi’an, then known and Chang An, was the capital of the Tang emperors. The Tang emperors were known for their cosmopolitan attitudes and were eager to learn about foreign cultures and foreign peoples. It was to the Tang emperors that several delegations arrived from Arabia and later on, from Baghdad with gifts and with messages about Islam. The Tang emperor was invited to become a Muslim which he respectfully declined but to show his respect for the religion which was seen as a religion of peace, he ordered the Great Mosque of Xi’an to be built.
It is one of the oldest and the most beautiful mosques in China. The architectural elements and decorations are mostly Chinese although there are many beautiful examples of Arabic calligraphy around the mosque. Furthermore, while many religious buildings and communities were affected during the Cultural Revolution in China, Xi’an and its Muslim community was not touched at all and remained the only Muslim community in China to practise their religion without restrictions albeit quietly.
It is thought that this is because of the commercial and cultural importance of Xi’an but, during our visit to the mosque in Xi’an, our guide told us that Mao Tze Tung had a close friend and confidant who was a general and who was Hui from Xi’an. This general, (surnamed Ma as many of the Hui community are) won a key and crucial battle after which Mao ordered that the community in Xi’an be safeguarded. Along with the Great Mosque of Xi’an, there are two other mosques in the city that date to the same period, smaller in size but no less beautiful.
Xi’an has a very large Muslim community and most of the centre of the old walled city comprises the Muslim quarter where there is a souq/bazaar and where there are dozens of Muslim restaurants serving the delicacies that they are known for. One of these delicacies is a dumpling which contains a filling, usually meat, just as with other Chinese dumplings but which differs from the others in that this one also contains a broth which pours out when you bite into it. This dumpling is very popular during Ramadan. The present Imam of the Great Mosque in Xi’an is a well-known calligrapher in the Islamic calligraphy style and we visited his shop around the corner from the Great Mosque, where his works are on display and for sale.
During the month of Ramadan, food street in Xi’an, a part of the Muslim enclave, is even more busy and bustling than it usually is with many specialities appearing in profusion especially for the Holy Month. One of the specialities is Sanzi. This is a snack made of flour which is pulled into thin noodles which are rolled into circular shapes, piled as a pyramid and then deep fried. It is very well known in Sinkiang in west China although it is popular in all the Muslim communities in China especially during Ramadan and the Eids. During Ramadan, Chinese Muslims will probably have dishes with noodles, either in soup or fried, dumplings either baked or steamed plus some vegetable dishes.
The Huis are known for their immaculate cleanliness in both their homes and their restaurants. Another beautiful old mosque in China is the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, which dates back to 996 AD during the Liao Dynasty. The mosque is Chinese in architecture but with much beautiful Arabic calligraphy decorating it and with a charming pagoda minaret called Wangyuelou, which translates as “Moon Watching Tower”. During the month of Ramadan the mosque is very busy and the neighbourhood around the mosque becomes quite active.
All over China, during Ramadan and Eid al Fitr, the streets and spaces around the mosques come alive with street food vendors and the restaurants start to bustle. Muslim food is very popular so, as well as the Muslims who frequent these restaurants and food stalls, there are also non-Muslim Chinese and tourists. The old mosques and Muslim shrines of China are recognised by the Chinese authorities as being buildings of significant historical interest and an important facet of Chinese history. A number of them are now World Heritage Sites with much funding coming in for restoration and refurbishment and it is pleasing to see how these old structures are starting to come alive again.
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Dr Ziad Rajab (left) is the director of the New English School and a Tareq Rajab Museum board member. In addition to being a human resource specialist, he is involved in the arts, and has non-professional certifications in book binding, illumination, portraiture, oil painting and pottery.
By Dr Ziad Rajab Special to the Arab Times