Islam in China

This is a post similar to others I have written broadly summarizing certain aspects of Islam in various countries/regions we have traveled in (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia, 2008.11.14 on the Balkans and 2009.03.06 on India).

No-one would consider China a Muslim country, and it is not.  At no point in history was China majority Muslim nor was it ever ruled by a Muslim power (although it came close during Mongol rule, since more westerly Mongol rulers converted to Islam).  There are, however, almost 20 million Muslims in China–a number that may be small in relation to China’s population of over a billion but is still larger than the Muslim populations of countries such as Syria, Malaysia or Senegal or the total number of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman combined.

China has 55 official ethnic minorities, ten of which are predominantly Muslim.  Below, some photos showing the diversity of Muslim history and experience in China.

Ruined mosque, Quanzhou, Fujian Province.  This Iranian-style mosque ruin on the south coast of China marks a city which was, in the 13th century during the time of Marco Polo, a great and important port for Persian and Arab traders known as Zeitoun.  One can imagine an era when Persian and Arab sailors did substantial business in the region, setting up local operations and perhaps even converting some locals.

The 13th century Quanzhou ship is a particularly tangible relic from the city’s era as an international port. See this link.

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.  The Great Mosque of Guangzhou is said to be the oldest mosque in China, established by no less than an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, who traveled east to spread Islam.  The mosque was rebuilt in the 14th and 17th centuries and is, like many other Chinese mosques and unlike the Quanzhou mosque, in Chinese rather than Arab or Persian style–it looks like a Buddhist temple.

Yunnan Province is said to have developed its significant Muslim population during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Emperor Kublai Khan appointed a Muslim governor (whose family originally hailed from Bukhara). The most famous Yunnanese Muslim is probably Zhang He, the great 15th century eunuch navigator who one author recently argued traveled all the way to the Americas before Columbus. Zhang He definitely sailed his huge ships as far as East Africa and is said to be in part responsible for outposts of Chinese Muslims in Southeast Asia. The Muslim population of Yunnan currently numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Mosque, Dali. Again, in the style of a Chinese temple, but note the Arabic calligraphy on the doors, in gold.

Minaret, Dali

Some Dali Muslims. Almost half of Chinese Muslims, including those in Yunnan, are classified under the geographically dispersed Hui minority group. While all Hui are Muslim, Hui people fit in, in most respects (linguistic and cultural), with the local majority, be it Han in Guangzhou or Xian, or Bai in Dali.

Great Mosque, Xian, Shaanxi Province.  While Islam landed on the south Chinese coast with seaborne trade, it came to Xian through the overland Silk Road.  As the longtime imperial capital, Xian was not only the ultimate destination for Xuanzang, who brought the sacred Buddhist texts from India, an accomplishment commemorated by Xian’s great Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but the city also became a center of Chinese Islam, primarily in the city’s Muslim Quarter.

Yet further east, the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang make up the greatest of China’s distinct Muslim minority groups. See my post of 2008.07.23 for more thoughts on the Uyghurs and the other Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang.

Inside the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

A Tajik woman, another of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang

Mosque, Lhasa, Tibet.  We were told by one local that this mosque was over 1000 years old, and only one of three mosques in the old part of Lhasa.  Although the Muslim presence in Tibet goes back hundreds of years, our small sample revealed that most of the city’s current Muslim inhabitants were recent immigrants, just like the Han Chinese who have flocked to the city.  However, instead of settling down with the Han in the more modern part of Lhasa, it seems that the Muslims (mainly from Gansu Province) prefer to live with the Tibetans in the city’s historical core.

Muslim man in Lhasa

There are certain ethnic groups in the world that have the advantage of having a great and popular culinary tradition to draw on, when emigrating and trying to make a buck.  Chinese people in the U.S., it seems, have often resorted to opening a restaurant; Egyptians and Turks are proliferating halal/shawarma/doner shops around the world; and in Tibet most of the new Han restaurants are owned by Sichuanese.  The usually Hui Muslim noodle shop can similarly be found in almost any city in China (and thankfully so, since they sell some of my favorite kinds of food).  Easily identifiable by their “Islamic” exterior–lots of green, strings of Arabic and pictures of sites such as Mecca or the Taj Mahal–friendly immigrants, many from Gansu Province, cook up delicious fresh made noodles all over China. Here, a Hui man making noodles in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province.

Inside a noodle shop, Lhatse, Tibet

A man selling nan in Shanghai

6 thoughts on “Islam in China

  1. Awesome Images! Thank you for putting up this entry. Now that I know about the Muslims in China, it makes me want to explore China.

  2. Hi Paul, just a few hundred years ago, china's borders where defined by the great wall. I.e everything beyond was not part of China. These lands and especially xinjiang (new terrotories) was monghul/turk. But even Yunnan was not historically part of china.
    During the qing dynasty when China overran these regions. there where many muslim uprisings, which established islamic sultanates, such as the dali sultanate or the yunnan sultanate

  3. Pingback: Classic Posts | Paul's Travel Blog

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