Muslims in China Keep Their Faith
News reported from foreign resources
Islam has evolved into the second largest religion in China. Its rich heritage
can be traced back to Muslim diplomats and merchants from Persia who spread
the religion to the territories between 630AD and 751AD during the Tang
Dynasty. In 651AD, Tang Emperor Li Shimin received an envoy sent by Caliph
Uthman and this was followed by 16 more official visits by delegations from
the Umayyad Caliphate in the next century.
Trading between Muslim and Chinese merchants became so regular that the Song
Dynasty court appointed a Muslim as the director-general of shipping and
invited 5,300 men from Uzbekistan's Bukhara province to settle in China.
The religion continued to flourish during the Yuan and Ming dynasties with
Muslim immigrants given key positions in the administration, until the
Manchu-led Qing Dynasty suppressed Islam. Throughout the last 1,400 years,
Chinese Muslims predominantly from 10 ethnic minority groups such as Hui,
Uyghur, Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan and Tatar
retained their faith and belief as well as culture, forming one of Asia's
largest Muslim populations. Among the estimated 21 million Muslims in China,
many live in the north-west provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, but some
have spread out to other parts of China including Yunnan, Henan, Beijing,
Guangdong and Shanghai.
"Both my wife and I are Hui Chinese, and we have been Muslims like our
ancestors," said Beijing resident Shan Chongshan.
"We make sure our children practice this religion and helped them raise our
two granddaughters the Muslim way. That's very important in our family."
Shan and his wife live in a Muslim settlement in the historical Niujie (Oxen
Street) in the Chinese capital. When he was working as a locomotive operator
in his youth, he missed a lot of visits to the mosque.
Now, the retiree has found peace and is free to perform his prayers five times
a day at the Niujie Mosque, which is about five minutes' walk from his
apartment. He joins his friends every Eidul-Fitri (end of Ramadan holiday) and
Eidul-Adha (hajj holiday) at the mosque.
Han Yaohua, who is a bachelor, goes to the mosque every day without fail to
pass his time. He would bring his home-cooked food there to break fast with
other Muslims during Ramadan.
"I prepare my sahur meals the night before. I just cook some vegetable dishes
that go with buns and dumplings, and heat them up at 3am for sahur before
fasting for the day," he said.
"During Chinese New Year, there are many temple fairs in China that visitors
can look forward to but they are more of a cultural event. To me, Eidul-Fitri
is more significant as it is my ethnic festival."
Shan said that Eidul-Adha, better known as the festival of sacrifice, is a
very important occasion in the Chinese Muslim calendar.
"As much as I would love to perform the hajj in Mecca with my wife, the
expenses are too high. But, I really hope that I can carry out the pilgrimage
at least once in my lifetime," he said.
The Hui Chinese are mostly direct descendants of Silk Road travelers, and
their ancestors are the product of intermarriage between Central Asians,
Arabs, Persians, Han Chinese (the dominant race in China) and Mongols.
Many of the Han Chinese who converted to Islam are also considered Hui people.
The Hui speak fluent Chinese as their mother tongue, unlike Muslims from the
other nine ethnic groups who are associated with their own non-Chinese
China Islamic Association vice-president Ma Zhongjie said that despite their
different ancestral and cultural backgrounds, Muslims from all the 10 ethnic
groups observed similar Islamic dietary laws, teachings and dress codes such
as white caps for men and head scarves for women.
There are more than nine million Muslims of Hui origin spread over China.
Xinjiang is unique and steeped in the religion with about 8.4 million Muslims
from the Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyzminority groups.
Though the Muslim population only accounts for less than 2% of China's total
population, it continues to grow, and more Muslims from the north-west have
moved to the south and east, and built mosques there. During the three most
important Islamic festivals - Eidul-Fitri, Eidul-Adha and Mawlid (Prophet
Muhammad's birthday) - all Chinese Muslims will be given public holidays, Ma
He added that the number of Chinese Muslims going for the yearly pilgrimage in
Mecca has been increasing over the past decade.
Last year, about 13,100 pilgrims from China visited Mecca. They chartered
flights that departed from cities like Beijing, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Yinchuan and
Kunming, since October. Historically, Chinese Muslims had been banned from
performing the hajj during the Qing Dynasty. Their religious status was
restored after the fall of China's last imperial dynasty.
During the turbulent times in China, very few pilgrims were allowed to travel
but the government began to relax its policies towards Muslims in 1978.
Since organized pilgrimage was renewed in 1985, the number of pilgrims have
grown to thousands in the last 20 years.
In 2007, the number exceeded 10,000 for the first time and reached 12,700 last
Ma said the year-on-year increase showed that not only Chinese Muslims had
kept their religion steadfastly under the guidance of the association but they
had also gained wealth to pay for the hajj trip.
"There are more than 40,000 certified imams (religious teachers) who carry out
their duties at more than 30,000 mosques in China. Most of them received
Islamic education from the China Islamic Institute run by the association, and
nine other colleges in Xinjiang, Lanzhou, Yinchuan, Kunming and Hebei,Ó" he
The number of imams increase every year and they also conduct lessons at the
mosques. After they have completed their lessons in a few years, the students
will become imams at other mosques.
However, Ma said they faced major challenges in encouraging the younger
generation to embrace the religion.
The fact that many Muslim parents did not receive proper Islamic education or
visit the mosque regularly made it even more difficult for their children to
There is no religious class in school because in China the education system is
separated from religious teaching.
Furthermore, family education often is not kept up, so children gradually lose
touch with their religion and many end up not fasting and performing prayers,
Undergraduate Muhammad Hasan said he had no choice but to give fasting a miss
during Ramadan as the atmosphere at his university was not conducive for
Muslims to do so.
"Basically, about 40% to 50% of the Muslim students would not fast. But at
home, I would certainly not miss the fasting month and would fast together
with my parents, grandparents and everyone in my family," said the 24-year-old
Hui Chinese from Ningxia.
He said the strong conviction in the faith "still flows in his blood and that
of the entire community in his hometown", which is densely populated by
"What we can do away from home is to reinforce our faith by deepening our
religious knowledge, studying the Quran and taking up religious lessons at the
mosque," he said.
Ma said that not only do religious leaders have to provide Muslims the right
guidance but they should also promote ethnic integration between Muslims and
non-Muslims in the country.
The China Islamic Association, and other provincial and local Islamic
associations, have the duty to nurture imams who will spread the knowledge and
promote Islamic education at mosques.
"By doing so, the younger generation will become good people who can
contribute to the development of the country," he concluded.