Muslims in China- Past and Present Part 2

Source: Muslims in China- Past and Present Part 2 By Ethar El-Katatney Professional Journalist & Contributor to Egypt Today Magazine – Egypt

Throughout 1400 years, Muslims in China have gone through many ups and downs, until they reached the state of “harmony” with non-Muslims Chinese.

China__3Muslims in China began as traders and soldiers in the 7th century, therefore instilling in the early Muslim settlers a sense of belonging and legitimacy; they were not a burden on the country, but valuable contributors.

It was only in the 13th century, however, after the Mongols conquered China, that these Muslims who were classified as “foreign guests” were allowed to live wherever they chose and were granted full citizenship.


The Niujie Mosque (Chinese: 牛街清真寺; pinyin: niú...

Image via Wikipedia

This started the development of a fully indigenous Chinese Muslim culture. The Mongols, a minority themselves, encouraged Muslim immigration to China and forcibly relocated millions of Muslim immigrants, employing them as government officials and dispersing them throughout China. In the Ming Dynasty, the Hui became the standard title for Chinese Muslims, who then flourished.

Centuries later, during the Manchurian (Qing) Dynasty, specifically in 1780, communal violence between the Han and Hui began and continued for 150 years. It began with the Manchurian’s discriminatory policies toward Muslims, forbidding them from building mosques or slaughtering animals, paradoxically at a time when the Hui had become an integral part of Chinese culture.


top of Great Mosque of Xi'an, cropped by me fr...

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One of the worst bloodbaths took place between 1862 and 1878 in the province of Gansu, where the population of 15 million was slaughtered down to one million, two-thirds of which were Hui.

The Manchurian Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, although violence against the Hui continued until 1930. But then, less than 20 years later, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, a Marxist state that was antagonistic to all religions.


Noodle production in China. Judging from locat...

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The Hui, with other religious minorities, were prosecuted and killed and had their places of worship destroyed. It was only after Mao’s death that things started to settle down.

Realizing the economic potential of the Hui, the government sought to make amends and offered them special accommodations.

Tombs in the Niujie Mosque.

Image via Wikipedia

Imam Ali Noor El-Huda, Chairman of the Islamic Association in Beijing and imam of the gorgeous 1,000-year-old Niujie Mosque, told me that “the government is no longer repressing faith and allows everyone to practice their religion. It emphasizes respect to everyone. And although in our history there was fighting with the Han, it is mostly peaceful now. And for the most part, there is no ideological conflict between Muslims; we believe in one God and one Book. The differences are only in language, food, and tradition.”

Tombs in the Niujie Mosque.

Image via Wikipedia

Although Chinese Muslims are currently disfranchised from political involvement (the Chinese Communist Party only admits atheists, as I was told by some students during my trip), the political stability of modern China is hopefully a good omen for the future of the Hui.



Thirty-four years after the Cultural Revolution, Muslims — and indeed followers of other religions too — are in a much better position. Islamic associations, schools, and colleges are being created, mosques are being built, and there is a small but visible Islamic revival.

After years of repression, Chinese Muslims are flourishing, organizing interethnic activities among themselves and international activities with Muslims abroad.

China’s one-child policy applies to the Hui, even though minority groups are allowed to have two or even three children, simply because the Hui’s numbers are so substantial. The majority of the other Chinese Muslim minority groups, however, are allowed to have two children, and Chinese Muslim numbers are increasing.


Prayers at Dongguan mosque, Xining, Qinghai, China

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“There is also a very small number of converts,” says the imam of the Xiguian Mosque after a heartfelt Du`a’ under the shade of a 500-year-old tree, the only original thing left in the mosque complex, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

“But what is more interesting is that many people who would not admit to being Muslims before out of fear of harming their livelihoods, like doctors, are now openly saying they are Muslims.”


Elderly Hui man

Image via Wikipedia

Depending on the city you are in, the practice of Islam is different. In rural areas such as Little Makkah, where Muslims make up almost 60 percent of the population, Islam is evident in the number of mosques, halal restaurants, and women in headscarves.

It is wonderful and yet so strange to walk and hear a dozen Assalamu Alaikums (Greeting in Islam that means: peace be to you) or to hear the Adhan. In cosmopolitan cities like Beijing, however, as in every country of the world, globalization and consumerism affect spirituality.

Abdul–Rahman Haroun, imam of the 300-year-old Nan Dou Mosque, one of Beijing’s 72 mosques, elaborated, “Here in the big cities, Muslims have to conform to the dress code. Women do not wear headscarves because they are inconvenient and would be incomprehensible. In the Southwestern parts of China, it is different.”

Deea’ El-Din, imam of the 85-year-old mosque in Shanghai, smiled when I told him that I am from Egypt and said that the years he spent at Al-Azhar University in Cairo were some of the best in his life.


Worshippers leaving a small mosque in the sout...

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“Unfortunately, the environment here is not conducive to being religious, and most mosque-goers are older men and women.” He excused himself to call the Adhan for Maghrib and led us in Prayer; there were only half a dozen Chinese worshippers.


The Hui Experience

Muslim minorities around the world have much to learn from the experience of the Hui in China, even though many Muslim minorities today in the West have a millennium-long history of contributing to their countries.

By delving deep into the heart of Islamic beliefs and becoming just as knowledgeable of Chinese beliefs, the Hui scholars found common ground with faiths and traditions that on the surface seemed very different to Islam — but they found the human values that bind us.

The Islamic scholars of today have to do the same with Western traditions, which are much more similar to Islam than Chinese traditions: They share the same Abrahamic values and beliefs, and the two civilizations have histories that were often intertwined.

There are 10 Muslim minority groups in China, but never in the history of the world has there been such an ethnically diverse group of Muslims in non-Muslim countries as there are in the world today. From the example of China, we learn the importance of crosscultural communication.

The Hui experience also demonstrates that it is very possible that Muslims can live in harmony with very different civilizations and at the same time create a viable and unique indigenous culture.

The fusion of things Chinese and Islamic is unparalleled, whether it is in thought or cultural expression.

By expressing their spirituality through architecture, litrary works, calligraphy, and more, the Hui demonstrate to all Muslim minority groups that creating an authentic and genuine culture that is both Muslim and indigenous is not only possible, but beautiful.

My fondest memory of the entire trip is reading the Qur’an in a Chinese mosque, only to find an old Chinese woman dressed all in white sitting next to me smiling hugely, and pointing at the Qur’an. I looked at her askance, and she started pointing at the letters and at me.

I started reading from Surah Ya-Sin, and she read with me. And for the next 15 minutes, we read together.

Islam is truly a universal religion.

This piece was first published on Emel magazine. It is re-published here in On Islam with copyright permission from the writer.
Ethar El-Katatney is an award-winning journalist, blogger, and author. She is currently a contributor to Egypt Today, the leading current-affairs magazine in the Middle East, and at its sister magazine, Business Today Egypt. She travels all over the world for conferences promoting dialogue between different religions and cultures.

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