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The Spread of Islam in China



A well-known tradition of the Holy Last Messenger Muhammad ibn Abdullah, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him, enjoins Muslims to ‘seek knowledge even unto China’ in their quest to acquire the knowledge to live enlightened lives as cultured and educated servants of the Almighty Creator, fulfilling their obligations to Him, society and family. Although China was considered a great distance from where Al Islam was originally established in Arabia, the Arabs had knowledge of China even before the advent of the Holy Last Messenger ( peace and blessing be upon him), as Arabia served as a major highway for commercial traffic between it, China and the countries of Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Cypress and parts of southern Turkey. 


The historian Sir Arnold Thomas Walker, in his detailed work entitled The Preaching of Islam, describes the arrival and spread of Islam in China. At the start of the 7th century, a trade hub was established by Chinese merchants in Siraf, a town on the Persian Gulf, frequented by the traders of Arabia and Persia. Yet, the commercial contact also introduced the Chinese to the culture and mores of the Arabs, and eventually to the new way of life that was reforming the Arabian Peninsula – Al Islam. 

Between the sixth and ninth centuries, C.E., during the Tang dynasty, the Arabs and Persians found the trade so lucrative that they took up residence in many of China’s port cities, where they conducted their business in perfect harmony with their host counterparts. Eventually, the numbers of immigrants increased dramatically, in a flow that seemed to inundate certain areas. Chinese historians of this period, Mr.Walker stated, mention the Arabs (Muslims) in their writings, in one instance describing them as ‘barbarians’ who arrived in their land ‘like a deluge (flood)’, coming from great distances and from “more than 100 kingdoms, bringing as tribute their sacred books, which were received and deposited in the hall set apart for translations of sacred and canonical books in the Imperial Palace.” It is stated that during this time, religious diversity was appreciated and respected. 

The Annals of Kwangtung (Canton ), recount the first Muslims who came to China, describing them as ‘strangers’ who came from ‘Annan, Cambodia, Medina, and several other countries, who worshipped heaven (i.e. Almighty God) and had neither statue, idol nor image in their temples…They do not eat pork or drink wine and they regard as unclean the flesh of any animal not killed [by] themselves…” Muslim and Chinese historians as well, give an account of a delegation of emissaries of the third Khalifa of Islam, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, (may Allah be pleased with him). This entourage was led by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (may Allah be pleased with him) , a maternal uncle of the Holy Last Messenger, peace and blessing be upon him, and were well received by the emperor, who commissioned the building of the Memorial Mosque in Canton, the first mosque in the country. The Muslim enclave imported their way of life, i.e., their cultural trappings, language and dress, and lived apart from the Chinese population. Between the years 960 and 1279 C.E., Muslims had become very influential and prosperous in the import/export industry in China, and the numbers of Muslims continued to increase due to immigration of people from other lands, intermarriage, and conversion of native Chinese to Islam. During the era of the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol conquests carried Islam throughout distant places and resulted in the forced migration of vast numbers of Muslims from broadly diverse places and ethnicities (Arabs, Persians, Turks and others) with the intention by the government to use their skills and services to administer the expanding empire. 

The vast influx of people constituted merchants, artisans, artists, architects, engineers, medical doctors and astronomers, as well as soldiers and prisoners of war, and settlers who, by the hundreds of thousands, became permanently settled, developing into flourishing and proliferating communities. 

Over time, intermixing blended ethnicities and homogenized the population; through marriage, the Muslims passed down the Islamic religion and culture, which continued down generations. 

As the Mongols ruled China, many Muslims held prominent positions within the government hierarchy , one such being Umar Shams al-Din (Sayyid Ajall of Bukhara) an accountant under Qubilay Khan, who reigned during the Yuan Dynasty from 1259 to 1368, who became financial manager of Imperial funds and governor of Yunnan, along with a number of other Muslims who were appointed to lofty positions. He was held in high esteem as a pious administrator who promoted religious fairness. Yet, the native Chinese, in time, began to resent that fact of immigrants (and particularly Muslims) holding such high offices, discontent that would fuel the desire to recover the control of China from the Mongols. 

Marco Polo of Italy, close friend of Qubilay Khan, lived in China for nearly twenty years, and reported that Muslims lived throughout Yunnan, and noted that the entire capital city of Yunnan, Taifu, was inhabited by Muslims. The renowned Muslim traveler Ibn Battutah visited several Chinese coastal towns and expressed in his travelogue his elation at being shown such a ‘hearty welcome’ by his Muslim hosts, reporting that in each town, the Muslims resided in their own ‘quarter’ where their mosques were located and they freely practiced Islam. 

With the decline and expulsion of the remnants of the Mongol dynasty in the latter years of the 14th century, and the isolationist policy adopted by China at that time, Muslim communities experienced lack of growth and expansion. Having been cut off from dealings with other Muslims outside of China, the Muslims in some parts of the country began to adopt many of the cultural and customary mores of their hosts and merged with the Chinese population, producing an amalgamation of the two cultures. 

The new emperor of the Ming dynasty extended privilege upon these Muslims which promoted prosperity during the period between 1369 and the middle of the 16th century C.E., a sign of which was the construction of a great number of mosques. The emperors of the Ming dynasty developed amiable relations with the Muslim rulers to the west of their empire, and as Walker states, ‘there was frequent exchange of embassies between them.’ He continues to give an account of one Chinese Muslim ruler, Shah Rukh Bahadur, who sent an invitation to the Emperor to accept Islam when his ambassador arrived at Shah Rukh Bahadur’s court in Samarqand. He sent his envoy, who accompanied the Chinese ambassador back to China, with two letters, one of which was written in Arabic. The letter read as follows: “ In the name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate. There is no god save God; Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the Apostle of God. The apostle of God, Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “ There shall not cease to be in my community people abiding in the commandments of God: whosoever fails to help them or opposes them shall never prosper until the Commandment of the Lord cometh. When the Most High God proposed to create Adam and his race, He said ‘I was a Hidden Treasure, but it was My pleasure to become known; I therefore created man that I might be known.’ It is manifest from hence, that The Divine purpose (great is His Power and exalted is His Word!) in the creation of man was to make Himself known and uplift the banners of right guidance and faith. Wherefore, He sent His Apostle (peace be upon him) with guidance and the religion of Truth that it might prevail over all other faiths, though the polytheists turn away from it, that He might make known the laws and ordinances and the observances of what is lawful and unlawful, and He gave him the Holy Qur’an miraculously that thereby, he might put to silence the unbelievers and stop their mouths when they discussed and disputed with him, and by His Perfect Grace and His All-Pervading Guidance, He has caused it to remain even unto the Day of Judgment. By His Power He has established in all ages and times and in all parts of the world, in east and west, and in China, a mighty monarch, lord of great armies and authority, to administer justice and mercy and spread the wings of peace and security over the heads of men; to enjoin upon them righteousness and warn them against evil and disobedience and lift up among them the banners of the noble religion…The Most High God thus disposes our hearts by His past mercies and His ensuing Grace to strive for the establishing of the laws of pure religion and the continuance of the ordinances of the shining path. He also bids us administer justice to our subjects in all suits and cases in accordance with the religion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the ordinances of the Chosen One, and build mosques and colleges and monasteries and hermitages and places of worship, that the teaching of the sciences and school of learning may not cease nor the memorials and injunctions of religion be swept away. Seeing that the continuance of worldly prosperity and dominion, and the permanence of authority and rule depend upon the assistance given to Truth and Righteousness and the extirpation of the evils caused by idolatry and unbelief from the earth, in the expectation of blessing and reward, we, therefore, hope that your Majesty and the nobles of your realm will agree with us in these matters and join us in strengthening the foundation of the established law.” 

The second letter, written in Persian, made a very direct, simple appeal: “ The Most High God, having in the depth of His Wisdom and the perfection of His Power, created Adam (peace be upon him),made some of his sons prophets and apostles and sent them among men to summon them to the Truth. To certain of these prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, David, and Muhammad (peace be upon them) He gave a Book and taught a Law, and He bade the people of their time follow the law and religion of each of them. All these apostles invited men to faith in the Unity and to the worship of [Almighty] God and forbade the adoration of the sun, moon, stars, of kings and idols; and though each one of these apostles had a separate law, yet, they were all agreed in the doctrine of the Unity of The Most High God. At length, when the apostolic and prophetic office devolved on the Apostle Muhammad Mustafa (peace and blessing be upon him) all other systems of law were abrogated. He was the apostle and the prophet of the latter age, and it behooves the whole world – lords and kings and ministers, rich and poor, small and great – to observe his law and forsake all past creeds and laws. This is the true and perfect faith and is called Islam.” The writer, the Muslim ruler Shah Rukh Bahadur, continued by relating the evolution of his ancesters , descendents of Ghengis Khan and relatives who came before him and how they had dispersed to varied lands where they assumed rule of the people of those places. He stated that some of them accepted Islam – Uzbek Khan, Chani Khan and Urus Khan. Hulaga Khan was given command over Khurasan, Iraq and the neighboring countries, and some of his sons who succeeded him received into their hearts the light of the law of Muhammad (peace be upon him) becoming Muslims and being honored with the blessedness of Al Islam, departed this world eventually. He continued by naming closer relatives of his – ‘the truthful king Ghazan and Ulyaytu Sultan and the fortunate king Abu Sa’id Bahadur, until my honored father, Amir Timur Gurgan, succeeded the throne. He too observed the law of Muhammad (peace be upon him)in all the countries under his rule, and throughout his reign the followers of the faith of Islam enjoyed prosperity. Now that by the goodness and favor of [Almighty] God , this kingdom of Khurasan, Iraq, Ma-wara’al nahr has passed into my hands, the administration is carried on throughout the whole kingdom in accordance with the pure law of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’ righteousness is enjoined and wrong forbidden, and the Yarghu and institutes of Chingiz (Ghengiz) Khan have been abolished… I hope that by the bounty and benevolence of God you too will observe the law of Muhammad, the Apostle of God (peace be upon him) and strengthen the religion of Islam so that you may exchange the transitory sovereignty of this world for the sovereignty of the world to come.” 

A Muslim merchant named Sayyid Ali Akbar wrote that at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century he spent time in Peking and stated that in the city of Kenjanfu there were as many as 30,000 Muslim families settled there: “…they paid no taxes and enjoyed the favor of the Emperor, who gave them grants of land; they enjoyed complete toleration for the exercise of their religion, and in the capital itself there were four great mosques and about ninety more in the other provinces of the empire – all erected at the cost of the Emperor.” It is recorded that the Muslims in China lived there peacefully until the reign of the Manchu dynasty, when they were oppressed in the province of Kansu in 1648 and a revolt ensued. However, Walker states that not until the nineteenth century did any Muslim revolt in China result in seriously disrupting the good relations that the Muslims enjoyed with the Chinese Emperors, to the extent that the Emperor Yung Chen, in 1771, issued an edict stating that the Chinese Muslims were to be left alone, permitted full exercise of their religion and culture, which coincided with and respected the tradition and law of China – he stated, “ What more can be asked for? 

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