Islam has a long history in the People’s Republic of China, dating to the seventh century. The earliest Muslims in China were traders who came to the south eastern ports as part of the Indian Ocean trade as well as along the Silk Route, an ancient network of routes stretching for over six thousand miles from China across Central Asia to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Similar to the World Wide Web, the Silk Route connected diverse communities across long distances for centuries, exchanging commodities as well as music, poetry, and art, resulting in an incredible blend of cultures.
After the spread of the Islamic dynastic empires, a large-scale network of shipping facilitated the travel of goods between east and west. Chinese porcelains, textiles, and high-quality paper were shipped from China while glass, spices, and minerals were imported into China; artistic styles and craftsmen also travelled widely.
The interconnections between the Chinese and Muslim empires and evidence of the maritime routes are confirmed by the lost dhow found in 1998 at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The lost Arab ship, also termed as The Belitung wreck – because it was discovered off Belitung Island, Indonesia – had its complete cargo of more than 50,000 domestic and luxury items including spice-filled jars, vessels of silver and gold, and ceramic bowls and ewers. Luxury items from China were in great demand, particularly items made during the Tang dynasty (618-906), ranked as the classical period of Chinese art and literature.
The travelogue of Ma Fuchu (d. 1874), a prominent Muslim scholar, attests to the several trade networks that existed between China and the Islamic regions. In this travelogue, Chaom Jin Tu Ji (‘Record of the Pilgrimage Journey’) he recounts his journey to Mecca and subsequent travel to Cairo, where he studied at the Al-Azhar (founded by the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu’izz in 969), before returning home. Ma Fuchu, a remarkable Hui scholar, is well-known for his five-volume translation of the Qur’an into Chinese, and for writing over thirty-five works on metaphysics and history in Chinese and Arabic.
Muslims of China are broadly divided into two groups. The first group consists of descendants of Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol traders who married Chinese women and settled in small communities around a central mosque; they are known as the Hui. Culturally diverse, the largest concentration of Hui can be found in north-western China.
The second group consists of Muslims belonging to minority communities whose homelands are located in the territories of the former Soviet Union, such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and Kazakhs. They are predominantly Sunnis with the exception of the Tajiks in Xinjiang region (officially Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), the westernmost part of the country, who follow the Shia Ismaili interpretation of Islam. Xinjiang was once the hub of the Silk Road and the region through which Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam entered China. Sufism also has a long history in China since the seventeenth century and has played an important role in sustaining Islam for many centuries.
The earliest mosques
The first mosques in China were established in the coastal ports in the seventh century by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet, and several of his companions. Abi Waqqas, who visited China around 632, is said to have asked permission from the Tang Emperor for mosques to be built in Xian, Guangzhou, and Jianning (present day Nanjing). The Great Mosque of Guangzhou, known also as Huaisheng Mosque (Memorial of the Holy Prophet), is believed to be the earliest surviving mosque in China.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an is thought to have existed as early as the seventh century although the mosque that stands today was begun in 1392 during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. It was founded by the naval admiral Cheng Ho (d. 1433), the son of a prestigious Muslim family and responsible for clearing the China Sea of pirates. Since the fourteenth century, the mosque has undergone numerous reconstructions; most of the buildings that exist today are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Great Mosque of Xi’an is the largest and best preserved of the early mosques of China (Archnet).
A form of Arabic script unique to China had been developed, known as Sini, which simply means Chinese. Although this word can be used to describe any distinctly Chinese forms of Arabic script, Chinese calligraphers argue that it refers to a rounded, flowing script, often with great variation between thick and thin strokes, which is ultimately descended from thuluth.
As a script it is often used for striking set pieces, such as the calligraphic phrase Subhan Allah (‘Glorious is God’) seen on the right hand page of the above manuscript, rather than for long texts. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is also evident in their decoration, such as the round good luck symbol embedded into the middle of the star illumination on the opposite page (Arts of the Book & Calligraphy, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, p 183).
Although the history of the Ismaili tradition in Xinjiang is obscure, the religious rituals open to observation as well as the Persian language texts that are referenced confirm their origin in the tradition of Nasir-i Khusraw (d. ca. 1077), suggesting a history stretching over a millennium.
According to popular legends, “Nasir-i Khusraw led a mission into the region with four of his close disciples, namely Sayyid Hassan Zarrabi, Sayyid Surab Wali, Sayyid Jalal Bukhari, and Jahan Malikshah. He instructed them to settle down and continue the Ismaili da’wa among the new converts” (Saidula, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 77). Many pirs in Xinjiang claim descent from those early Ismaili preachers.
The first jamatkhana was built in Tashkorgan around the end of the nineteenth century with the help of an official envoy from Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. “The name of the envoy is unclear. Some suggest it was Samad Shah, the British agent in Tashkorghan, while others think it was Pir Sabzali, the envoy sent to Xinjiang by Sultan Muhammad Shah in the 1920s” (Saidula, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 92 n 17).
[Tashkorgan was a major stop on the Silk Road where caravan routes converged leading to Kashgar in the north, Yecheng to the east, Badakhshan and Wakhan to the west, and Chitral and Hunza to the southwest, in Pakistan].
The few existing written communications “from an Imam addressed to the Ismaili community in Xinjiang province were the farmans of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. The last of such farmans, nominating five mukhis in Xinjiang, was received in 1948, just before the closing of the border by the Chinese” (Saidula, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 81).
The government “kept religious institutions closed for over three decades, only allowing some limited practices to resume after the death of Chairman Mao [d. 1976]. By the early 1980s the regime had rectified its past intolerant attitude towards religion by removing the outright ban on all religious practices … During the short-lived period of leniency, many damaged and appropriated places of worship were repaired and restored to their original purpose. The state even initiated various restoration projects, and many abandoned jama’atkhanas benefitted from this opportunity, with the result that the number of functioning jama’atkhanas increased to over 40, although the number of worshippers attending religious congregations barely increased in the same period” (Saidula, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 83).
Mawlana Hazar Imam is the only known Ismaili Imam to have officially visited Xinjiang province. He first visited China in 1981 to preside over the sixth seminar of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture held in Beijing October 19-22.
In 2012, Mawlana Hazar Imam paid an official visit to Urumxi, at the invitation of the Governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to discuss collaboration between the Aga Khan Development Network and the Government of Xinjiang.
Hazar Imam delivered the keynote address at a UNESCO conference in Hangzhou in 2013.
During the Diamond Jubilee Darbar in Paris, France, on June 23, 2018, Mawlana Hazar Imam was gifted a fifteenth-century manuscript transcribed by Rashad ibn ‘Ali al-Sini, one of the earliest copies of the Qur’an to have been written in Khanbaliq (modern-day Beijing), China. A Qur’an section signed by Rashad ibn ‘Ali al-Sini, copied in modern-day Beijing, dated 1401.
Michael Dillion “Islam in China” The Muslim Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1996
Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop Ancient Arab Shipwreck Yields Secrets of Ninth-Century Trade, The New York Times
Department of Asian Art. “Tang Dynasty (618–906),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Islam in China, The David Collection
Record of the Pilgrimage (Chao jin ti ji), Aga Khan Museum
Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.