Islamic Revival in China
Today, Islam is experiencing a modest revival in China. According to data provided by the San Diego State University’s International Population Center to U.S. News & World Report, China has 65.3 million Muslims4. Chinese Muslims attend the Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in large numbers, and a range of Islamic educational institutions have been developed to meet the needs of the growing community. Besides local institutions, a number of Chinese Muslim students have travelled abroad to study at international Islamic universities in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and Malaysia.5
Jackie Armijo writes in the Harvard Quarterly on Islamic Education in China:
“Over the past twenty years, throughout all of China (except for Xinjiang), mosques have organized classes in Arabic and Islamic studies for all members of their community, from three-year olds in pre-school programs, to eighty-year old retirees determined to study the Qur’an and learn about their faith in their twilight years. In addition to government-run Islamic colleges, communities have also established independent schools.”
Chinese Muslim women are playing an extraordinarily active role in the revival of Islamic education in China. They are not only gaining Islamic knowledge through public and private Islamic colleges, but also travelling abroad to study Islam overseas. Some are establishing schools for girls, especially in the poorer Muslim regions of China. [Read more: Women in Islam]
Chinese Islamic Culture
Inevitably, Muslims in China have over the centuries, developed an indigenous Chinese Islamic culture, often synthesizing elements of Chinese culture with their Islamic forms. Mosques in Western China have traditional minarets and other elements of mosque architecture seen in other parts of the world, like the Id Kah mosque pictured above. However mosques in Eastern China, resemble pagodas, and represent traditional Chinese architecture with its emphasis on symmetry.
Chinese restaurants run by Muslims serve halal Chinese food that adheres to Islamic dietary laws. Chinese Muslims have even developed their own form of Arabic Calligraphy, known as Sini. This form of calligraphy is used extensively in mosques in eastern China.
The extent to which Islam is interwoven into China’s national fabric can be gauged from this quote from the Aramco World Magazine special issue on “Muslims in China”, where John Lawton writes:
Bin Lanzhou (Lanchow), on the banks of the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese civilization, a Muslim mosque and madrasa seminary stand side by side with Buddhist shrines in White Pagoda Park. And in the park each morning, hundreds of rhythmically twisting Chinese do their daily Tai Ji workout – daily gymnastics – just as devout young Muslim clerics begin a day of study and prayer.
• At Xian (Sian), formerly Ch’ang-an, “City of Eternal Peace” and capital of 11 dynasties, the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China, is proudly displayed to visitors as part of China’s national heritage – along with the life-size terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang-Ti.
• At Turpan oasis, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, teenagers turn their Mao-style peaked caps back-to-front to pray – foreheads to the ground, facing Makkah (Mecca) – in a mosque resembling a Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty pavilion.
In recent years, the Xinjiang province of China has been in the news due to political unrest fueled by ethnic tensions between Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese authorities. The unrest is marked by a harsh crackdown of the East Turkestan independence movement.
Islam in China: The Future
The Chinese federal government has relaxed some of its earlier repressive policies with regards to minorities. Muslims are now playing an increasingly active role in local administration. There are gains in cultural freedom as well, with the ability for Muslims to print newspapers and books, and to produce television programs and films in their own languages.
Rapidly expanding ties between China and several Muslim countries will continue to influence the growth of Islam in China. Outside of China, UAE is the largest trade hub for Chinese goods. In recent years, China assisted in the establishment of an Islamic bank in Bahrain that will engage in Shariah-compliant real estate investments in China. [Learn more: Islamic Finance]
Islam in China is growing at a phenomenal pace that is perhaps at par with the growth of Islam worldwide. Key accomplishments of the Chinese Muslims, include not only the establishment of indigenous Chinese Muslim institutions, but also scholarly achievements such as the translation of the Holy Quran into Mandarin and other languages spoken by Chinese Muslims such as Hue, Kyrgyz, Kazak, Uzbek, Uigur, and others.
Indeed, the faith and patience of Chinese Muslims have ensured that over the centuries, the mulberry of Islam is slowly turning into gleaming silk.