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Islam in China

Islam in China.jpg

History of Islam in China

Tang DynastySong Dynasty
Yuan DynastyMing Dynasty
Qing DynastyDungan revolt
Panthay rebellion1911-Present

Major figures

Lan YuYeheidie'erding
Hui LiangyuMa Bufang
Zheng HeLiu Zhi
Haji NoorYusuf Ma Dexin
Ma HualongRebiya Kadeer


CuisineMartial arts
Chinese mosquesSini
Islamic Association of China


Hong KongKashgarLinxia



As the Yuan Dynasty ended, many Mongols as well as the Muslims who came with them remained in China. Most of their descendants took Chinese names and became part of the diverse cultural world of China.[1] During the following Ming rule (1368-1644), Muslims truly adopted Chinese culture. Most became fluent in Chinese and adopted Chinese names and the capital, Nanjing, became a center of Islamic learning. As a result, the Muslims became "outwardly indistinguishable" from the Chinese.[2]

The Ming dynasty saw the rapid decline in the Muslim population in the sea ports. This was due to the closing of all seaport trade with the outside world except for rigid government-sanctioned trade.



As a result of increasing isolationism by the Ming dynasty, immigration from Muslim countries slowed down drastically however, and the Muslims in China became increasingly isolated from the rest of the Islamic world, gradually becoming more sinicized, adopting the Chinese language and Chinese dress. Muslims became fully integrated into Chinese society. One interesting example of this synthesis was the process by which Muslims changed their names.

During this period, Muslims also began to adopt Chinese surnames. Many Muslim married Han Chinese women and simply took the name of the wife. Other Muslims, who could not find a Chinese surname similar to their own, adopted the Chinese character most similar to their own - Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa'I for Said and so on. Chinese surnames that are very common among Muslim families are Mo, Mai, and Mu - names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.

Muslim customs of dress and food also underwent a synthesis with Chinese culture. The Islamic modes of dress and dietary rules were maintained within a Chinese cultural framework. Chinese Islamic cuisine is heavily influenced by Beijing cuisine, with nearly all cooking methods identical, and differs only in material due to religious restrictions. As a result, northern Islamic cuisine is often included as part of Beijing cuisine.

During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese Islamic traditions of writing began to develop, including the practice of writing Chinese using the Arabic script (xiaojing) and distinctly Chinese forms of decorative calligraphy.[3] The script is used extensively in mosques in eastern China, and to a lesser extent in Gansu, Ningxia, and Shaanxi. A famous Sini calligrapher is Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang.

Mosque Architecture began to follow traditional Chinese architecture. A good example is the Great Mosque of Xi'an, whose current buildings date from the Ming Dynasty. Western Chinese mosques were more likely to incorporate minarets and domes while eastern Chinese mosques were more likely to look like pagodas.[4]

In time, the Muslims who were descendants of immigrants from Muslim countries began to speak local dialects and to read in Chinese Language.

Muslim Scholarship

The era saw Nanjing become an important center of Islamic study. From there Wang Daiyu wrote Zhengjiao zhenquan (A Commentary on the Orthodox Faith), while his successor, Liu Zhi, translated Tianfang xingli (Islamic Philosophy) Tianfang dianli (Islamic Ritual) and Tianfang zhisheng shilu (The Last Prophet of Islam). Another scholar, Hu Dengzhou started a rigorous Islamic school in Nanjing, which taught hadith, the Qur'an, and Islamic law. The school grew into a fourteen-course system, with classes in Arabic and Persian. Other provinces had different systems and different specializations; Lintao and Hezhou provinces had a three-tier educational system in which the youngest children learned the Arabic required for namaz and wudu, and then graduated to more advanced studies. Shandong province became a center specialized in Persian texts. As the Hui Muslim community became more diluted, Chinese scholars worked harder to translate texts into Chinese to both provide more texts for Muslims to convince the ruling Han elite that Islam was not inferior to Confucianism.[5]

The work of Islamic geographers which had reached China during the Yuan Dynasty was used in the Ming Dynasty to draw the Western Regions in the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, the oldest surviving world map from East Asia. Meanwhile further west, Arabic storytellers were narrating fantastical stories of China, which were incorporated into the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), the most famous being the story of Aladdin. Other Arabian Nights tales set in China include "Tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Budur", "The Story of Prince Sayf al-Muluk", and the "The Hunchback's Tale" story cycle.[6]

Prominent Muslims

During the Yuan Dynasty, Muslims from the Middle East were given elevated status over the native Han Chinese in Mongol political circles. Perhaps, as a result of this, there were many prominent Muslims who were trusted associates of the highest levels of the Ming government.


Military Generals

Several of the commanders of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, were Muslim.

Lan Yu , in 1388, led a strong imperial Ming army out of the Great Wall and won a decisive victory over the Mongols in Mongolia, effectively ending the Mongol dream to re-conquer China. Lan Yu was later killed by the Emperor, along with several others, in a purge of those deemed to be a potential threat to his heir apparent.[7]

Mu Ying was one of the few capable generals who survived the massacre of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. He and his descendants guarded Yunnan, a province near Vietnam, until the end of the Ming Dynasty.

Other generals of the Ming Dynasty include Feng Sheng, Ding Dexing and Hu Dahai.

Zheng He

The Ming dynasty also gave rise to who is perhaps the most famous Chinese Muslim, Zheng He, a mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral. He was born in 1371, in Yunnan province. He served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China (reigned 14031424), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions, led by Zheng He into the Indian Ocean, and as far away as east Africa. Amateur historian Gavin Menzies claims that Zheng He traveled to West Africa, North America and South America, Greenland, Antarctica and Australia and most of the rest of the world, although this idea is not taken seriously by professional historians.


  1. ^ Richard Bulliet, Pamela Crossley, Daniel Headrick, Steven Hirsch, Lyman Johnson, and David Northrup. The Earth and Its Peoples. 3. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. ISBN 0-618-42770-8
  2. ^ Israeli(2002), pg. 292
  3. ^ [1] Islamic Calligraphy in China
  4. ^ Cowen, Jill S. (July/August 1985). "Muslims in China: The Mosque". Saudi Aramco World. pp. 30–35. Retrieved 2006-04-08.  
  5. ^ Looking East: The challenges and oppurtunities of Chinese Islam
  6. ^ Ulrich Marzolph, Richard van Leeuwen, Hassan Wassouf (2004), The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, pp. 521–2, ISBN 1576072045  
  7. ^ Dun J. Li The Ageless Chinese (Charles Scribner's Sons: 1971), p. 276

See also


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