BEIJING // George Lane describes the past decade, during which he has come to understand Islam's significance in China, as "a journey of exploration".
A lecturer at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Mr Lane, whose speciality is medieval Iran, first came to China in the mid 1980s. But it was only 10 years ago, when he began to study the role Persians played in the city of Hangzhou near Shanghai, that he started to realise the historic importance of Muslims in the world's most populous nation.
"I was surprised how many mosques there were. I never thought of China as an Islamic country, but they're everywhere. Yet they have a low profile," he said.
The role of Islam in China, as well as China's relations with Muslim countries, is the subject of a two-day conference in the capital, "China and the Muslim World: Cultural Encounters".
The event, organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Istanbul's Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, began yesterday with scholars from China, the Muslim world and other regions in attendance.
A key theme is the historical ties between the Islamic world and China. The first Muslims arrived in the seventh century and today there are about 20 million Muslims living in China. About 95 per cent of the counties and most major cities in China have Muslim populations, said Jacqueline Armijo, an associate professor in the department of international affairs at Qatar University. Most are descendants of Muslims who settled there during the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1271 to 1368.
"China and the Muslim world engaged in productive relations over a long period. They were the dominant players in global trade. It's only the last 200 years the West experienced success in global trade," said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, in an opening speech.
"That was only due to the work of the Eastern world, that is to say the Muslim world and China, and the harnessing of colonial lands."
Through interactions with the Muslim world, technologies developed in China, such as the printing press, spread to Europe, noted Mr Ihsanoglu.
Tensions between China and its Muslim populations have been evident in the past, and still flare.
Gao Zhangfu, a professor with the Chinese Association of Islam, said that in the Ming Dynasty, which ran from 1368 to 1644, "the government adopted this policy of discrimination against ethnic minorities", forcing them to speak Chinese.
These days, the western Xinjiang province, a homeland of Muslim Uighurs, is among the most restive parts of the country. Rioting broke out in July 2009 and there has been continued violence, although tensions largely stem from nationalist sentiment rather than religion. Nonetheless, it illustrates that China does not have good relations with all of its Muslim minorities.
What participants at the conference emphasised, however, is that China, with established ties to the Muslim world and its own significant Muslim population, does not view the Muslim world as a threat.
"China has always been very cognisant of the fact it has long-standing relations with the Middle East," said Ms Armijo.
"They have always maintained good relations with the Arab countries, and [while] there are angles on how cynical they've been about using this [Chinese] Muslim population, in general they don't have that fear."
In the 20th century there have been tensions though. Gulf states were, said Ms Armijo, relatively late to establish diplomatic relations with communist China, which was formed in 1949.
Mahmoud Ghafouri, a political science professor in Iran, wrote in a Middle East Policy Council essay that until the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping took control of China in the late 1970s, relations with the Middle East were "paralysed" by China's rigid Marxist ideology.
The modern-day growth in trade between China and the Arab world, increasing from US$36.4 billion (Dh133.7bn) in 2004 to $145.4bn in 2010 and seen as a revival of the Silk Road that linked the regions, offers opportunities for many Chinese Muslims.
For example, some of the Hue minority Muslims who have studied Arabic are now securing jobs as translators for Arab traders active in China, Ms Armijo said. In Ningxia, a central region with a major Hue population, Arabic courses tailored for work in business or tourism are being offered.
"There's now tremendous interest in studying Arabic for commercial reasons," Ms Armijo said.