Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
What next on Iran’s nuclear deal: follow the news here

China and its little-known Muslim history

The first Muslims arrived in the seventh century and today there are about 20 million Muslims living in China.

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.


Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National