Introduction to History of Islam in China


Islam, one of the world's three most important religions, was transmitted from Arabia to China in the mid-7th century A.D. Over many centuries, diplomats and traders built a bridge of economic and cultural exchanges connecting the two major areas, China and Arabia. It was they who brought this religion of global importance to China and at the same time transmitted ancient Chinese culture all over the world.

Islam was officially introduced into China in 651 by envoys to the Tang Dynasty emperor, sent by the third successor to Mohammed, Khalifa Uthman ibn affan (577-656). A Muslim deputation led by Sa`ad Ibn Abi Waqqas visited China in 651 A.D (29 A.H.) to invite the Chinese emperor to embrace Islam. He sent a message of peace to the Chinese Emperor encouraging him and his people to embrace Islam. The Emperor Yong Hui, in the second year of his reign, had no interest in adopting these foreign ideas and beliefs, but out of respect, responded by ordering the building of the Memorial Mosque in Canton City (Guangzhou), China’s first Mosque which still stands today.

However, Islam actually entered China earlier through contacts with Arabian merchants and four disciples of Mohammed who were sent to China between the years 618 and 626. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, reportedly took great interest in China and Chinese culture, saying in a hadith, “Seek knowledge even unto China.” The first of these four missionaries went to Guangzhou, the second to Yangzhou, and the third and fourth to Quanzhou. The graves of the latter two are preserved today on a hill near Quanzhou.

According to Chinese historical records, Islam was transmitted to China's interior during the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279). There were two silk trade roads (a sea road and a land road) connecting China, Central Asia and the Middle East in those days. The two trade roads made tremendous contributions to the development of world culture by shortening the distance between the eastern culture and the western culture. Along these roads, the ancient Chinese culture was introduced to the Western world. At the same time, the philosophical concepts of Islam and western civilization were transmitted to China. Thus, traditional Chinese culture, which occupies a very important position in world cultural history, was enriched with new contents.

According to the records of the Book of the Old Tang Dynasty, the Tazi sent envoys to pay tribute to the Tang Dynasty in the second year of the reign of Emperor Yong Hui (651 A. D.). In Chinese history, that year is considered to mark the beginning of Islam's introduction to China. Chinese records say that during the period 651 to 798, 39 Arabian envoys visited China, and more and more Arabian and Persian traders came to China to do business. The frequent friendly exchanges between the governments and the frequent commercial intercourse, on the one hand, promoted the existing traditional friendship between China and the Arabic world, and on the other, provided good conditions for Islam to spread within China.

The routes to China for the envoys and businessmen from Arabia and Persia were as follows: the land route began in Persia, traversed China's Xinjiang region, and along the ancient silk road, and finally terminated in the inland cities of China, such as Xi'an and Luoyang; the sea route started at the Persian Gulf, passed the Malay Peninsula, and finally arrived at the trading ports along the south coast of China. Chinese historical records also have accounts of how Arabian and Persian traders carried on business and lived in Chang'an (the capital) and various places along the Chinese coast. By government permission during the Tang and Song dynasties, these traders were allowed to live in such places as Guangzhou, Yangzhou, Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Chang'an, Kaifeng and Luoyang.

They led peaceful lives in these places, following their own beliefs and customs. They lived in China for so long that they did not want to return home. Thus, they built mosques and tombs in these cities, married local residents and raised children; their children became the early Chinese Muslims. While sticking to their Islamic faith, and trying to avoid conflicts with Chinese traditional culture and other religions in China, they lived in compact communities. They did not preach Islam to the outside community, but on the contrary, tried to adapt to Chinese economic and cultural conditions. As a result, they led peaceful and happy lives. They brought advanced Chinese scientific technologies represented by the Four Great Inventions to Arabia and the Western world, becoming scientific and cultural envoys of the Middle Ages.

The Yuan and Ming dynasties were important periods for the spread and development of Islam in China. The powerful Mongols conquered the Islamic countries and nations in central and western Asia, destroying the Abbasid Dynasty of the Arabian Empire in 1258. They inducted Arabian and Persian prisoners of war into their armies when they attacked and unified (China. Among the inductees were carpenters, religious scholars and nobles, numbering tens of thousands. In the historical records, they are described as people who could fight bravely if they had horses to ride, while working as shepherds when there was no fighting.

After the Mongolian troops were victorious, they set up the powerful Yuan Dynasty in China. This ushered in a new era, in which politics and economy saw great developments. At that time, transportation between China and the Western world was so convenient that their trade exchanges were very frequent, and diplomatic relations were also friendly. All these things created good conditions for Islam to spread to the east. In the Yuan Dynasty, lots of Muslim traders from Central Asia came to China. In the Samarkand Legend of the History of the Ming Dynasty, it says that Muslims were scattered all over China. Today, in Beijing, Xi'an and in the main cities along the southeast coast and along the Grand Canal, some old mosques and tombs of ancient Muslims are still well preserved.

Influenced by economy, politics and intermarriage, lots of people of the Mongolian, Han and Uygur nationalities were converted to Islam in the Yuan Dynasty. These people were called Hui. Historical materials prove that in the Yuan Dynasty, Islam had developed on a relatively large scale, and Islam with Chinese characteristics was also formed at that time. Muslim communities centered on mosques, which began to appear in cities and villages.

From the end of the Yuan Dynasty to the early part of the Ming Dynasty, the Hui nationality emerged. From the end of the Ming Dynasty to the early part of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese Islam further developed. Besides the Hui nationality, several other minority groups also accepted Islam as their religion. As members of Chinese society, Muslims, represented by the Hui nationality played important roles in various aspects of social life.

In order to spread and develop Islam and Islamic culture, the early Chinese Muslims attached importance to the development of Islamic education. Islamic Mosque Education, first advocated by Iman Hu Dengzhou of Shanxi province, gradually influenced the lives of Muslims in the areas of central and Northwest China. This kind of education helped to promote Islamic culture widely.

The translation of Islamic scriptures into Chinese, which appeared at the same time as mosque education initiated and laid a foundation for the development of Chinese Islamic academic culture. Many Muslim scholars of the Ming and Qing dynasties, such as Wang Daiyu (c. 1560-1660), Ma Zhu (1640-1711), Liu Zhi (c. 1655-1745) Jin Tianzhu ( 1736-1795) and Ma Fuchu ( 1794-1847), were renowned as scholars who not only had a good knowledge of the four religions (Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism ), but were proficient in two languages---Chinese and Arabic. They used Confucianism to expound the Islamic scriptures, and wrote and translated numerous works. They employed ancient Chinese philosophical concepts to explain the principles of Islam, promoting Islamic development with Chinese characteristics. Thus, the Chinese Islamic philosophical system gradually came into being.

Islam spread to the Xinjiang area in the l0th to 11th centuries. The way the local people accepted Islam was different from the way people in other parts of China accepted it. Islam did not spread quickly after Muslim groups were formed, but only after the nobles were converted to Islam and claimed it as the state religion. The nobles preached Islam to their people. So a combination of politics and religion was the feature of the spread of Islam in Xinjiang.

Muslims from various nationalities in Xinjiang and Muslims from the inland areas rose in revolt together against the Qing Dynasty's exploitation and national discrimination-In their production and daily lives, Muslims in Xinjiang created local culture and arts with strong local characteristics, and greatly enriched Chinese national culture as well as Chinese Islamic culture. Especially in modem times, Xinjiang Muslims have responded to the slogan "education saves the country." The new mosque education promoted by Muslims of Hui and other nationalities, has contributed a great deal to the development of China's traditional Islamic culture.

Following the founding of People's Republic of China, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the Central People's Government, the policy of religious freedom was fully implemented and carried out. The religious life of Chinese Muslims was also fully guaranteed.

There are ten minority groups in China which believe in Islam: The Hui, Uygur, Kazak Uzbek, Kirgiz, Tajik, Tatar, Dongxiang, Sala and Baoan peoples. Their total population is 20 million. The distribution of the Chinese Muslim population is characterized by being "scattered widely and concentrated in small groups". There are 30,000 mosques and 42,000 imams (mullahs) in China.

Belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam, Chinese Muslims follow Hanafiyyah in Shariah (the doctrine and law). In addition, at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Sufis from Central Asia who migrated to northeast China gradually formed the Menhuan system (also called "Ishan" in the Uygur language of Xinjiang). Each Menhuan revolved about one religious leader. By administering some mosques and building a comprehensive management system, they formed different sections and added new contents to Chinese Islam. Although they belong to different Menhuan factions, they lead their religious cultural lives on an equal and harmonious atmosphere, and lead the Muslims of various nationalities to take part in the construction of socialist civilization.


Ibn Battuta: "the World's First Tourist"

Ibn Battuta (1325 – 1354) is known as “the world’s first tourist.” He was born in Tunisia on the north coast of Africa into a respected family of scholars and Islamic judges or qadis. At the age of 21, after finishing his education, Ibn Battuta set out to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims were expected to do once in their lives: “I left Tangiers, my birthplace, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to leave all my friends, to abandon my home as birds abandon their nests.” Along the way, the young man studied under well-known scholars of Islam. These studies qualified him to become a judge. The fame of his teachers made him a respected guest of Muslim leaders wherever he went: “The people of al-Basra are of generous nature, hospitable to the stranger and readily doing their duty by him, so that no stranger feels lonely amongst them.”

In 1326, Ibn Battuta completed his first pilgrimage to Mecca. But instead of returning home, he decided to see as many parts of Dar al-Islam as possible, vowing never to travel the same road twice. In the end, he traveled more than 75,000 miles, down the east coast of Africa and across Asia to China. In 1333, Ibn Battuta arrived in India after traveling through much of west Asia. Here too, he was well-received by the sultan of India. The sultan honored him with feasts and gifts and gave him an important position as grand judge of the capital. After seven years in India, the sultan appointed the traveler as ambassador to China.

Even this famed traveler was greatly impressed by China: “China is the safest, best regulated of countries for a traveler. A man may go by himself on a nine-month journey, carrying with him a large sum of money, without any fear. Silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars. Its porcelains are the finest of all makes of pottery and its hens are bigger than geese in our country.”
He was surprised by the well-established Muslim community he found in China’s ports. China’s first mosque was built 350 years before his arrival. Muslim merchants had come to live permanently in China to manage the far end of their trade businesses. They had grown wealthy, built mosques and developed into a thriving community.

After achieving his mission in China, Ibn Battuta returned home to Tunisia, stopping in Mecca and many other places along the way. He finally settled, after 29 years of traveling, into life of a respected judge. He continued to travel throughout the western Muslim world. Everywhere he went, rulers of all ethnicities welcomed him as one learned in Islam and who had seen the furthest ends of the Muslim world.


Zheng He [Cheng Ho] (1371-1433), the Chinese Muslim Admiral

Little did the famous Muslim geographer, Ibn Battuta, know that about 22 years after his historic visit to China, the Mongol Dynasty (called the Yuan Dynasty in China) would be overthrown. The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) would begin. A Muslim boy would help a Chinese prince. That prince would become emperor and the boy would grow up to be the "Admiral of the Chinese Fleet."

His name... Zheng He. The ships that he would sail throughout the Indian Ocean would retrace some of the same routes taken by Ibn Battuta, but he would be in huge boats called "junks". Zheng He's flag "treasure ship" was four hundred feet long - much larger than Columbus's. Columbus's ship St. Maria was only 85 feet long whilst Zheng He's flag ship was an astonishing 400 feet.

Imagine six centuries ago, a mighty armada of Zheng He's ships crossing the China Sea, then venturing west to Ceylon, Arabia, and East Africa. The fleet consisting of giant nine-masted junks, escorted by dozens of supply ships, water tankers, transports for cavalry horses, and patrol boats. The armada's crew totaling more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers.

Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged the spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court.

Seven times, from 1405 to 1433, the treasure fleets set off for the unknown. These seven great expeditions brought a vast web of trading links -- from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf -- under Zheng He's imperial control. This took place half a century before the first Europeans, rounding the tip of Africa in frail Portuguese caravels, 'discovered' the Indian Ocean.

Speak of the world's first navigators and the names Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama flash through a Western mind. Little known are the remarkable feats that a Chinese Muslim Zheng He (1371-1433) had accomplished decades before the two European adventurers.

The Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation retraces the route of China’s 15th century admiral, Zheng He, who ranks as perhaps the country’s foremost adventurer. A Muslim and a warrior, Zheng He helped transform China into the region’s, and perhaps the world’s, superpower of his time.

In 1405, Zheng was chosen to lead the biggest naval expedition in history up to that time. Over the next 28 years (1405-1433), he commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In those years, China had by far the biggest ships of the time. In 1420 the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe.

Ma He (the Chinese version of Muhammad), as he was originally known, was born in 1371 to a poor ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslims) family in Yunnan Province, Southwest China. The boy's grandfather and father once made an overland pilgrimage to Makkah. Their travels contributed much to young Ma's education. He grew up speaking Arabic and Chinese, learning much about the world to the west and its geography and customs.

Recruited as a promising servant for the Imperial household at the age of ten, Ma was assigned two years later to the retinue of the then Duke Yan, who would later usurp the throne as the emperor Yong Le. Ma accompanied the Duke on a series of successful military campaigns and played a crucial role in the capture of Nanjing, then the capital. Ma was thus awarded the supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency and was given the surname Zheng.

Emperor Yong Le tried to boost his damaged prestige as a usurper by a display of China's might abroad, sending spectacular fleets on great voyages and by bringing foreign ambassadors to his court. He also put foreign trade under a strict Imperial monopoly by taking control from overseas Chinese merchants. Command of the fleet was given to his favorite Zheng He, an impressive figure said to be over eight feet tall.

A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men, each set sail in July 1405, half a century before Columbus's voyage to America. There were great treasure ships over 300-feet long and 150-feet wide, the biggest being 440-feet long and 186-across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.

Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java, Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages taken shortly after, followed roughly the same route.

In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le.

In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast.
Emperor Yong Le died in 1424 shortly after Zheng He's return. Yet, in 1430 the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. Now 60 years old, Zheng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, including a trip to Mecca, and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.


Baarak Allaahu feek El Hajj Ayman!

I agree - it certainly was such an amazing time in history, and we have so much to learn from the Sahaaba.


Abu Juwairiya

Junior Member
There are suggestions that Zheng He may have reached the American shores seventy-one years before Columbus. I have in my possession books that analysed his voyages, have studied his maps, examined the size, capacities and strength of his ships (to make the trip there in the first place and return successfully) and looked at his personality and statesmanship as a leader with his crew to determine the assertions that he could have made the discovery as early as 1421.

While a full in depth exploration of his destinations is not available as an accurate secondary source, some records cite works (now lost) that show he was aware of lands and territories beyond the seas Chinese ships and other local expeditionary and merchant vessels surveyed at the time.

Questions of irregularities however, emerge over non discussions of the 'discovery' by others after the event, limitations in food supply for the entire crew for the full duration of the journey, a lack of reports from the annals of Chinese government documents (who would record astounding news and sizeable details of an event such as this), no follow ups to determine the long and amazing voyage and more importantly why Zheng He himself seems not to record it. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing thought and one we may not be able to answer just yet either.