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If you're interested in Islam and its history and development throughout Asia, whether you have a personal connection or are merely curious, China offers many destinations and discoveries for travelers seeking to know more about one of the world's oldest major religions.
In 1910, it was estimated that Muslims made up about 1 or 2 percent of the population of China (about 7 million people). During the Communist era, intense anti-religious education and persecution caused a deflation in all faiths throughout China including in the Islamic communities. In modern China however, Islam and many other world religions have seen a resurgence.
Islam is considered to be the newest world religion to come to China. The religion arrived in China after Buddhism and Christianity. Muslim traders began to arrive in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Muslims were brought into the Yuan Empire (1271 - 1368) by the Mongols. Many Mongol leaders became converts and the religion spread quickly in Central Asia by Muslim conquest of the nomadic tribes and empires between Arabia and China.
A new development that is spreading the knowledge and the interest in Islam is Chinese travel to Islamic countries. The Hajj, or the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the pillars of Islam. In the past, especially after the Mongol Empire, land travel was often difficult or impossible due to wars and banditry. Likewise, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Muslims were not permitted to complete the Hajj. But after 1979, this restriction was dropped. It is said that in recent years 50,000 Chinese Muslims have completed the Hajj. This contact with the center of the Islamic religion has bolstered the many Muslim communities of modern China.
Nowadays, people in China are mainly Muslim by birth since few Chinese citizens report having converted to the religion. Regardless, Islam holds a prominent place in the faith lives of the Chinese people. It is the third largest world religion in the country after Buddhism and Christianity, with about 20 to 30 million practicing believers.
Muslim ethnic groups live mainly along the borders of modern China in Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Henan Province. Of the 55 or so Chinese minority groups, about ten are classified as Muslim.
The Uighur are the biggest ethnic Muslim group with about 10 million people who live mainly in Xinjiang, but can be found in many Chinese cities.
The second biggest group are the Kazakhs. About 2 million of them live mainly in Xinjiang.
The Hui are another Muslim ethnic group that live throughout all of China. Chinese Muslims often wear white caps or headscarves that denote their religion.
Muslim restaurants offer unique options not typically found in traditional Chinese restaurants.
Many Chinese Muslims own restaurants that offer Halal options, due to the dietary restrictions of the religion. Since most Chinese dishes include pork and pork fat, it can be difficult for Muslims in China to find appropriate meals.
Muslim restaurants in China are known for making their own fresh noodles out of wheat flour, and for not including pork on their menus. Instead, you will often see lamb or beef offered. Breads and sweets, which are not traditionally Chinese food items, can also be found in Muslim eateries.
Today, Chinese mosques can be easily found in nearly every city. Chinese and foreign Muslims alike take part in daily prayer services.
Mosques also serve as cultural centers for the Muslim communities by offering religious services and celebrating Muslim holidays.
Given China's long history with Islam, there are a variety of both ancient and modern mosques available to Chinese Muslims. However, many buildings are newer having been built after the Cultural Revolution.
Interested in exploring more of China's Islamic history? China Highlights offers personalized tours unique to your areas of interest as well as pre-planned tours.
Or perhaps take a trip to Shanghai's bustling Muslim Market to experience the tastes, sights, and sounds of what it means to be a Muslim in China. Whatever it is you are looking for, China is sure to delight travelers with an interest in history, religion, and adventure.
Read our China Muslim Travel Guide for more information on mosques in China, Muslim restaurants, and Islamic holidays celebrated in China.
For access to historical and religious sites important to the Islamic faith, let us help you plan your personalized tour of China.