Islam is the newest world religion to come to China. Many Muslims say that Muslim missionaries arrived in China in the year 651. If so, they came soon after the founding of Islam by Mohamed in what is now Saudi Arabia about the year 600 AD. They came soon after his death. This is about 16 years after a Nestorian Christian missionary named Alopun went to Chang An. Islam arrived after Buddhism and Christianity. Muslim traders began to arrive in China during the Tang Empire, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Muslims were brought to the Mongol Yuan Empire by the Mongols who used them to govern and administrate China, and many of the Mongols themselves became Muslims. The religion spread quickly in Central Asia by Muslim conquest of the nomadic tribes and empires between Arabia and China. In this way, many small ethnic groups that are in western, northern, and southeastern China such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Tajiks became Muslim. In China, people are mainly Muslim by birth since few Chinese convert. It is the third largest world religion in the country after Buddhism and Christianity, with about 20 to 30 million Muslims nowadays. Islam has had a long and interesting history in China, and nowadays ethnic Muslims are growing in interest and knowledge of the religion.
Read our China Muslim Travel Guide with mosques in China, Muslim restaurants and Islamic holidays.
Muslims ethnic groups are mainly along the borders of modern China in Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu Province and Henan Province. Of the 55 or so minority groups, about ten groups are classified as Muslim though individuals may profess another religion or no religion. Intense anti-religious education and persecution during the Communist era had the effect of decreasing the belief in the religion, so many ethnically Muslim people don’t believe the religion. Uighurs are the biggest ethnic Muslim group with about 10 million people who live mainly in Xinjiang. They became Muslim about 400 or 500 years ago. The second biggest group are the Kazakhs. About 2 million of them live mainly in Xinjiang.
The Hui people are about 12 million Chinese Muslims who live all over China. They can be seen in every Chinese city and almost every town all over the country because they often have Lanzhou Lamian restaurants and often wear white caps or scarves. Lanzhou is the name of a big city in Gansu Province in northern China. Lamian means pulled noodles. They are known for making their own fresh noodles in their restaurants out of wheat flour and not eating pork. It seems that they have spread evenly all over China setting up Muslim restaurants. There is a market for this because Muslims traditionally can’t eat pork and have other diet laws similar to Judaism, so Muslims can’t eat at regular Chinese restaurants. Also, the freshly made noodles actually taste very good. The government lists Hui people as an ethnic group although they are simply Chinese Muslims who are perhaps descended from Mongols or foreign traders and administrators. These restaurants are on almost every street in Chinese cities, and the large number of them makes it seem that Muslims are a large percentage of the population of China, but estimates say that Muslims are about 2 percent of the population. Christians may be about 5 percent of the population.
Because of the intense warfare between Chinese and Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries and because the government didn’t want people to believe the religion, most Muslims in China are not very religious. People are regarded as Muslim if they are of ethnic Muslim descent or follow Muslim customs. However, now that religion is permitted in China and the ethnic people have more contact with foreign Muslims and mosques are rebuilt, many now have a great interest in the religion and follow the Muslim traditions such as prayer and going to mosques.
The Chinese never developed their own version of Islam as they developed their own Buddhism. There have been many different Muslim sects or groups in different regions of the country and in different ethnic groups. Sometimes the groups fought each other, and most probably disappeared. Some of these were Sufi. One group called Xidaotang in the 19th century mixed Daoism with Islam. However, Chinese people never developed their own brand of Islam. They are Sunni Muslim. The only types of foreign Islam that Chinese had contact with were Shia and Sunni. This is unlike Buddhism that developed as several philosophies of foreign Buddhism were merged with native Taoist philosophy and folk religion so that Chinese Buddhism is a mixture of the two. In contrast, Islam has a main standard text called the Koran and a long interpretive history in other countries. Rites, customs, and interpretations of the Koran are finely explained in the Middle East. So though the beliefs of many individual Muslims are colored by native Taoist belief so that they may believe concepts like Yin and Yang and Chi, in contrast to Chinese Buddhism, no generally popular Sinofied version of Islam developed in China to replace what is accepted in the Middle East. In the past two decades, Muslims in other countries especially Turks and Arabs have tried to support and spread the teaching of Sunni Islam.
Another factor that is spreading the knowledge and the interest in Islam is Chinese travel to Islamic countries for education and the Hajj. The Hajj is called one of the Pillars of Islam. If a Muslim is able to go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and participate in going around the temple there and participate in the rites, it is considered very important for his salvation for him to do so. A Muslim who returns from Mecca is greatly respected. China is very far from Mecca, and in the past, especially after the Mongol Empire, land travel was often difficult or impossible due to wars and banditry. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese were not permitted to go there. But after 1979, this restriction was dropped. Now for the first time in history, large numbers of Chinese can travel to Mecca easily. It is said that in recent years 50,000 Chinese have traveled to the Hajj. This contact with the center of the Islamic religion and seeing Islamic ruled societies is bound to greatly affect them. When Chinese in the past travelled to the area and studied there, many of those who returned founded sects like those they found in the Middle East. Chinese come back with their view of the world changed.
Now some Muslim students can also go to study in schools and universities in Islamic countries. Muslim governments and rich Muslims want to educate young people, and some are attending international Islamic universities in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries.
Part of what makes Islam attractive and helps Muslims teach it is that compared to other big religions, it is actually simple and the beliefs are sort of logical. This is in contrast to Christianity in which salvation is described in the Bible as by faith in Jesus and few find it. Christianity has doctrines about God and salvation that seem very illogical and self-contradictory. When Muslims talk to people about Christianity, they point out that it is illogical to say that God was a man or that God died. If God died, why wasn’t everything destroyed? “How can God die?” they ask. Christianity has a long history of division over theology, but in contrast, the rules of Islam are simple to follow and the idea of God is very simple. There is only one creator named Allah. Allah never had children. Allah is perfect and never changes.
A factor that keeps Muslim people from converting to other religions is that in many societies, if a Muslim converts, their family or others try to kill them. Generally, the Muslim family feels pressured to disown them and put them out of the family. Even educated Muslims in Western countries often say it is right to kill people who grew up in Muslim families and converted to another religion. Muslims are also not permitted to learn about other religions, and if they are found with religious documents or thought to be changing their religion, they may be punished by the religious leaders. Missionary effort by people of other religions is forbidden by the local religious rulers. So once an ethnic group becomes Muslim, they usually keep their Muslim ways.
The main beliefs are that Mohamed was the last and greatest prophet of Allah, and the Koran (Qu'ran) is the Islamic scripture that Allah wants everyone to believe. The hadith are 'reports' of what the Prophet Mohammed said on various topics, compiled and interpreted by clerics into varying schools of thought and Islamic laws.
The Five Pillars of Islam are called Shahadah, Salah, Sawm, Zakat, and the Hajj. These include praying in Arabic five times a day, fasting at specified times, giving alms to poor Muslims, and going to Mecca to do the ceremonies of the Hajj if possible. In saying the Shahadah (creed) one says: "I testify that there is no God but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is a messenger of Allah."These rites are simple to understand. Along with this it is said that after death Allah will give judgement to each Muslim. If the good he did outweighs the bad he did, he will go to paradise. Otherwise, he will go to hell.
Mohamed was born about the year 570 in the Arabian city of Mecca. There seems to have been much disagreement about details of his life in the early biographies. In general, it is thought that he was orphaned at an early age. It is said that when he was older, he would go to a cave near Mecca to meditate. It is said that one day he had a vision from God in the cave. He kept going back to the cave, and received more revelations. It is said that he would have seizures when he had revelations. When he started to publicly preach about his revelations, he met with opposition. His preaching about Allah was new. Most of the people in Mecca were pagans. There was a prominent temple there called the Kaaba.
Because of the opposition, he sent some followers to Ethiopia. Most were sent to the town of Medina. Then he escaped to Medina. His followers started to attack the Meccans. They attacked the traders that traveled to the city to get their wealth and to force the Meccans to submit to Mohamed. One day, the followers of Mohamed tried to attack a caravan. The caravan eluded them, but a larger force from Mecca attacked the Muslims. However, the Muslims won. Many people in Medina followed Mohamed. He expelled Jews who lived there. He started to make alliances with other clans and tribes. Throughout this time, he received revelations and prophecies that he told his followers. Wars and fighting continued for a long time as the size of the armies and alliances of Mohamed and his enemies grew. At that time, there were many tribes, clans and different religions in Arabia. Mohamed pressured everybody to become Muslim, or he would attack them or they had to pay money to him. He may have also sent letters to rulers in other countries warning them to convert to Islam. He succeeded in conquering Mecca with a large army. He died in Medina in 632.
After he died, the Muslims quickly conquered a large area in the Middle East. They conquered the Persian Empire in the middle 600s and their army came to the Tang Empire border. It is said that emissaries came from the new Arab Empire about 651. They proclaimed the religion to the emperor, and the emperor had a mosque built to honor the religion and the country that sent them. If so, it is probably the oldest mosque in China. Other historians say the legend never happened, but that Muslims arrived as traders at the ports and merchant centers during the Tang Dynasty.
In 751, the Muslim Arab army and the Tang Dynasty army fought near the Talas River. The Muslims made a deal with one of the Turkish tribes in the Tang army, and during the battle, the tribe attacked the Tang army by surprise and helped to defeat it. In this way, the Muslims took control of Central Asian regions.
During the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), large numbers of Muslims were brought to China to help them govern. The Mongols gave Muslim immigrants an elevated status over the native people. During the following Ming Dynasty, Muslims continued to be influential in the government. Some of the generals were Muslims. Zheng He was perhaps the most famous Chinese Muslim and China's foremost explorer. He led expeditions of ships that sailed to the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. However, the Ming restricted Muslim immigration. The Muslims in China took Chinese names and blended into the culture. The Ming Dynasty became isolationist.
The Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The Manchus were not Muslim. They forbade Muslims from traveling to Mecca for the Hajj. In the nineteenth century, there was much warfare between the Qing Dynasty and Muslims. In the places such as Yunnan, Xinjiang and Gansu Province where there were a lot of Muslims, they Muslims rebelled and tried to form their own countries. The fighting was intense. Often the Muslims started the wars by making surprise attacks.
The Manchus were not popular among the rest of the population either. The Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty was started by people with some Protestant Christian beliefs in 1850. This rebellion was at first successful, and they conquered much of the country and set up a rival capital in Nanjing. The Taiping leaders encouraged the Muslims to revolt also. Somehow, with foreign aid, the Qing rulers defeated all these rebellions. There was war in Yunnan from about 1855 to 1873 and war in the northwest from 1862 to 1877. In order to stop rebellions, the Chinese government destroyed the Muslims. It is said millions of Muslims were killed. Some Muslims in Xinjiang escaped to Russia. In 1895, there was another Muslim revolt.
This war and extermination reduced the number of Muslims. In 1910, it was estimated that Muslims made up about 1 or 2 percent of the population of China or about 7 million. Some modern estimates say that Muslims make up about It is the third largest world religion in the country after Buddhism and Christianity (2 percent of the population now).