Islam in China (650-present)

By BBC Team


Islam in China

Traditional Chinese pagoda building
Islam is still officially recognised in China 

Muslims in China have managed to practise their faith in China, sometimes against great odds, since the seventh century. Islam is one of the religions that is still officially recognised in China.


It is believed that Islam began in China during the Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam.

The Caliph sent a deputation to China in 29 AH (650 CE, eighteen years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The delegation was headed by Sa'ad ibn Waqqas a maternal uncle of the Prophet. Sa'ad Ibn Waaqas invited the Chinese Emperor (Yung-Wei) to embrace Islam.

To show his admiration for Islam the Emperor ordered the establishment of China's first Mosque. The magnificent Canton Mosque is known to this day as the 'memorial mosque' and it still stands after fourteen centuries.

In Arab records there are only sparse records of the event, but there is a brief mention in the ancient records of the Tang dynasty. Chinese Muslims consider this event to mark the birth of Islam in China.


Many Muslims went to China to trade, and these Muslims began to have a great economic impact and influence on the country. Muslims virtually dominated the import/export industry by the time of the Sung dynasty (960-1279).



Chinese girl
Muslims became fully integrated into Chinese society 

Muslims became fully integrated into Chinese society. One interesting example of this synthesis was the process by which Muslims changed their names.

Many Muslims married Han Chinese women and simply took the name of the wife. But others took the Chinese surname of Mo, Mai, and Mu - names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.

Some Muslims, who could not find a Chinese surname similar to their own, adopted the Chinese character most similar to their own - Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa'I for Said and so on.

In addition to names, Muslim customs of dress and food also underwent a synthesis with Chinese culture.

The Islamic modes of dress and dietary rules were maintained within a Chinese cultural framework. In time, the Muslims began to speak local dialects and to read in Chinese.


The rise of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911) made relations between the Muslims and Chinese more difficult.

The Ch'ing were Manchu not Han, and were themselves a minority in China. They employed the tactics of divide and conquer to keep the Muslims, Hans, Tibetans and Mongolians in conflict with each other.

During the long rule of this Manchu dynasty five wars were waged against the Muslims, and the Muslims suffered many losses.

Twentieth century

The Manchu dynasty fell in 1911, and the Republic of China was established by Sun Yat Sen, who immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Hui (Muslim), Meng (Mongol), and the Tsang (Tibetan) peoples. This led to some improvement in relations between these different peoples.

Communist era

The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Through many of the early years there were tremendous upheavals, which culminated in the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution the Government attempted to dilute the Muslim population of Xinjiang by settling masses of Han Chinese there, and replacing Muslim leaders.

In 1978, the Chinese government liberalised its policies toward Islam and Muslims. New legislation gave all minorities the freedom to use their own spoken and written languages, develop their own culture and education and practice their religion.

China today

China today

Chinese woman on the doorstep of her house
Chinese woman 

Under China's current leadership Islam is undergoing a modest revival and there are now many mosques in China. There has been an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nation-wide Islamic associations have been organised to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims.

In most of China Muslims have considerable religious freedom, however in areas like Xinjiang, where there has been unrest among Uighur Muslims, activities are restricted.

China is fighting an increasingly protracted struggle against members of its Uighur minority, who are a Turkic people with their own language and distinct Islamic culture. Uighar separatists are intent on re-establishing the state of East Turkistan, which existed for a few years in the 1920s.

China believes the separatists are being assisted by Muslim fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan and other Central Asian republics.

China fears the influence of radical Islamic thinking filtering in from central Asia, and the role of exiles in neighbouring states and in Turkey, with which Xinjiang's majority Uighur population shares linguistic ties.

China's Muslims are divided among 10 ethnic groups. The Muslims of the traditional Chinese heartland are called the Hui and are often indistinguishable from their Han Chinese neighbours.

The Hui cause little anxiety to China's modern rulers. They have intermarried with non-Muslims, lost many of their customs and are frequently secular in their approach.

An official Chinese document of 1997 states

The Chinese government ... respects and protects the Moslems' freedom of religious belief as well as their folk customs. The departments concerned in the government have provided special pilgrimage-related services for Moslem pilgrims... Since the 1980s, the number of Chinese Moslems going to Mecca on pilgrimages has exceeded 40,000. In the Xinjian Uygur Autonomous Region alone, there are now more than 23,000 mosques with 29,000 clergymen, having thus met the needs of believers' religious life.

China Islamic Association

China Islamic Association

In April 2001, the government set up a China Islamic Association which was described as aiming to "help the spread of the Qur'an in China and oppose religious extremism".

The association, according to the China Daily, is to be run by 16 Islamic religious leaders who are charged with making "a correct and authoritative interpretation" of Islamic creed and canon.

It will compile and spread inspirational speeches and help imams improve themselves, the paper said.

The committee of imams will also vet sermons made by clerics around the country.

This latter function is probably the key job as far as the central government is concerned. It is worried that devout, anti-secular clerics are using their sermons to spread sedition.

Some examples of the religious freedom granted to Muslims are:

Statistics are hard to find, and the number of Muslims in China today is somewhere between 20 and 100 million; it depends on whose figures you trust.

According to government figures, there are 20 million Muslims (1.4% of the population), 35,000 Islamic places of worship, and more than 45,000 imams in China.

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Published on BBC Religion & Ethics: 2002-10-02
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