Islam, one of the world’s three most important religions, is said to have begun in China during the Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam. After triumphing over the Byzantine, Romans and the Persians, Uthman ibn Affan, sent a deputation to China in 29 AH (650 C.E.). 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. The Chinese emperor respected the teachings of Islam and considered it to be compatible with the teachings of Confucius. To show his admiration for Islam, Yung-Wei approved the establishment of China’s first mosque at Ch’ang-an. The magnificent Canton Mosque is known today as the ‘memorial mosque’ and it still stands after fourteen centuries. Chinese Muslims consider this event to mark the birth of Islam in China.
Even before this, the Arab traders during the time of the Prophet had already brought Islam to China, although this was not an organized effort, but merely as an offshoot of their journey along the Silk Route. These Muslims began to have a great economic impact on the country. Muslims virtually dominated the import and export business in China during Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE). The office of Director General of Shipping was consistently held by a Muslim during this period. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE), a period considered to be the golden age of Islam in China, Muslims fully integrated into Han society by adopting their name and some customs while retaining their Islamic mode of dress and dietary restrictions. Well into the Ming era, the Muslims could not be distinguished from other Chinese other than by their unique religious customs. Over the years, many Muslims established mosques, schools and madrasas attended by students from as far as Russia and India.
However, during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE), Anti-Muslim sentiments took root in China which were established by Manchus who were a minority in China. The Ch’ing were Manchu (not Han) and were a minority in China. They employed tactics of divide-and- conquer to keep the Muslims, Han, Tibetans, and Mongolians in struggles against one another. In particular, they were responsible for inciting anti-Muslim sentiment throughout China, and used Han soldiers to suppress the Muslim regions of the country. When the Manchu Dynasty fell in 1911, the Republic of China was established by Sun Yat Sen, who immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Hui (Muslim), Man (Manchu), Meng (Mongol), and the Tsang (Tibetan) peoples. His policies led to some improvement in relations among these groups.
Since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, tremendous upheavals occurred throughout China culminating in the Cultural Revolution. Muslims along with all the Chinese population suffered. After the third congress of the 11th Central committee, the government greatly liberalized its policies toward Islam and Muslims.. Since religious freedom was declared in 1978, the Chinese Muslims have not wasted time in expressing their convictions.
Under China’s current leadership, in fact, Islam appears to be undergoing a modest revival. Religious leaders report more worshipers now than before the Cultural Revolution, and a reawakening of interest in religion among the young. Muslims in China number more than 35 million, according to unofficial counts and there are now 32,749 mosques in the entire People’s Republic of China. Nowadays there is an upsurge in Islamic expression in China and Muslims have also gained a measure of toleration from other religious practices.