Mosque, Shanghai, 1980. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Although “Seek learning even onto China,” the oft-cited hadith—a narrative record of the sayings or customs of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions—has been over-interpreted in commentaries and by pure speculation, it does suggest the farthest limits of Muslim expansion. From the Tang years (618–907 CE) to the present—considering the basic demand of Islam that its followers ought to live under Muslim regimes—difficult problems have arisen for Muslim minorities living in non-Muslim lands.

In the twenty-first century Chinese Islam (or Islam in China, as some would have it) has over 25 million adherents divided almost evenly between the Hui (the ethnically sinified Muslims of mainland China) and the Turks (mainly Uygurs but also tiny Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other minorities) in the Chinese northwest and Tibet. This population constitutes the core of Muslim presence in eastern Asia. The other countries of eastern Asia—Japan and Korea—have been home to Muslim minorities only in recent decades, and most of them are not native or converted Muslims but rather members of foreign Muslim communities of diplomats and traders who have settled or, more often, have been posted provisionally there. For those who count Taiwan as a separate entity, one may also take notice of the small (a few tens of thousands) but thriving Muslim community that derives from mainland China and emigrated to the island in 1949, together with the withdrawing forces and populations accompanying Chiang Kai-shek and his retinue into exile.

Today, due to unrest of the Uygurs of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, aided by their exiled kin in the West or in the adjoining former Soviet Muslim republics of central Asia, Islam in those far-flung regions of the world has taken center stage in China, not only when viewed for its own sake and the challenge it poses to the jealously unified Chinese state but also when viewed in the context of the Muslim fundamentalist wave that has been rocking much of Asia. Indeed, the familiarity in China of the terms jihad (a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty) and Hezbollah (Party of God)—and occasional acts of terror that have been resorted to in northwest China of late—conjure Muslim unrest in Asia and elsewhere that cannot be glossed over: the Middle Eastern violence; the militant Islamist Osama bin Laden’s activities in southern and central Asia; the Abu Sayyaf “exploits” in the Philippines; or the rampages of some Muslim radical groups in the Malay world of Southeast Asia.

In view of the basic demand of Islam that its followers ought to live under Muslim regimes, difficult problems are posed by the very idea of any Muslim minority living in non-Muslim lands, which is certainly the case with China (unlike the Muslims of southern, southeastern, and central Asia who constitute majorities in their respective countries). This applies not only to majority-minority and host culture–guest culture relationships but also to some basic requirements, short of which a Muslim minority may rebel against the ruling government and even try to secede from it. This issue, which has recurred in the history of many Muslim minorities throughout the world, not least of which were the bloody secessionist rebellions in nineteenth-century China, acquires more acuity in China these days due to the extraordinary convergence of several major factors:

? Chinese society and culture, which have a long tradition of assimilating foreign cultures, had to contend in this case with a self-confident guest culture, with a vast hinterland of Islam outside the confines of China, which hardly lends itself to acculturation.

? Chinese Communism, which has been until recently strictly antireligious, has been opening up of late, thus creating a more accommodating environment for religious, if not yet political, pluralism.

? The growing interest of the Islamic core in the minorities of the periphery, partly due to the current revival of Islam, has raised the feasibility of Islamic renewal in the remote fringes of the Islamic world.

? The proximity to Chinese territory of the newly independent former Soviet Muslim republics, some of whose kin (e.g., Kazakhs and Kyrgyz) live in China, has made the latter permeable to ethnic-nationalist influences from the outside.

The Coming of Islam to East Asia

The formative years of Islam in China—or east Asia, for that matter—occurred during the era between the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and the Yuan-Mongol rulers (1279–1368), when Muslim merchants and artisans and later administrators and mercenaries made their way there. It is generally held that while the numbers of Muslims in China were small and initially confined to the coastal cities of the southeast, notably Quanzhou during the Tang and the Song dynasty (960–1279), by the fall of the Song dynasty there were probably four or even six mosques in China. This indicates that the population, although small and almost exclusively foreign, had sufficient continuity and common wealth to sustain a mosque, burial grounds, and other features of an ongoing Muslim settlement. It must, however, remain conjectural as to whether this population would have assimilated or emigrated over the centuries to rejoin the Muslim landmass had it not been for the dramatic growth of China’s immigrant Muslim population under the Yuan-Mongol rule.

Unlike the first wave of immigrant Muslims via ocean-faring routes, known as the “Maritime Silk Road,” the second wave under the Yuan followed the ancient land-bound Silk Roads, now reconnecting China to the west by the continuity of Mongol rule. Then an unprecedented period of exchange unfolded between the Chinese and Islamic cultural worlds, which for the first and only time in history were part of the same political entity. Voluntary and enforced migrations from the Islamic lands into China meant that by the restoration of indigenous Chinese rule under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), sizable Muslim communities were established right across the country. It is thus mainly from the latter immigrants that most Hui Muslims now descend, although many of them claim more ancient roots. This was also the period when mass conversions of the Uygurs to Islam took place.

Expansion of Islam

Under the conditions of tolerance—some would say indifference—of the great khans (medieval sovereigns of China and rulers over the Turkish, Tatar, and Mongol tribes), the Muslim community made great strides, and the evidence of such great Muslim travelers as Ibn Battuta shows that there were also flourishing mercantile colonies in the coastal cities along the China Sea. Muslims became prominent in occupations such as engineering, medicine, technology, transportation and overseas trade, agriculture, and handicraft work. Under the Yuan there was also a significant change in religious life; mosques and schools were built; and a network of Muslim hostels was established for traveling Muslim merchants. In the end of the Mongol rule Muslims may have totaled some 4 million souls, more than any other minority in China. They took their place in all aspects of Chinese life: political, economic, administrative, and military; yet, they were still confined to their own communities, somewhat isolated, partly by their customs and dietary laws, from the vast Chinese population surrounding them.

The high profile of the Muslims during the Yuan dynasty inevitab
ly provoked a backlash. Many Muslim officials and commanders behaved arrogantly and oppressively, lording it over the native Chinese majority, which had itself cultivated the much more ancient Confucian ethos and traditions that were at variance with some Muslim attitudes. Hence, the situation changed under the indigenous Ming, for whom the Golden Age of the Yuan was now over. At the beginning Muslims could still practice their social and religious freedoms, but later the regime forced many Chinese to settle in the border zones where the Muslims had established their communities. Through intermarriage and prohibitions to the practice of their religious laws, many of them assimilated materially and adopted Chinese dress, speech, and other customs, a process that turned them from Muslims in China to Chinese Muslims.

Ming times also saw the appearance of a series of Muslim charismatic leaders who founded new, generally Sufi (Muslim mystic) movements within the Muslim communities after returning from periods spent in Muslim lands to the west. There is evidence of Sufi presence in China since Yuan or even Song times, which provided a fertile ground for the Naqshbandi missionaries who arrived in fifteenth-century China. The arrival of the Naqshbandi and Qadari Islamic mystics gave new forms of expression to Chinese Muslims who had been muzzled by the oppressive atmosphere of the regime. These expressions were crystallized into the quintessentially Chinese-Muslim invention of the menhuan, groups that clustered around charismatic mystics, whose leadership often became hereditary. These menhuan often subdivided into bitterly rivaling clusters, the most famous and widespread of who are the Khufya and Jahriyya branches of the Naqshbandiyya, themselves subdivided into dozens of groups that lend to Chinese Islam its extreme sectarian variety. Other non-Sufi denominations include the whole range from fundamentalist puritans to reform-minded progressives.

Into the Modern Era and Beyond

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), perhaps because it was itself Manchu and therefore wary of other “alien” cultures, inaugurated an era of violence in the relationship between the Middle Kingdom and its minorities. The general chaos and devolution of power in the nineteenth century triggered large-scale Muslim rebellions throughout the northwest and the southwest of the country, where three separate attempts were made at secession by Du Wenxiu in Yunnan, Ma Hualong in Gansu, and Yakub Bek in Kashgar. At least two of those rebellions (Yunnan and Gansu) were related to the dynamics of Sufi sectarianism, associated with the eighteenth-century scholar and revivalist Ma Mingxin. His group was known as the “Xinjiao” (the New Teaching), apparently one of the many appellations of the Jahri brand of Sufism, and it turned to armed unrest no less to battle its other Sufi rivals than to counter the ruling dynasty. However, all those attempts were sunk in blood, leaving millions of Muslims and Chinese dead and vast swaths of country devastated.

Under the Republic of China (1912–1949) and then under Communist rule (since 1949), the Muslims have been recognized as a “national minority,” but under the People’s Republic of China they are kept atomized under their various ethnic groupings (Uygur, Kazakh, Hui, etc.) to facilitate the ancient divide et impera (Latin: divide and conquer) device of control. Generally speaking, because of the regime’s necessity to maintain relations with Muslim countries on the international arena, it strove to avoid any brutal mass oppression of the Muslims domestically. However, during the excesses of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Muslims were greatly mistreated and abused, waqf lands (endowed land in Islamic tradition) were confiscated, mosques destroyed, and Muslims forced to undergo Marxist indoctrination. On several occasions attacks were launched by Chinese troops against Muslim villages. However, since Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping came into power in 1979 and initiated the opening and reform of China to the outside world, the government has relented on pursuing the policies that once suppressed Muslims across the country.

In the post-Deng era (since the mid-1990s), the Chinese leadership, which has been struggling to maintain its balancing act between openness and economic development on the one hand and stringent control on the reins of power on the other hand, has also had to face the challenge of Uygur separatism over the past decade. Deng’s policy of relaxation had been calculated to make any social unrest unwarranted. However, following Deng’s own saying in another context that “when the window is open it also allows mosquitoes in,” his moderate policy also opened the door to widespread violence in practically all the counties of Xinjiang, the northwest, and the far west of China. Admittedly, some of the violence was directly triggered by printed insults against the Muslims, but it escalated and got out of hand with the military intervention of the People’s Liberation Army, as in Xining in the autumn of 1993. In some areas, as in Kashgar, bombing was perpetrated (October 1993), and the ominous war cries of jihad, associated with a local Hezbollah, were voiced.


The rampages of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and the unrest in east Turkestan are watched by other Asian countries not only for their own threatening sake but also for their radiating influence onto their territories. The active support of radical Muslim groups and countries has turned the Chinese parts of East Asia, just like neighboring central Asia, into one of the centers of Islamic radical violence today. Most of the Hui-Muslim minority is spread over practically all of mainland China and therefore lacks a specific territory it can claim as its own and use as a base—hence its avoidance of clamoring for secession—while Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces, which are closer to the Muslim world and have been drawing support from some of it, have advanced secession demands, and violence has been resorted to in pursuance of this goal. Thus, due to both the lax policy of the Chinese government, which permits links and visits between its Muslims and the outside world, and the pressing interests of the radical elements in the Islamic world, one can expect more outbursts of this sort. Such outbursts may culminate in outright demands for secession from China. In view of the unified concept of government in China, which has never acknowledged the existence of “federated republics” in its midst (unlike the Soviet Union) nor tolerated secession (consider Tibet as an example), it is hard to conceive a China that would sit idly by while its borders are permeated by rebellion and chaos.

Further Reading

Gladney, D. (1991). Muslim-Chinese: Ethnic nationalism in the People’s Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Israeli, R. (1987). Al-Sin. In H. H. Leiden & E. J. Brill (Eds.), New Encyclopedia of Islam. New York: E. J. Brill.

Israeli, R. (1980). Muslims in China: A study of cultural confrontation. London: Curzon.

Israeli, R. (1990). China’s Muslims. In S. Sutherland, L. Houlden, F. Clarke, & E. Hardy (Eds.), The world’s religions (pp. 408–424). London: Routledge.

Israeli, R. (2000). Medieval Muslim travelers to China. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 20, 313–321.

Leslie, D. (1986). Islam in traditional China: A short history to 1800. Canberra, Australia: The Canberra Colleg
e of Advanced Education.

Source: Israeli, Raphael. (2009). Islam. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1185–1190. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

This father and his child, en route to Linxia, the colorful market town in Guanghe County, Gansu, are members of the Muslim community. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A Muslim Chinese trader at the Canton Trade Fair, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Turpan Guest House. A rooftop pavilion and towers carved with relief floral motifs echo the design of towers where the Muslim call to prayers is chanted five times a day. The ethnic group that dominates Xinjiang are Uygurs, a Turkic people who came to China from the steppe in the seventh century and have remained. They have retained their ethnicity and language and are listed by the PRC as one of the fifty-five national minority peoples. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Islam (Y?s?lánjiào ????)|Y?s?lánjiào ???? (Islam)

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