Answering the call to prayer in China

Source: China Daily

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

African Muslims find gathering spot to worship in Guangzhou, Zhao Xu reports.

For Chinese residents living near narrow, tree-lined Jinrong Street in the center of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Friday is the day when they are treated to a spectacle – a weekly event they can almost set their clocks by.

Building a culture far from home

Religion plays a crucial role in the life of African Muslims overseas, and the Guangzhou authorities should make greater efforts to embrace the distinct cultural traditions, said Adams Bodomo, a professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna.

“Africans in the diaspora form communities at several levels, and one of them is at the level of religion or religious affiliation. That’s why there are both Muslim and Christian communities in Guangzhou,” said Bodomo, who published a book on Africans in China in 2012.

He said the African community is normally perceived as a homogenous entity by Guangzhou locals, but the Muslims have formed a cohesive society whose members rarely mix with non-Muslim Africans. However, just like other Africans in the city, Muslims regard trade and the search for business opportunities as their main priorities.

They face a number of challenges in Guangzhou, one of which is attending daily prayers, he said. “Muslims pray five times a day, but many in Guangzhou find it difficult to travel to the Central Mosque five times a day from wherever they are based,” he said. “You can’t just pray anywhere you want in Guangzhou. One has to pray at approved places.”

In that sense the situation is different from Western countries where Muslims and Christians can attend numerous small venues for worship, he said. However, in terms of their function as a social safety network, the overseas Muslim communities in China and the West are virtually identical.

According to Bodomo, a deeper understanding of the Muslim and other African communities is essential in terms of communications between them and the natives of Guangzhou, and both sides need to make greater efforts to promote peaceful coexistence.

“To achieve that, I would suggest that they engage constructively in local politics because they have become a significant part of the city. One of the ways to do this would be to involve them in consultative council meetings, as in Yiwu in Zhejiang province. In this respect, Guangzhou lags behind Yiwu,” he said.

Because China is not a traditional destination for immigrants and therefore has scant experience of the phenomenon, the central government should formulate an immigration policy that more clearly defines permanent residence and citizenship status, he said.

He added that all China’s expat communities should be free to worship as they please, as long as their religion is not used to subvert the State and its followers obey the country’s laws and regulations.


Everything begins at noon. As if on cue, a group of men appear – some wearing flowing, ankle-length cotton gowns in a variety of hues. As much as their clothes, the men’s dark skin tones immediately distinguish them from the locals. They linger briefly near the opening of a side street that leads to a byroad, which in turn leads to their meeting place.

As the clock ticks toward 1 pm, a growing number of people arrive, with some appearing to be in a great hurry, jumping out of taxis before ducking directly into the stone-covered, well-trodden byroad.

At the end of a 30-meter footpath, sandwiched between a number of slightly dilapidated six- and seven-story residential buildings that rise on both sides, is a humble gate. It’s so understated that it would be easy to miss were it not for a line of gilded words carved in stone above the Moorish style arch that read “Xiao Dong-ying Mosque” in Chinese and Arabic.

“For the city’s African Muslims, especially those from West Africa, this is where they come for Jumu’ah, the prayer meetings held every Friday,” said Bai Lin, the imam of the mosque who regularly leads the prayers and whose life has been intertwined with the 530-year-old building for the past 11 years.

“I came to Guangzhou in 2003, after graduating from Beijing’s China Islamic Institute, two years before the official reopening of the mosque in 2005 – it had been closed to the public since 1949,” he said. “It didn’t take long for this ancient house of prayer to win a place in the hearts of modern-day believers. Since mid-2006, the worshipping masses have regularly overflowed onto the streets and the nearby residential square.”

Finding a foothold


The worshippers have returned every Friday since to kneel and pray, and the weekly gatherings are now a popular fixture of the local scene.

“The city’s current African Muslim population began to arrive in the early 2000s. They came mainly from West and North Africa to conduct business during China’s opening-up and reform drive. They were following in the footsteps of their Muslim brothers from the Middle East and Southeast Asia,” said Wang Wenjie, a long-serving imam who is president of the Guangzhou Islamic Association.

“Their numbers have almost doubled during the past five years. Today, of the city’s estimated 55,000 foreign Muslim residents, one-third come from Africa,” said the 50-year-old. “This effectively makes Guangzhou the Chinese city with the largest African Muslim population.”

Inside Xiaodongying Mosque, the worshippers from Africa greatly outnumber their Chinese fellow Muslims. Outside of it, they’ve found a foothold nearby in the bustling, mildly chaotic Xiaobei and Xiatangxi roads, lined with stores and halal restaurants.

Punctuated by shop signs in swirling Arabic characters rendered in a seemingly unbroken flow, the area is in constant flux: In the early days, the newcomers could often be seen pulling heavy suitcases and waiting anxiously for the traffic lights to change. Eventually, many of them settled down, rented rooms from the locals and brought in members of their extended families in Africa. Although a solid presence nowadays, many of these enterprising traders started from modest bases, such as hotel rooms.

Feng Yun, a Chinese Muslim who owns a halal restaurant on the second floor of the Baixun Hostel on Xiatangxi Road, has befriended many of the guests who frequent his small business.

“Of the 200 or so people living in this building, 90 percent are from Africa and most of them are Muslims. Basically, they trade in everything they would sell in Africa, from clothing to closets. Some send containers home, others just send giant parcels,” said the 33-year-old, who spent a decade living in Egypt before returning to China in October. “Cairo is known as ‘The City of a Thousand Minarets’, which means there is always a mosque within a five-minute walk. Here, we only have four mosques, but the Muslims still feel very much connected with Allah, especially in this part of town,” he said.

The prayer corner

Feng pointed to a corner of the restaurant hidden behind a curtain, the floor covered by yellow carpets bedecked with minarets and laid from east to west. “Five times a day, at set hours, Muslims are required by the Quran to kneel facing west toward Mecca and pray. That’s what that corner is for,” he said.

His customers appreciate the gesture, especially newcomers such as Mamadou Sillah, a 32-year-old Gambian who arrived in Guangzhou last year. “The prayer corner is a feature of almost all the halal restaurants in the vicinity. For a foreign Muslim new to the city, this is very reassuring,” said the 32-year-old, who works for a trading company founded by a compatriot.

Sillah is a devoted attendee of Friday prayers at Xiaodongying Mosque. “Before we begin the prayers, the imam reads a little Arabic from the Quran, and then explains it in Chinese,” he said. “I don’t understand Chinese, but it isn’t a big deal because I can roughly guess what he’s talking about – same message, different language.”

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Categories: Asia, China

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