Early Muslim Contacts with China

The Review of Religions, April 1992

The following are some notes on early contacts of Muslims with China read by Dr. M. Ishaq Khalil at the Conference on Islam and China held at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission, Zurich, on 23rd Feb. 1992.

The coming of Islam to China is mentioned in the Chinese records of the earliest centuries of Islam. The Annals of Kwangtung record the coming of the first Muslims to China thus:

At the beginning of the T’ang dynasty there came to Canton a large number of strangers, from the kingdom of Annam, Cambodia, Medina and several other countries. These strangers worship heavens (i.e. God) and had neither statue, idol nor image in their temples. The Kingdom of Medina is close to that of India and it is in this kingdom that the religion of these strangers, which is different to that of Buddha, originated. They do not eat pork or drink wine, and they regard as unclean the flesh of any animal not killed by themselves ….

(Mission d’Ollone: Recherches sur les Musulmans Chinois, 1911)

The report adds that they were very rich and obeyed the chief chosen by themselves.

In fact a Persian King Firuz had appealed for help from China in his battle against the Arabs, (Chavannes E., Documents sur les Turcs Occidentaux, St. Petersburgh, 1913) but the Chinese emporer replied that Persia was far too distant for him to send the required troops. Uthman, the third caliph of Islam (may Allah be pleased with him) is said to have sent one of the Arab generals to accompany the Chinese ambassador on his return in 651 of the Christian calendar.

Later, in the reign of Walid (705-715), almost at the same time as Muslim generals were heading towards India as well as Spain, the Muslim governor of Khurasan crossed the Oxus and having subjugated Bukhara and Samarkand and other cities, carried his conquests to the eastern frontiers of the Chinese empire. Thus the diplomatic relations were established between China and the Ummayad Caliphs, which continued until later, especially during the reign of the Abbaside Caliphs. (Thiersant P., Le Mahomatisme en Chine, Paris, 1878, Vol. 1 pp. 70-71)

The relations of the Arabs with the Chinese were more commercial and diplomatic until the period of Mongol conquests in the thirteenth century when the Muslim Caliphate of Banu Abbas in Baghdad itself had been ransacked by the Mongols around 1257 A.D. Chinese workmen had settled in Central Asia in that period, as well as Arabs and Central Asian Muslims were settled in China, be it as merchants, artisans, soldiers or even as prisoners of war. It might be recalled that the Mongols, who invaded ruthlessly the Abbaside Caliphate of Baghdad, had themselves accepted Islam later. These Mongol rulers in China had Muslims appointed in high posts. These prominent Muslims were greatly successful in spreading Islam in China by peaceful means, though intermarriages with the Chinese had also played an important role. The famous Arab traveler and historian, Ibn Batuta, well known for his globe trotting journeys in the middle of the fourteenth century, visited several coastal towns and cities in China and reports that he received a hearty welcome from the Muslims: They have their mosques and the Muslims are honoured and respected by the Chinese.

Slowly the Muslim population merged with the Chinese local community in the later medieval period, and at the same time there was interchange of embassies between the Timuride princes and the Chinese emporers. One of the interesting incidents is quoted by Sir Thomas Arnold in his Preaching of Islam which reveals the zealous missionary spirit of Muslim dignitaries and scholars:

The King Shah Rukh Bahadur of Central Asia took advantage in the year 1412 of the establishment of a Chinese embassy at his court in Samarqand. He included in his answer to the Chinese an invitation to accept Islam: He sent with his envoy, who accompanied the Chinese ambassadors on their return, two letters, the first of which, written in Arabic, was to the following effect:In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no god save God; Muhammad is the Apostle of God. The Apostle of God, Muhammad (peace be on him) said: “There shall not cease to be in my community a people abiding in the commandments of God; whosoever fails to help them or opposes them, shall never prosper, until the commandment of the Lord cometh.” When the Most High God purposed to create Adam and his race, He said “I was a hidden treasure, but it was My pleasure to become known; I therefore created man that I might be known”; It is manifest from hence that the divine purpose (great is His power and exalted is His word) in the creation of man was to make Himself known and uplift the banners of right guidance and faith. Wherefore He sent His Apostle with guidance and the religion of truth that it might prevail over all other faiths, though the polytheists turn away from it, that he might make known the laws and the ordinances and the observances of what is lawful and unlawful, and He gave him the Holy Quran miraculously that thereby he might put to silence the unbelievers and stop their arguments when they discussed and disputed with him, and by His perfect grace and His all-pervading guidance He has caused it to remain even unto the day of judgment. By His power He hath established in all ages and times and in all parts of the world, in east and west, and in China, a mighty monarch, lord of great armies and authority, to administer justice and mercy and spread the wings of peace and security over the heads of men; to enjoin upon them righteousness and warn them against evil and disobedience and lift up among them the banners of the noble religion; and he drives away idolatry and infidelity from among them through belief in the unity of God.

The Most High God thus disposeth our hearts by His past mercies and His ensuing grace to strive for the establishing of the laws of pure religion and the continuance of the ordinances of the shining path. He also bids us administer justice to our subjects in all suits and cases in accordance with the religion of the Prophet and the ordinances of the Chosen One, and build mosques and colleges and monasteries and hermitages and places of worship, that the teaching of the sciences and the schools of learning may not cease nor the memorials and injunctions of religion be swept away. Seeing that the continuance of worldly prosperity and dominion, and the permanence of authority and rule depend upon the assistance given to truth and righteousness and the extirpation of the evils caused by idolatry and unbelief from the earth, in the expectation of blessing and reward, we, therefore, hope that your Majesty and the nobles of your realm will agree with us on these matters and join us in strengthening the foundations of the established law.

(FILES)This file picture taken on June 26, 2017 shows police patrolling as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. – All Chinese mosques should raise the national flag to “promote a patriotic spirit” among Muslims, the country’s top Islamic regulatory body has declared, as the ruling Communist Party seeks to further extend its control over religion. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

The other letter, written in Persian, makes a more direct appeal, without the rhetorical embellishments of the Arabic:- The Most High God, having in the depth of his wisdom and perfection of His power created Adam (peace be upon him), made some of His sons prophets and apostles and sent them among men to summon them to truth. To certain of these prophets,such as Abraham, Moses, David and Muhammad (peace be upon them) He gave a book and taught a law, and He bade the people of their time to follow the law and the religion of each of them. All these apostles invited men to faith in the unity and to the worship of God and forbade the adoration of the sun, moon and stars, of kings and idols; and though each one of these apostles had a separate law, yet they were all agreed in the doctrine of the unity of the Most High God. At length, when the God-given and prophetic office devolved on the Apostle Muhammad Mustafa (the peace and blessing of God be upon him) all other systems of law were abrogated. He was the apostle and the prophet of the latter age, and it behoves the whole world – lords and kings and ministers, rich and poor, small and great, to observe his law and forsake all past creeds and laws. Some years ago, Chingez Khan took up arms and sent his sons into various countries and kingdoms – Juji Khan to the confines of Saray, Qrim and Dasht qafchak, where some monarchs, such as Uzbek Khan, Chani Khan and Urus Khan, became Musalmans and observed the law of Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Hulaqu Khan was set over Khurasan, Tigris-Emperate and the neighbouring countries, and some of his sons who succeeded him received into their hearts the light of the law of Muhammad (peace be upon him), and in like manner became Musalmans, and honoured with the blessedness of Islam passed into the other world,such as the truthful king, Ghazan, and Uljaytu Sultan and the fortunate king, Abu Said Bahadur, until my honoured father, Amir Timur Gurgan, succeeded to the throne. He too observed the law of Muhammad (peace be upon him) in all the countries under his rule, and throughout his reign the followers of the faith of Islam enjoyed complete prosperity. Now that by the goodness and favour of God this Kingdom of Khurasan, Tigris, Ma-wara-al-nahr, etc., has passed into my hands, the administration is carried on throughout the whole kingdom in accordance with the pure law of the Prophet; righteousness is enjoined and wrong forbidden, and the Yarghu and the institutes of Chingez Khan have been abolished. Since then, it is sure and certain that salvation and deliverance on the day of judgment, and sovereignty and felicity in the present world, depend upon true faith and Islam and the favour of the Most High God, it is incumbent upon us to treat our subjects with justice and equity. I hope that by the bounty and benevolence of God you too will observe the law of Muhammad, the Apostle of God (peace be upon him) and strengthen the religion of Islam, so that you may exchange the transitory sovereignty of this world for the sovereignty of the world to come.

(Abd-ur-Razzaq al-Samarqandi in Matl’a-al-S’aadain, pp. 60-61)

On recording these historical letters, Sir Thomas Arnold writes further:

It is not improbable that these letters gave rise to the later legend of one of the Chinese emporers having become a convert to Islam. This legend is referred to among others by a Muslim merchant, Sayyid Ali Akbar, who spent some years in Peking at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century; he speaks of the large number of Musalmans who settled in China; in the city of Kenjanfu there were as many as 30,000 Muslim families; they paid no taxes and enjoyed the favour of the emporer, who gave them grants of land; they enjoyed complete toleration for the exercise of their religion, which was favourably viewed by the Chinese, and conversions were freely permitted; in the capital itself there were four great mosques and about ninety more in other provinces of the empire, all erected at the cost of the emperor.

(Zinker, pp. 798-799, Melange Orientaux, Paris, 1883, p. 65 and Schefer, pp. 29-30, quoted by Sir Thomas Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, London, 1913, p. 302)

Islam is an expanding religion and its great force is the spiritual communion with God and the missionary activities of the saints. China is again a remarkable example of the spread of Islam through missionary efforts and humanitarian services of pious Muslims.
For more details and bibliography please consult:

The Preaching of Islam by Sir Thomas Arnold, London, 1913.

Transcribed from:
The Review of Religions
April 1992
Vol. LXXXVII No. 4
Editor’s Note:    Just bringing this ‘look-back’ piece to educate ourselves about Chinese Muslims, who are in trouble these days.



Categories: Asia, China, Islam

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