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Volume 21, Number 4July/August 1970

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Islam in Taiwan

Cut off from its roots, Taiwan's small community of Chinese Muslims struggles to survive.     

Written by Peter G. Gowing
Photographed by Max Abellaneda
Additional photographs by Ray Cranbourne

Twice in its history the island of Taiwan has been invaded by Chinese refugees fleeing the collapse of a mainland regime. And both times Muslims were among them. The first invasion occurred in 1661, after the fall of the Ming dynasty, when a legendary hero called Koxinga (Cheng Cheng-kung) led 25,000 followers from the southern coast of China and seized Taiwan from the Dutch. The second invasion took place nearly three centuries later, in 1949, when Nationalist President Chiang Kaishek, after his defeat by the Communists, led more than a million followers into exile on the island of Formosa, a Portuguese name meaning "beautiful."

It is not known exactly how many Muslims accompanied Koxinga to Taiwan in the 17th century. The records suggest that there were only a few families, all of them from Fukien Province. They were the first Muslims to settle on the island, and in the course of time their descendants drifted away from Islam. As one generation followed another, they became almost totally assimilated into Taiwanese society, adopting Taiwanese customs and the Taiwanese religion (an eclectic mixture of local spiritism, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism). Cut off from effective contact with the large and vigorous Muslim community on the mainland, the Islamic faith on Taiwan simply atrophied.

The half century (1895-1945) of Japanese rule on the island provided the coup de grace—the Taiwanese were discouraged from practicing "foreign" religions. If there were a few Muslims on Taiwan under the Japanese, they were not native to the place and they practiced their faith as individuals and not as a community. In his History of Taiwan , written in 1918, Professor Lien Ya Tang said, "The spread of Islam in Taiwan is nil; believers are few, mostly from other provinces; hence there is no mosque in Taiwan as yet." Still, interesting traces of Islamic practices are preserved by the present-day descendants of the Muslim followers of Koxinga. The Kuo family in Lukang, for example, does not include pork among its offering at the family shrine even though the family is not Muslim. Two families in Keelung place copies of the Holy Koran before the tablets of their ancestors. The present owners are not Muslims and do not read Arabic, but they honor a book held sacred by their forebears. Two or three families in Tainan observe funeral customs of Islamic origin including the ceremonial washing of the body and wrapping it carefully in white cloth—though in all other respects they are culturally Taiwanese.

These traces and others of a similar nature are about all that is left of the Islamic presence on Taiwan introduced in Koxinga's time. Today not more than 200 out of some 10 million native Taiwanese (as the descendants of the early Chinese settlers are called) are Muslims. Practically all of them are recent converts, many because of marriage to Muslim mainlanders.

Among those who came over from the mainland with the Nationalists in 1949, however, were an estimated 20,000 Muslims. They came from all over China—which has 20,000,000 Muslims in all—but many of them had been born in the provinces where Islam was especially strong: Yunnan, Sinkiang, Ninghsia and Kansu—all in the western and northern regions of China. They are, like the other mainlanders, mostly soldiers and government employes, though there are now many shopkeepers and teachers among them.

A few Muslim leaders hold seats in the Legislative Yuan and the Nationsal Assembly. There are Muslims serving as ranking officers in the armed forces of the Republic of China, notably Lt. Gen. Ma Ching-chiang, formerly Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Service Forces and now one of the top advisers of President Chiang Kai-shek. Muslims also hold important posts in the diplomatic service, among them the Republic's present envoy to Kuwait, Ambassador Wang Shi-ming.

The beginnings of Islam in mainland China are obscure, but the year A.D. 651 is usually accepted as the date for the first official contact between the Caliphate and the Chinese Empire. In that year an embassy from the Caliph Uthman was graciously received at the capital of the T'ang dynasty. Later, Arab traders settled in some of the southern seaports, notably at Canton, and established a rich commerce with the Middle Kingdom. In 756, some 4,000 Arab mercenaries, sent by Caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur, assisted the Chinese Emperor in suppressing a Tartar revolt and were rewarded with land and permission to settle in the Empire. After that, particularly during the Mongol conquests of the 13 th century, other Muslim peoples—Arabs, Persians and Turks—moved into China, settling principally in the northern and western provinces.

The Mongol rulers encouraged Muslim scholars, traders and craftsmen to make their home in China. It is said that certain Muslim arts and sciences, especially medicine, mathematics, astronomy and military science, flourished more vigorously in Mongol China than in Baghdad.

At first the Muslims constituted a distinctly foreign element in Chinese society, set apart by their dress, language, dietary laws and religious customs. In many places they lived in separate communities called ying ("barracks"), reflecting their military origins. But they took Chinese wives; their descendants adopted Chinese names and Chinese ways; and with the passing centuries they became racially and, to a high degree, culturally indistinguishable from the general society. Even so, psychologically and religiously they regarded themselves as a people apart. They refused to eat pork. They greeted each other with Arabic or Persian salutations. They wore turbans. They buried their dead in segregated Muslim graveyards. They followed their own Muslim marriage customs and laws. And they worshipped in mosques, receiving the ministrations of imams and ahongs (from the Persian akhund , a teacher and religious functionary) whom they chose from among themselves and trained in their own seminaries. Chinese Muslims followed a somewhat Sinicized brand of Sunnite Islam, adhering to the Hanafi School.

From time to time religious reformers would try to bring Chinese Islam more into line with religious practices in the Middle East. In the 17th and 18th centuries a quarrel arose between "old doctrine" and "new doctrine" factions, the latter pressing for a "return to orthodoxy" and urging a centralized, institutionalized orthodox Muslim state. The quarrel continued into the 19th century and was the chief factor in the collapse of a Muslim rebellion against the Manchus in the western and northern provinces.

The revolution of 1911, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, liberated the Muslims from Manchu oppression and went on to recognize them, along with the Han, Manchurians, Mongols and Tibetans, as one of the five "races" constituting the Chinese people. Soon a "new, new doctrine" arose among the Muslims, supported by the Kuomintang, advocating a liberalized Islam, more accommodating to Sinicization and ope'n to reform in terms of social customs, political theory and religious faith. Adherents of the previous factions united against this new threat believing that its real aims were to promote "pan-Hanism" and to destroy the influence of the traditional religious leaders. Thus, there crystallized a fresh division among the Chinese Muslims: the "old sect" versus the "new sect". The latter had many followers among Muslims in the large coastal cities.

To some extent this division is reflected in today's rivalry between Taiwan's two Muslim religious organizations: the Chinese Muslim Association and the Chinese Muslim Youth League.

All Muslim Chinese on Taiwan are regarded as members of the Association, headed by Acting President Abubakr Chao Ming-yuen. Founded on the mainland in 1937, it followed the Nationalists to the island in 1949. It is the only organization officially recognized by the government as speaking for the Muslim community. Many of the Association's leaders are also government officials.

Working through its several local branches, departments and committees, the Association engages in many activities. Since 1959 it has produced two complete translations of the Holy Koran into Chinese. It publishes a monthly magazine devoted to Muslim interests. It sponsors a weekly radio program beamed to the mainland by the China Broadcasting Corporation. It conducts an educational program for young people and supplies reading material for Muslims in the armed forces. The Association, through its Overseas Affairs Commission, maintains lively contact with the World Muslim League and other international Islamic organizations. It also receives and entertains many foreign Muslim visitors to Taiwan; nominates pilgrims for the annual hajj (only five can go, by government edict); selects students for scholarship awards to study at Islamic centers abroad; and assists in arrangements for foreign Muslim students studying in Taiwan. Occasionally, in cooperation with the government, the Association organizes goodwill missions to Muslim countries.

The Association has its headquarters in the beautiful and impressive Taipei Mosque, which was. built in 1960 under its leadership. It solicited funds from local and foreign friends (including Their Majesties the Shah of Iran and the King of Jordan) for the $150,000 edifice—and arranged a loan of $100,000 from the Nationalist Government which was only too happy to have a stunning mosque to show visiting Muslim dignitaries.

Rivaling the Chinese Muslim Association in enthusiasm, though not in numbers or influence, the Chinese Muslim Youth League has its offices in the Culture Mosque, a converted Japanese house also located in Taipei. The President of the League is Hajji Ishaque Shiao Tung-tai who serves as imam of the mosque as well.

Hajji Ishaque was one of the founders of the League in the city of Mukden, Manchuria, in the early 1930's. At that time it was called "The Chinese Muslim Youth Cultural Improvement Association" and its purpose was to unite Muslim youth against the Japanese and their puppet regime in Manchuria. During the Nationalist-Communist civil war of the late 1940's, Hajji Ishaque and many members of the organization migrated to Kwangtung Province where, at Canton in July of 1949, they reorganized themselves, with other interested Muslims, into "The Chinese Muslim Youth Anti-Communist and Nation-Building League." Later that year the League moved to Taiwan. The members, including Hajji Ishaque, were at first active in the Chinese Muslim Association, but in 1951 they withdrew in order to preserve their separate identity as a Muslim religious organization. The League adopted its present name in 1957.

The Chinese Muslim Youth League requires formal registration of its membership and as of mid-1969 it recorded 560 members, including 55 Taiwanese converts. Most of the members live in and around Taipei, though some are scattered throughout Taiwan. The League, according to Hajji Ishaque, represents a continuation of the "new sect" faction which had existed on the mainland. It is liberal and reformist in attitude and is usually more accommodating to Sinicization and change than is the case with the Chinese Muslim Association. In ritual matters the League incorporates some minor differences vis-a-vis the Taipei Mosque. For example, while the larger mosque offers its prayers in Arabic, the prayers in the Culture Mosque are rendered in Chinese, reserving Arabic only for the recitation of a few verses from the Koran.

In general, the League feels that it has appeal to a younger and more progressive group than is represented in the Association. It conducts regular classes for young people and stresses instruction in Islamic law and theology rather than in Arabic language and ceremonial concerns.

Neither the Association nor the League engages in active evangelizing for converts. Yet some converts are won to Islam each year. There are those, especially the Taiwanese converts, who embrace Islam as a condition of their marriage to Muslims. But the rest are attracted to the faith through contact with Muslim leaders or general reading. Both organizations put literature into the hands of inquirers and give a cordial welcome to those who are curious about the faith. The Taipei Mosque reports some 100 conversions annually and the Culture Mosque attracts about half that many.

Despite the winning of a number of converts, and the natural increase within Muslim families, there does not seem to be a substantial numerical growth annually in the Muslim community. There are no official figures available but one observer feels that birth and death rates within the community are about balanced and that if there is a net gain each year it is only slight. The Chinese Muslim Association claims that there are 40,000 Muslims on Taiwan (it has made that claim every year since 1959) and that about half of them are "Taiwan-born descendants of Chinese Muslims who came . . . with the hero Koxinga." There may well be 20,000 Taiwanese descendants of Koxinga's Muslim followers by now, but they most definitely are not Muslims today—and from all appearances they do not want to be, despite the efforts of the Association to resuscitate Islam among them. Twenty thousand is probably a good working figure for the size of the Muslim community, though within that number it is hard to say how many are "practicing" Muslims.

Only five mosques serve the religious needs of Taiwan's Muslims—two of them in Taipei and one each in Chungli, Taichung and the large port city of Kaohsiung. The Taipei Mosque is the largest and most attractive of all the mosques on Taiwan. Unlike the temple-style mosques of the China mainland, it incorporates Arabian and Persian architectural elements, including two stately minarets. The spacious, high-domed central hall can accommodate up to 1,000 worshipers. The building also has an auditorium seating 400 persons, a reception hall, several offices and ample facilities for ritual ablutions.

The mosques on Taiwan are completely autonomous and are rather simply organized. The elders in each mosque choose a board of directors which oversees the material concerns of the community. The board in turn selects an imam or ahong to take general charge of religious affairs.

There is little difference in function between an imam and an ahong. The former is the more prestigious title and is reserved for one especially well-versed in Arabic and the teachings of Islam. Both of the mosques in Taipei are headed by imams who are highly qualified and trained for their posts. Hajji Ishaque, imam of the Culture Mosque, was educated in Manchuria. Hajji Ma Tse Chiang, imam of the Taipei Mosque, is a China-born citizen of Saudi Arabia, educated in Mecca and Medina. Incidentally, he is also Professor of Arabic at the National Chengchi University in Taipei.

The other three mosques on Taiwan are in the care of ahongs. In mainland China, ahongs were of different grades, performing different functions. On Taiwan there are six or seven ahongs, all more or less of the same grade, able to read some Arabic, preach the doctrines, explain Islamic law, adjudicate minor disputes within the mosque community, officiate at ceremonies (such as name-giving, circumcision, weddings, funerals) and lead in the public prayers. Both the Taipei Mosque and the mosque in Kaohsiung employ a sort of "minor ahong" whose main duty is to slaughter animals according to Islamic law. None of the ahongs presently functioning on Taiwan has received the standard training for his office. They are older men, retired soldiers most of them, chosen for their piety and above-average religious learning.

On the mainland, some of the largerv cities such as Peking and Mukden had mosques exclusively for women, with women ahongs in charge of them. No such development has occurred in Taiwan. When women do go to the mosque, and few do, they accompany the men, though at the mosque they are usually separated by a cloth screen. Women have traditionally enjoyed considerable freedom in Chinese Islam, and they have the same freedom on Taiwan. There are no harems and no veils. Polygamy and divorce are both quite rare.

Religious instruction is given to children by their parents in the home, but classes for older boys and girls are conducted at the mosques, usually during the weeks of school vacations in the winter and summer. Only the Taipei Mosque is able to have an educational program which runs throughout the year. Some 30 youngsters are currently enrolled in classes which meet two hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays.

While there is general awareness that the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence is traditional in Chinese Islam, on Taiwan there is little application of the religious law outside the mosque because, of course, Nationalist China is a secular state and recognizes no law but that of the state. Within the mosque community, however, offenders are judged and punished by a council called and presided over by tile ahong.

Abstinence from pork and alcohol are among the usual marks of a Muslim society, though the Muslims on Taiwan honor the prohibition against alcohol more in the breach than the observance. Even the rule against pork is very hard to maintain in pork-eating Taiwan. Until recent years, the Taiwanese did not generally eat beef because they regarded it as an unconscionable offense against cattle from whom they otherwise receive so much—milk for the children, work on the farm, transportation, etc. The fact that Muslim restaurants and there are more than twenty on Taiwan—do not serve pork, but do serve beef, makes them something of an oddity.

The Chinese Muslim Association cultivates and maintains relations with Muslim leaders and groups throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. Because Taiwan's Muslims are mostly exiles from the Communist-dominated mainland, it is not surprising that in their contacts with world Islam they are advocates of a strong anti-Communist and anti-Peking position. The hajjis selected to go to Mecca each year are zealous missionaries of Nationalist China's opposition to Communism. Indeed, their travel is even subsidized by the government. After the pilgrimage they are expected to visit various Muslim countries, calling on political and religious leaders and exchanging views on ways to protect Islam from Communism.

A significant link between Islam on Taiwan and the Muslim world exists in the small group of Chinese Muslims studying at Islamic centers overseas. At present some nine students are studying Arabic, religion and other subjects in Saudi Arabia, four in Libya and one in Lebanon. Taiwan has no seminaries for the training of Muslims for religious leadership so the education these students are receiving abroad is of vital importance to the future of the Muslim community on the island.

In talking about the problems they face in the practice of their religion on Taiwan, the Muslims mention the hardship of performing their Friday religious duties in a society which treats that day like any other. No special considerations are given them on Muslim holidays or during Ramadan, the month of fasting. The fact that most Muslims on Taiwan are of the middle and lower middle class causes them to despair of having adequate resources for future development and progress as a religious community. In addition, there is a problem of leadership which grows more acute each passing year. The present leaders have carried their responsibilities for many years, and there is apparently little interest on the part of the younger generation to relieve them. One ranking Muslim leader has stated that of the 14 students now studying abroad, only two or three in all probability will return to take up active leadership roles in the community.

In short, the small Muslim community on Taiwan confronts the problems inherent in being a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly non-Muslim nation.

Even so, Islam is present and alive on Taiwan. The Muslims there are loyal to the Nationalist Government and feel that their future is bound up with that government. They are cut off from their coreligionists on the mainland, but even after two decades of exile they continue to hope that the separation is only temporary. Should Taiwan remain permanently separated politically from the mainland there is no telling what would happen to Islam on the island. The Islam which accompanied Koxinga in the 17th century eventually died out largely because it was cut off from its mainland roots. History might repeat itself.

Then again, it might not. Far more Muslims came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek than with Koxinga. They are better organized and are very much in touch with the Muslim world. If the present generation of Muslims can transmit to the next generation only half of its courage and tenacity and loyal devotion to its Islamic heritage, then the future of the faith on Taiwan is assured, come what may.

Peter G. Gowing is Professor of History and director of the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Silliman University in the Philippines, author of Mosque and Moro, and a regular contributor to scholarly journals in Asia, Europe and America.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the July/August 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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