en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 36, Number 4July/August 1985

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Muslims in China

The History

Written by Paul Lunde
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

One night T'ai Tsung, the emperor of China, had a dream.

I dreamed of a turbaned man and of monsters ... The man in the turban, with his hands clasped and murmuring prayers, pursued the monsters... To look on, he [had] indeed a strange countenance, totally unlike ordinary men; his face was the color of black gold... his moustache and beard were cut... short and even; he had phoenix eyebrows, and high nose and black eyes. His clothes were white and powdered, a jeweled girdle of jade encircled his loins, on his head was... a cloth turban like a coiled dragon. His presence was awe-inspiring... When he entered he knelt towards the West, reading the book he held in his hand. When the monsters saw him they were at once changed into... proper forms, and in distressful voices pleaded for forgiveness. But the turbaned man read on for a little, till the monsters turned to blood and at last to dust, and at the sound of a voice the turbaned man disappeared.

The emperor summoned the Interpreter of Dreams, who explained that the man in the dream was a Muslim from the West - from Arabia where a great sage had been granted a revelation from God in the form of a book. As for the monsters, they were symbols of evil influences at work in the world - which only the Muslims could destroy.

At that, a prince at the court spoke up and said: "I have heard well of these Muslims. They are straightforward and true, gracious and loyal. Throw open the pass, let communications be unhindered... and by so doing encourage peace. I beseech you to issue a decree and to send an ambassador across the western frontiers to the... Muslims, asking him to send a sage to deal with the evils that threaten, that the country may be at peace!"

So runs a legend among the Hui, the largest group of Chinese Muslims. It has been known at least since the 17th century, is probably much older and, like all legends, contains a kernel of truth.

For the Hui Muslims, the legend also links their origins with China's greatest emperor: T'ai Tsung, second ruler of the T'ang Dynasty and the man who united north and south China and established governmental institutions that were to last for the next 1,000 years.

Born in the year 600, T'ai Tsung came to the throne in 626 - four years after Muhammad and his followers left Makkah (Mecca) for Medina in far-off Arabia. About the same time the Turkic tribes of nomads in Central Asia were gathering outside the Great Wall of China for a massive incursion into the "Celestial Empire." T'ai Tsung, however, drove them back beyond the Great Wall and in so doing initiated a series of westward migrations - as one Turkic tribe displaced another. These were the tribes whose descendants make up the Turkic-speaking Muslim communities of China, as opposed to the Chinese-speaking Hui of the south and center.

While T'ai Tsung was defending and unifying China, Muhammad was laying the foundations for the Islamic state that would come into being after his death in 632. T'ai Tsung in his capital of Ch'ang-an (Xian) could never have dreamed that he and the dynasty he was consolidating would be affected by events in a small commercial town half a world away. Yet it was not long before the results of the Muslim conquests made themselves felt in Ch'ang-an: about 638 Shah Yazdegerd, of the Sassanids - who then ruled much of what is today's Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - appealed for help against the new, but rapidly spreading force: the Muslims.

T'ai Tsung refused to help the Sassanids, but 13 years later his successor, Kao Tsung, received an identical plea for help from Shah Peroz, son of Yazdegerd, and this time China, having come to realize that the Muslim threat was serious, encouraged and helped Peroz.

"To the Chinese at that time, the Sassanids and the Byzantines were the great powers to the west. Indeed, long before the rise of Islam, embassies from Byzantium and Sassanid Persia had made their way to the Chinese court via what came to be called the Silk Road, the great trade route that reached from China to Constantinople and on to Rome. When ambassadors from Byzantium arrived at Ch'ang-an just five years after those of Shah Yazdegerd they almost certainly brought news of the astounding expansion of the new Muslim state - an expansion in which the Sassanids would be eradicated.

To modern readers it may seem extraordinary that such far-flung lands could have been in communication at such an early date; we tend to think that global politics are a recent phenomenon. In fact, seventh-century political leaders in both China and the Islamic world tried just as hard as their modem counterparts to keep abreast of events that might threaten their national security or their economy. Thus the appearance of the Arabs on the borders of Central Asia was a matter of grave concern in Ch'ang-an, for during the T'ang Dynasty, Chinese satellites in Central Asia were considered part of the empire. One reason for this concern was that China had developed a taste for Western goods and was anxious lest the overland trade route - the famous Silk Road - be closed by the new and growing Islamic empire. The Chinese also feared that the collapse of Sassanid Persia would permit the Turkic tribes - recently driven beyond the Great Wall - to resume their attacks on China.

In 651, the same year Shah Peroz appealed to Kao Tsung for support against the Arabs, Kao Tsung received a mission from 'Uthman, the Muslims' third caliph (or "successor" to Muhammad). As the T'ang annals put it: "In the year 651, the king of Arabia sent for the first time an envoy with presents to the Chinese court and at the same time announced that the Arabs had already reigned 34 years and had had three kings."

Arabic sources do not record such an embassy, and it is possible that the account in the T'ang records is a later interpolation. But it is still very interesting. For one thing, the "three kings" are the first three caliphs: Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Uthman. For another, 651 is regarded by the Hui as the date of the introduction of Islam to China.

As the years went by, the Chinese continued to keep an eye on developments in the Islamic world. The T'ang annals, for instance, mention the first Umayyad caliph, Mu'awiya - calling him "Mo-ee" - and note his unsuccessful siege of Constantinople; the notice must, therefore, date after 679, the year the Muslim troops withdrew from the walls of the Byzantine capital.

By then, the Chinese were better informed about the Ta-shih, the Chinese term for the Arabs, as this entry in T'ang annals suggests:

Ta-shih comprises territory which formerly belonged to Persia. The men have large noses and black beards. They carry a silver knife on a silver girdle. They drink no wine and know no music. The women are white and veil the face when they leave the house. There are great temples. Every seventh day the king addresses his subjects from a lofty throne in the temple in the following words: "Those who have died by the hand of the enemy will rise again to heaven; those who have defeated the enemy will be happy." Hence it is that the Ta-shih are such valiant warriors. They pray five times a day to the Heavenly Spirit.

It is noteworthy that this account tacitly refers to a number of fundamental Muslim beliefs and practices: the prohibition of wine, the veiling of women, assembly for public prayers, the delivery of the khutba, the Friday sermon at the mosque, daily prayer, and jihad, holy war against enemies of the faith. Again, it must be borne in mind that the annals of the T'ang went through a number of later revisions, and it is possible that this description may be of later date.

Until then, however, the Chinese still had not come into direct conflict with the Muslims - and would not for almost 100 years. But then, starting in 705, the great Arab general Qutaiba ibn Muslim marched east from Khorasan into Central Asia and in the next 10 years, in a series of brilliant campaigns, conquered Tukharistan, Bukhara, Khwarizm, Samarkand, and finally, reached Fergana in today's Soviet Central Asia.

According to the famous Arab historian Tabari, Qutaiba also crossed the Celestial Mountains - that formidable barrier that protects China to the west - and reached the town of Kashgar (Kashi). During this campaign, legend says, a Chinese provincial governor, hearing that Qutaiba had swom to take possession of China, sent him a bag of Chinese soil to trample, a bag of coins as token tribute and four young men as prisoners; his idea, apparently, was to release Qutaiba from his oath by giving him symbolic "possession" of China's land, wealth and people.

In crossing the Oxus, Qutaiba may well have been attempting to wrest control of the Silk Road from a people called the Sogdians. But his initial conquests did not last, so again conflict between China and Islam was avoided and it was to be some years before the Chinese and the Arabs found themselves face to face in Central Asia.

Chinese histories record another fascinating - and possibly true - story about the Qutaiba period. In 713, when Qutaiba was besieging Fergana, another Arab embassy arrived at Ch'ang-an:

In 713 an envoy appeared from Ta-shih bringing as presents beautiful horses and a magnificent girdle. When the envoy was... presented to the Emperor Hsuan Tsung, he refused to perform the prescribed obeisance, saying: "In my country we only bow to God and never to a prince." At first they wanted to kill the envoy. One of the ministers, however, interceded for him, saying that a difference in the court etiquette of foreign countries ought not to be considered a crime.

It is very possible that Hsuan Tsung's tolerance for the omission of the customary "kowtow" - touching the forehead to the ground - was partly motivated by Qutaiba's military successes on his western frontier. This was an enemy not to antagonize.

Hsuan Tsung came to the throne of China in 712. During his long and remarkable reign, the T'ang court developed a taste for exotica from the Islamic world - shadow plays known as karagoz in Turkish (See Aramco World, August-September 1963), musicians and musical instruments from Samarkand and Bukhara, dancers from Tashkent, lute players from Kucha, singing girls from Khuttal and whirling dancing girls from Chach. All these things found a welcome at Ch'ang-an and profoundly affected Chinese taste.

In the West, meanwhile, there were momentous happenings among the Muslims. The Umayyad Dynasty had been overthrown by the Abbasids and in 750, the first Abbasid caliph had come to the throne. One year later Muslim troops confronted a Chinese army for the first time, at Talas (See Aramco World, September-October 1982) where, aided by the Qarluq Turks, they decisively defeated a Chinese army that numbered about 30,000 men according to Chinese sources, 100,000 according to Arab reports. From then on, Muslim control of Central Asia began to grow until, gradually, most of the peoples of this area were converted to Islam.

Another result of the Battle of Talas was the capture of some skilled Chinese paper-makers - who introduced the manufacture of paper, a Chinese invention, to the Islamic world. Since this occurred at the beginning of the Abbasid era, the early years of which coincided with the T'ang Dynasty in China, it helped to stimulate a flowering of culture in Baghdad comparable to that which took place in Ch'ang-an. In making books and writing accessible to the masses, paper, also helped spread literacy in Islamic lands.

Eventually, if indirectly, the Battle of Talas also brought thousands of Muslims into China and thus changed the religious character of many parts of China. This occurred when a man named An Lu-shan, a favorite of Emperor Hsuan Tsung, rebelled against the T'ang Dynasty. Of mixed Sogdian and Turkish descent, the enormously fat An Lu-shan, a skilled military commander and governor of three provinces, led an uprising in 755 after Hsuan Tsung abdicated in favor of Su Tsung. When An Lu-shan captured and occupied Ch'ang-an, Su Tsung, apparently influenced by the Muslim success at the Battle of Talas, wrote to A-p'u ch'a-fo - rather a good rendition of the Arabic name of the second Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur - asking him to send troops to help him recapture Ch'ang-an. The caliph responded by sending 4,000 men - who did help Su Tsung retake the capital, but who also settled in China, took Chinese wives and, in effect, established the first Muslim community in China; their descendants are probably among today's Chinese Muslims: the Hui.

In 751, four years before his rebellion, and the year of the Battle of Talas, An Lu-shan received a great many sumptuous gifts from his royal patron, Hsuan Tsung: a brush and comb set made of rhinoceros horn, an ear-pick made of tortoise shell, a silver washbasin, a table service of jade and gilded silver, a tureen with ladle and cups, clothes, carpets and a fine Persian vase inlaid with gold flowers. Many of these presents were probably imports; others were imitations of Western wares. But together they suggest that despite the unsettled times, trade was continuing along the Silk Road, the longest artery of trade in the world -11,265 kilometers long (7,000 miles) - between the two most important cities in the world in that era: Ch'ang-an, "the City of Eternal Peace," and Baghdad called, Madinat al-Salam - the "City of Peace."

There were other similarities between the two cities as well. Baghdad, like Ch'ang-an, was a planned city. Circular in form, it was consciously laid out as a microcosm of the universe with the caliphal palace, at the center, surrounded like the core of an onion with the concentric rings of markets, each with its own specialty. There was a specific market for Chinese goods, which were highly prized at the court, as were singers, musicians and dancers from Central Asia - from the same cities that supplied the court at Ch'ang-an.

Ch'ang-an was not a circle but a square, in keeping with Chinese cosmological doctrine. It was laid out in a grid pattern, with two great markets separated by a wide avenue, and three divisions: the Palace City, where the emperor dwelt, the Imperial City, which housed his administration, and the Outer City, where the populace lived and which contained the markets. Like Baghdad, elaborate laws and regulations governed the display and sale of merchandise and the foreign population was large: Uighurs, Turks, Sogdians, Tocharians, Arabs, Persians and Hindus rubbing shoulders in the streets.

Baghdad, with a population of one and a half million, and Ch'ang-an, with a population of between one and two million, were the two largest cities in the world then, and the T'ang emperor and the Abbasid caliph the two most powerful men on earth - both of whom shared similar views and problems. Both, for example, ruled mixed populations through elaborate bureaucracies; both enlisted Turkic troops in their armies - and subsequently had difficulty in controlling them - and both shared a taste for each other's goods, and for the music and dancing of Central Asia.

They also shared a mutual interest in - and ignorance of - each other. Though the works of Muslim historians do contain notices of China, for example, they are often garbled, and Abbasid accounts of the land and sea routes to China are often difficult to follow because of the difficulty in transcribing Chinese with the Arabic alphabet. One account, for example, lists Chinese emperors in the late ninth century, but few of the names can be deciphered. It was not until after the Mongol conquests that a Muslim historian - Rashid al-Din - could give a proper list of Chinese rulers and an outline of their history.

As time went on, Arab knowledge of China increased, however, as more and more Muslim traders made their way there by land and sea. There is an interesting firsthand account by a merchant named Sulaiman, who made a number of voyages to India and China and wrote of them in 850. He speaks of the difficulties of the trade with China: the long, dangerous voyage, the frequent fires in Canton (Guangzhou) - called "Khanfu" by Arab writers - piracy, extortionate port duties, uncertain winds.

Despite the great risks, Sulaiman tells us, trade flourished. Indeed, Sulaiman says, the emperor of China had appointed a Muslim official in Canton to keep order among his co-religionists. This official also led the prayers of the faithful on Fridays and gave the khutba in the name of the Abbasid caliph.

Normally, the ships that traded with China were offloaded in Siraf on the Arabian Gulf, and the goods were then transported in other vessels to Basra and thence to Baghdad. In Canton, all the goods that arrived were warehoused until the monsoon ended and the last ship had docked. Then a 30 percent tax was levied on all the merchandise and the emperor had the right to first purchase, paying the highest prices. In Sulaiman's time, camphor was the most sought-after cargo.

Of all those who studied China, al-Mas'udi, the 10th-century Arab historian, was perhaps the most inquiring, and the most fascinated; he had traveled widely himself, sailing the Indian Ocean, and was a friend of the scholar who edited the account of the merchant Sulaiman - Abu Zaid of Siraf. And in his Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems - the title of his masterpiece - he gives much exact information about China, including a detailed description of the Huang Ch'ao troubles, in which some 120,000 foreigners perished.

In the spread of Islam, the sea route to China was of paramount importance; in fact, the Muslim traders who settled in the Chinese ports and their descendants are the progenitors of the Hui, the Muslims who speak only Chinese. And though Huang Ch'ao's rebels severely damaged relations between China and the Islamic world, in the years preceding the rebellion relations were so good that the Chinese emperor joined the famous Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid - called A-lun in Chinese sources - in expelling the Tibetans from Yunnan.

Though the T'ang was the high point of Muslim-Chinese relations, subsequent dynasties also maintained close ties. Under the Sung Dynasty for instance, contacts were fewer, yet Sung annals still record some 20 embassies from the Abbasid court between 960 and 1260. And though the hordes of Genghis Khan destroyed the Abbasids in 1258 and the Sung in 1260, they also established a new dynasty, the Yuan, which lasted from 1260 to 1368; it was under the Yuan that Islam spread to the interior of China and that many Muslims rose to high position. Marco Polo records that the province of Yunnan under the Mongols was Muslim and that it had a Muslim governor.

This governor, Shams al-Din Umar, known as Sayyid al-Ajall, claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet and was appointed by Kublai Khan to govern Yunnan - which he did from 1273 till his death in 1279. With his son, Nasir al-Din, he actively propagated Islam in Yunnan, and when he died Nasir al-Din became governor and was succeeded in turn by his son Husain. This famous Muslim family still numbers descendants in China today and the tomb of Sayyid al-Ajall in Yunnan is an important monument of Islamic art in China - as is his cenotaph in Canton.

Under the Yuan rule, Muslim scientists were welcomed, particularly astronomers, who contributed to the construction of the famous observatory in Shensi (Shaanxi), and under the Ming Dynasty -1368-1644 -China and the Islamic world had even closer contacts; perhaps for the first time Chinese Muslims undertook the pilgrimage to Makkah in some numbers.

Some of these pilgrims left accounts of their difficult journeys in Chinese and increased knowledge of the Muslim and Arab worlds is reflected in such works as the great Ming geography, which contains relatively precise information about cities such as Makkah and Medina, some of which may have been gathered on the naval expeditions of Cheng Ho, a Muslim admiral in the service of the Ming.

It was also during the Ming Dynasty that many Arabic books - particularly those of a scientific nature - were translated into Chinese; that mosques were built in most cities with a Hui population - many of which still stand - and that the first indigenous Chinese Muslim literature was created. The five-volume True Explanation of the Correct Religion, by Wang Tai-yu, was written in 1642, two years before Ming fell to Ch'ing. The appearance of the work was facilitated by an edict of toleration of "foreign" religions promulgated by one of the Ming emperors.

But it was under the Manchu Dynasty, or the Ch'ing (1644 - 1911), and particularly under the learned ruler K’ang Hsi, that a true Muslim literature was created. The most notable author of the time was Liu Chih. Born in Nanking, sometime towards the middle of the 17th century, he underwent the traditional education in the Chinese classics. His intellectual curiosity unappeased by this, he then undertook a private course of study, teaching himself Arabic and reading Buddhist and Taoist works as well. His eccentric interests aroused the disapproval of his family, and he was forced to move constantly. He wrote an important work on Islamic philosophy in 1674, and in 1710 a book on Islamic law. His most important work, however, was a life of the Prophet, probably written in 1721. He based this principally on an Arabic source which he found in the library of a friend. Its composition took three years; it was finally published in 1779 in 20 small volumes.

During the 19th century, there were great upheavals in China, and the risings in Yunnan in 1855-1873 by the Muslim population were crushed with great brutality. Tension between Hui and Han was exacerbated by the interference of colonial powers. The Muslim communities of China fared badly in this century too, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. It is only in the past few years that tensions have been resolved and a return seems to have been made to the tolerant attitudes described in a 17th century poem quoted in the First Coming of the Muslims, from which is taken the dream of T'ai Tsung at the beginning of this article. The poem reads:

Islam was once found only beyond the western border.

Who could have foretold that Muslims were to dwell in China forever?

Paul Lunde is a contributing editor of Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the July/August 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1985 images.