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Volume 36, Number 4July/August 1985

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Muslims in China

The Mosques

Written by Jill S. Cowen
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

Must a mosque always be a high-domed building with sweeping arches, flowing arabesques and towering minarets? If so, the Great Mosque in Xian (Sian), looking more like a temple of the early Ming period, would not be accepted. But it is a mosque - the largest in China - and it demonstrates once again the historical ability of Muslims to survive in varied religious and political climates.

A Muslim place of worship has occupied the site of today's Great Mosque since at least the eighth century, when central China's Xian, then known as Ch'ang-an - the "City of Eternal Peace" - was enjoying the peak of its splendor under the Tang Dynasty (618-907); a starting point on the great Silk Road, Ch'ang-an had, over the centuries, attracted a large population of Muslims, who served as intermediaries between East and West, and, of course, built a mosque.

In the Middle Ages, under the Ming Dynasty (1360-1644), Muslims in Ch'ang-an, were subjected to a program of sinicizing minorities; as a consequence, they had to practice their faith with discretion amid the predominant Buddhist and Taoist sanctuaries. Muslims have always found ways to worship, however, and in the early Ming period they found ways to build mosques, which, though distinctively Chinese in architectural style externally, retain those aspects indispensable to mosques internally.

Those aspects go back to the first mosque ever built by Muslims - in Medina, in today's Saudi Arabia. It was, then, simply an open space surrounded by walls of sunbaked brick and it served as the courtyard of the Prophet's house, as a meeting place for believers and as a place of common prayer.

From this has come the essential structure of mosques everywhere; though there are differences, the simple ingredients of mosques are the same. Inside, a mihrab, a niche, which symbolically evokes the place where the Prophet led the prayer, points to the qibla - the direction of Makkah (Mecca). Outside, usually, there is a minaret from which the faithful are called to prayer. Ordinarily, there is also a place for the ablutions required before prayer, usually containing running water.

Nevertheless, as Islam spread across the globe, the architecture of most of the early mosques tended to reflect local architectural styles; the more removed they were from the Islamic heartlands, the more they varied from the archetypical mosques of the Middle East.

The mosques of western China, for example, still resemble those of the Middle East, with tall, slender minarets and dome-shaped roofs. While the mosques of eastern China bear little resemblance at all to those of the Islamic heartlands: their roofs flared Buddhist style and their minarets like squat pagodas - a leftover from the days when no building could be higher than the Imperial Palaces.

The architectural styles of West and East meet in the city of Urumqi, in northwest China, where Chinese Hui mosques have prayer halls with flared roofs set in walled courtyards entered through archways topped by miniature domes and minarets.

Urumqi is, in fact, remarkable for the variety of its mosque architecture. The Uighur Beytullah Mosque, for example, has four slender minarets and a bulbous dome roof, while the Tatar Mosque is built of wood and topped by a squat spire.

The mosques of the desert oasis of Turpan, east of Urumqi, also reflect various architectural styles. The Imin Mosque, for example, is huge and fortress-like, with a cavernous prayer hall and tall, tapering minaret built of bricks that form intricate geometric patterns.

Further East differences become more pronounced. The new Qi Li He Mosque in Lanzhou (Lanchow), for example, has religious text woven on tapestries slung from the roof like those in Buddhist temples.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the Great Mosque of Xian, the mosque supposedly built by Cheng Ho, a legendary 15th-century naval hero and explorer, who is called China's Vasco da Gama. Born into a prestigious Muslim family in the Yunnan Province, Cheng Ho, a seven-foot giant, "with a voice as loud as a .. .bell," commanded the 317-ship naval expedition that cleared the China Sea of pirates in 1404. He also led exploratory voyages to places as far away as East Africa - and today's Saudi Arabia, where he made the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah. He also - it is said, but not verified - sought and won permission to erect the Great Mosque that stands in Xian today.

Located in the Muslim quarter within Xian's old Ming walls, this mosque has been in almost continuous use since its construction in the 15th century. The mosque complex includes a number of courtyards with a series of gateways, a pagoda, a pavilion and a sanctuary laid on a single axis within an enormous precinct wall measuring 48 meters by 246 meters (156 by 806 feet), the whole resembling, on first impression, a typical 15th century Buddhist temple, complete with flared roofs.

On close inspection, however, key anomalies show that this is indeed a Muslim place of worship. Adaptations to Islamic use have included not only the conversion of Buddhist forms, but the incorporation of Islamic elements into prevalent Chinese taste and tradition.

Instead of the traditional north-south alignment of Chinese building, the buildings of the complex are aligned east-west - permitting the sanctuary's orientation toward Makkah. Entrances are at the sides rather than at the front, and subsidiary buildings are, in the Chinese context, placed differently; in deference to Islamic proscription against figurative sculpture, no statuary flanks the gateways, although they do appear atop the flared roofs. More important, the "Tower of the Visiting Heart," a three-story brick-wood, octagonal pagoda in the third courtyard serves as a minaret, and the pavilion in the fourth courtyard provides fountains for the ablutions before prayer.

Islamic influence can be detected in the interior in subtle ways. Beneath the pavilion's tiled pyramidal roof soars a lofty, brilliantly painted carved wooden cupola, rising like a starry firmament. Its main supporting architectural element is the Islamic squinch form - an arch bridging the squared comers. Here, the traditional Chinese bracketing system has been subtly Islamicised, so that three tiers of freestanding squinches gracefully transform the hexagonal space into a hemisphere. Though rendered in the popular language of Ming carpentry, the resulting ceiling resembles an Islamic stalactite vault with its cascading forms.

Similarly, the large prayer hall with a small mihrab is a skilful blend of Chinese style and Islamic tradition. In the impressive red-columned interior, seven aisles wide and three bays deep, the builders again adapted a Chinese practice to Islamic purposes; instead of using additional axial columns to stress an image of Buddha, they used the axis to emphasize a mosque's central focus: the mihrab.

The mosques's most decidedly Islamic feature is its lavishly embellished qibla within a painted wooden mihrab - which, though, is reminiscent in its color and style of early-Ming red lacquerware. Although the rest of the complex subtly moderates the Great Mosque's purposes, this small room exuberantly proclaims its function as a Muslim place of worship.

On the other hand, in the four carved Koranic inscriptions encircling the mihrab niche, Islamic calligraphic conventions are sinicized, the proportion and uniformity reflecting the Chinese calligraphic preference for dynamic movement; one inscription is imbedded in a pool of lotus, a flower revered by Buddhists. Thus, even the mosque's most central feature is made appealing to Chinese eyes as well as Muslim sensibilities. In a sense, the mihrab projects an image characteristic of Xian's Great Mosque as a whole. And although the mosque does not achieve a genuine fusion of cultures, it does recognise the requirements of two great artistic traditions, one Islamic and one Chinese.

This article appeared on pages 30-35 of the July/August 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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