The History of Islam in China begins just a few decades after Prophet Muhammad (saw) began preaching Islam. Trade existed between pre-Islamic Arabia and Chinas South Coast, and flourished when Arab maritime traders converted to Islam. It reached its peak under the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.
Chinas long and interactive relationship with the various Steppe tribes and empires, through trade, war, subordination or domination paved the way for a large sustained Islamic community within China. Islamic influence came from the various steppe peoples who assimilated in Chinese culture. Muslims served as administrators, generals, and other leaders who were transferred to China from Persia and Central Asia to administer the empire under the Mongolians. Muslims also entered China from Vietnam where sizeable Muslim communities had sprung up due to Muslim rule in India. This played a large part in the creation of a large Islamic community in Yunnan, which became the largest concentration of Muslims outside of the Northern provinces.
Muslims in China have managed to practice their faith in China, sometimes against great odds, since the seventh century. Islam is one of the religions that is still officially recognized in China.
Uthman(ra), the third Caliph of Islam, sent the first official Muslim envoy to China in 650. The envoy, headed by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, arrived in the Tang capital, in 651 via the overseas route. Huis generally consider this date to be the official founding of Islam in China. The Ancient Record of the Tang Dynasty recorded the historic meeting, where the envoy greeted Emperor Gaozong of Tang China and tried to convert him to Islam. Although the envoy failed to convince the Emperor to embrace Islam, the Emperor allowed the envoy to proselytize in China and ordered the establishment of the first Chinese mosque in the capital to show his respect for the religion. In Arab records there are only sparse records of the event.
Arab people are first noted in Chinese written records, under the name Ta shi in the annals of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Records dating from 713 speak of the arrival of a Da shi ambassador. The first major Muslim settlements in China consisted of Arab and Persian merchants.
In 756, a contingent probably consisting of Persians and Iraqis was sent to Kansu to help the emperor Su-Tsung in his struggle against the rebellion of An Lushan. Less than 50 years later, an alliance was concluded between the Tang and the Abbasids against Tibetan attacks in Central Asia. A mission from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid(766-809) arrived at Changan.
It is recorded that in 758, a large Muslim settlement in Guangzhou erupted in unrest and the people fled. The community had constructed a large mosque (Huaisheng Mosque), destroyed by fire in 1314, and constructed in 1349-51; only ruins of a tower remain from the first building.
During the Tang Dynasty, a steady stream of Arab (Tashi) and Persian (Polsi) traders arrived in China through the silk road and the overseas route through the port of Quanzhou. Not all of the immigrants were Muslims, but many of those who stayed formed the basis of the Chinese Muslim population and the Hui ethnic group. The Persian immigrants introduced polo, their cuisine, their musical instruments, and their knowledge of medicine to China.
Muslims became fully integrated into Chinese society. One interesting example of this synthesis was the process by which Muslims changed their names.
Many Muslims married Han Chinese women and simply took the name of the wife. But others took the Chinese surname of Mo, Mai, and Mu - names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.
Some Muslims, who could not find a Chinese surname similar to their own, adopted the Chinese character most similar to their own - Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and SaI for Said and so on.
In addition to names, Muslim customs of dress and food also underwent a synthesis with Chinese culture.
The Islamic modes of dress and dietary rules were maintained within a Chinese cultural framework. In time, the Muslims began to speak local dialects and to read in Chinese.
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