Islam is the third largest religion in China, after Buddhism and Christianity respectively with a population roughly estimated to be between 20 – 30 million Muslims. Islam’s initial introduction to China was not an organized effort to spread the religion. The religion was incidentally brought to China during the time of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by Arab traders making the journey along the silk road.
The ‘Silk Road’ ‘ is an ancient network of trade routes connecting West and East Asia from China and India to the Mediterranean sea. With a length of about 10, 000 kilometers, it is named after the trade in Chinese silk that is carried out along its corridors.
An organized incursion of Islam into China, is said to have happened during the Caliphate Uthman ibn Affan (Allayhi Rahma, ra), the third caliph. Uthman ibn Affan is said to have dispatched a delegation to China in 29 AH (650 C.E., Eighteen years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death.
To Chinese Muslims, this event is considered to be the birth of Islam in China. To show his admiration for Islam, the emperor Yung Wei ordered the establishment of China’s first mosque. The magnificent Canton city mosque known today as the ‘Memorial Mosque has endured fourteen centuries.
The Muslims who initially emigrated to China gradually assimilated into greater Chinese culture, and as a result had a great economic impact on the country. They are claimed to have played a dominant role in trade by the time of the Sung Dynasty (960- 1279 CE). Chinese Muslims who married Han women adopted the name of their wives. Others adopted Chinese surnames similar to their own, an illustration of this are the surnames of Mo, Mai and Mu- names adopted by Muslims who had the names Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.
During the Cultural Revolution, Muslims like other religious groups were systematically oppressed. Mosques, Churches and Buddhist monasteries were destroyed by the Red Army. The government only began to relax the tight restrictions it had imposed on religious practice in 1978. As of late, Islam is said to be experiencing a modest revival in China. Generally Muslims have been allowed more freedom to express their religious beliefs.
For example the impoverished region of Ningxia initially faced hard times but has seen a revival in recent years. Ningxia is an autonomous region mainly inhabited by China’s ethnic Muslim Hui population. Islam has helped rejuvenate the economy, and Ningxia has developed economic ties to Arab and Muslim countries.
Ningxia’s halal food industry, for example, is quoted to be worth about $700m a year, according to government statistics.
The region’s gross domestic product reached 206 billion yuan (US$33bn) in 2011, an annual increase of 12 per cent.