Islam has a long history in the People’s Republic of China, dating to the seventh century. The earliest Muslims were traders who came to the south eastern ports as part of the Indian Ocean trade as well as along the Silk Route. Muslims of China are generally divided into two groups. The first group, known as the Hui, consists of descendants of Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol traders who married Chinese women and settled in small communities around a central mosque; culturally and historically diverse, the largest concentration of Hui are found in northwestern China. The second group consists of groups whose homelands are located in the territories of the former Soviet Union, such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and Kazakhs. Most of the Muslims are Sunnis with the exception of the Tajiks in Xinjian who follow the Shia interpretation of Islam. Sufism also has a long history in China since the seventeenth century, playing an important role in sustaining Islam through centuries of repression. By the nineteenth century, there were Ismailis living in the northwestern border regions of China near Kashgar.
Historical sources suggest that the first mosques in China were located in the coastal ports and were established in the seventh century by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet, and several of his companions. Abi Waqqas visited China in 632; he is said to have asked permission from the Tang Emperor for mosques to be built in Xian, Guangzhou, and Jianning (present day Nanjing).
The Great Mosque of Xian is thought to have existed as early as the seventh century. However, the mosque that stands today was begun in 1392 during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. It was founded by the naval admiral Cheng Ho, the son of a prestigious Muslim family and responsible for clearing the China Sea of pirates. Since the fourteenth century, the mosque has undergone numerous reconstructions; most of the buildings that exist today are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Mawlana Hazar Imam first visited China in 1981 to preside over the sixth seminar of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture held in Beijing. In 2012, Mawlana Hazar Imam paid an official visit to Urumxi, at the invitation of the Governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to discuss collaboration between the Aga Khan Development Network and the Government of Xinjiang.
Research by Nimira Dewji
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