Islam and China

Niu Jie Mosque – Beijing. The mosque was established in 996 CE, so it is over 1,000 years old, in its successive manifestations. The mosque front faces due west, which is used as the approximate qibla. The man in the foreground is a Chinese Muslim trader from Xinjiang province, fluent in Arabic.

Bismillah. I visited the sacred land of China (Beijing) for the first time last week, by the grace of God. The sacredness and spirituality of the land and its people was palpable. Here are some reflections from my reading and experiences:

 

1. The alleged hadith, “Seek knowledge, even unto China,” is a traditional Islamic saying, but unlikely to be from the Prophet, peace be upon him.

As I wrote in the Introduction and Appendix to my father Sheikh Suhaib Hasan’s Introduction to the Science of Hadith, “This additional statement is found in a few of the (weak) narrations of the previous hadith [‘Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim’], and is declared as mawdu’ [fabricated] by Ibn Hibban, Ibn al- Jawzi, al-Sakhawi and al-Albani.” The views of these hadith scholars may be found in the following works by Albani: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah, no. 416; Da’if al-Jami’ al- Saghir, nos. 1005-6.

Furthermore, the text of this alleged hadith “otherises” China, whereas the Prophet was a mercy to the worlds (Qur’an, The Prophets, 21:107) and all languages in their diversity, including the Chinese languages, are amongst the Signs of God (ayatullah – Qur’an, The Romans or Byzantines, 30:22). At the most, “even unto China” is an Arab-centric phrase in this context, and does not fit with the universality of the Qur’anic and Prophetic message.

2. There are legends about the Prophet’s Companions visiting China, and even of up to four of them being buried there.

They include Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas. Since he conquered Persia, it is highly plausible that he could have ventured further east to India and China. If he was buried in China, this would be more widely known to the scholars of Hadith and Rijal, who compiled detailed biographies of the Companions. I would be grateful for learned contributions to this question.

The following is from Wikipedia (not the most reliable source I know, but this is a blog, not an academic paper), under Emperor Tang Gaozong (649-683):

Known by Islamic sources as Yung Wei, which was in fact the name of the first era in his reign (Yonghui era from February 650 to February 656; see era name), Islamic sources credit him with building the first mosque, a mosque that still stands in Guangzhou. According to those records, Islam was introduced to China and Emperor Gaozong by the visit of Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 650. According to these sources, Emperor Gaozong is said to have respected the teachings of Islam greatly, feeling the teachings were compatible with Confucianism, and offered the building of the mosque as a sign of admiration. The emperor himself did not convert as he felt Islam was too restrictive for his own preferences, but according to those sources, did not stop him from allowing Sa`d and his company to spread the teachings throughout the region. These sources, however, were not corroborated by Chinese records.

[1]  Lan Xu, Tianfang zheng xue (The true learning of Arabia), Beijing: Niujie Mosque, 1925 edition (first edition 1852), juan 7; quoted in Zhang Xinglang, p. 744.

 

3. An anecdote from al-Mas’udi’s Meadows of Gold (Muruj al-Dhahab) about a Sino-Arab encounter

Reproduced from elsewhere on this blog: al-Masu’di of Baghdad (c. 276-344 H / 890-956 CE) wrote,

The story of Habbar bin al-Aswad, an Arab notable of Basra who left during the Zanj [negro slaves’] rebellion there, is entertaining. He went to China via India. A Chinese king showed his Arab visitor portraits of prophets including Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. The king stated that Noah’s flood didn’t reach India or China.

He further showed him portraits of Indian and Chinese prophets’ portraits, depicting them as pointing the index finger to the heavens, warning of the power of God, or making a circle with the thumb and index finger, to indicate that creation is a circle.

[Muslims daily indicate the unity of God with the right index finger (cf. Michaelangelo’s famous painting depicting God and Adam). During prayer, they also sometimes make a circle with the thumb and middle finger, following the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Furthermore, according to a sound hadith: Umm Salama emigrated to Abyssinia with her first husband Abu Salama as part of the early sacred migration (hijra). In the churches there, she saw images of prophets with index fingers raised (cf. Michaelangelo again), a feature of daily Islamic prayers. See Albani, Sifah Salah al-Nabi or The Prophet’s Prayer Described, for these hadiths. – U.H.]

Al-Mas’udi continued:

The people of China are the most skilful in painting and arts. No other nation can compare with them in any craft whatsoever.

China was prosperous due to its justice until the Huang Chao rebellion of 878. He attacked Khanfu, massacring 200,000 Muslims, Christians, Jews and fire-worshippers [Zoroastrians/Parsees].

 

4. Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) was one of the great figures of Chinese history, and was Muslim.

As a child, I read a kids’ book about Admiral Cheng-Ho and his voyages, part of a series about “Heroes of Islam.” I remember nothing from the stories, except the striking name. I always thought that he was highlighted in this series simply because he was Muslim, and was amazed to discover later that he was the greatest Chinese admiral in history. (By the way, admiral is an English word derived from the Arabic, amir al-bahr: ‘commander of the sea.’)

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, 2011) is described by its publisher as a ‘Number One Bestseller.’ In it, the author writes these glowing lines about Zheng He (Cheng-Ho), but unfortunately does not mention that he was an integrated Chinese Muslim who assumed a major leadership position, like millions of his fellow Chinese Muslims. Harari wrote:

Many scholars argue that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of discovery. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. The largest of these comprised almost 300 ships and carried close to 300,000 people. They visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East Africa. Chinese ships anchored in Jedda, the main harbour of the Hejaz, and in Malindi, on the Kenyan coast. Columbus’ fleet of 1492 – which consisted of three small ships manned by 120 sailors – was like a trio of mosquitoes compared to Zheng He’s drove of dragons.

Yet there was a crucial difference. Zheng He explored the oceans, and assisted pro-Chinese rulers, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. Moreover, the expeditions of Zheng He were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. When the ruling faction in Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated the operation. The great fleet was dismantled, crucial technical and geographical knowledge was lost, and no explorer of such stature and means ever set out again from a Chinese port. Chinese rulers in the coming centuries, like most Chinese rulers in previous centuries, restricted their interests and ambitions to the Middle Kingdom’s immediate environs.

(Harari, p. 324)

Harari (p. 325) then provides a striking, visual illustration of his comparison between the fleets of Zheng He and Christopher Columbus:

from Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage Books, 2011, p. 325

5. The Niu Jie Mosque in Beijing has been a place of Islamic worship for over a thousand years, and is well worth a visit, including to non-Muslim visitors.

The mosque is easily reachable by subway to Guang’AnMennei: take the SE exit, turn left, heading due west and take the second major right onto Niu Jie Street. The mosque is clearly visible on the left, a couple of blocks down.

The mosque embodies “Islam with Chinese characteristics”: the pagoda- or Chinese palace-style is obvious. Many of inscriptions on the rock steles and in the ante-hall to the main worship hall are in Chinese. (Inside the main worship hall, all the calligraphy is in Arabic, in a distinctive font known as Sini [Chinese], influenced by Chinese calligraphy.) Look carefully, as in the photo of the mosque, and you will see small carved dragons on top of the mosque buildings, presumably to drive away evil spirits. This of course violates the traditional Judeo-Islamic prohibition on graven images, but illustrates the integration of Chinese Muslims: they seem to have tolerated small dragons, that certainly do not dominate the mosque buildings, most of which uphold the ban on graven images.

The mosque consists of several buildings: the main (men’s) worship hall with an ante-hall, a minaret and two pavilions, all pagoda-style. The main worship hall holds about 500 men, according to my estimate. There were some women attending prayers too, so presumably there must be a women’s prayer hall. There is an old sundial that can be used to tell the time generally, and specifically zawal (noon), and hence zuhr or afternoon prayer time. The sundial looks very similar to the one I saw in the Forbidden City, to the side of Tian’Anmen Square.

The qibla direction of the mosque appears to be due west, which is reasonable for China, although I would like to check this more precisely.

The main prayer hall effectively has three open and interconnected mini-courtyards within it, due to an array of pillars and arches. The outer sides of the pillars and arches are plain, but the inner sides are beautifully decorated with floral motifs and Islamic calligraphy. As you enter the mosque, the courtyard sizes are small, large and medium, in that order.

As one enters the main hall, the first archway has three Qur’anic verse inscribed in a series of six circular designs. I was unable to work out the first verse, reading from right to left. The middle verse is “Truly, God has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions, in exchange for their owning the Garden.” (Qur’an, Repentance, 9:111). The verse on the left is “Whoever brings goodness will receive ten times like it; whoever brings evil, will only be recompensed in like measure” (Qur’an, Cattle, 6:160).

The entire texts of the following surahs are written in gorgeous calligraphy on the remaining arches: al-Fath (Victory, 48), al-Rahman (Most Merciful, 55), al-Mulk (Kingdom, 67), al-Naba’ (News, 78) and al-Nazi’at (Tearers, 79). There is precise attention to detail, e.g. the small circle above the word s(ui)’at in 67:27 indicating that the first vowel is to be read initially as a damma (u), followed by a long kasra (i), in a one-third:two-thirds ratio, as is well-known in the science of Qur’an-recitation or tajwid. However, seven verses appear to be missing from al-Naba’, nos. 21-27, except that the last two letters of 78:27 are present, the long ba. This is something I’ve occasionally seen in Qur’anic calligraphy in old mosques, since it’s not easy to fit passages precisely onto buildings, especially when your canvas is a curved arch.

In addition, three of the arches are inscribed with a collection of about 45 salawat or blessings upon the Prophet. They follow an identical pattern: each is comprised of the formula, Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad sayyid … (Dear God, Bless Muhammad, Master of …). Each blessing is then completed with a plural noun: the first is al-mursalin (the Messengers); others are al-muttaqin (the Pious)al-tawwabin (the Oft-Repenting), etc.

 

6. The Sinofication of Chinese Muslim surnames from Arabic.

Some years ago, a Chinese imam called Sheikh Ibrahim Ma visited London and spoke at a number of locations, including Masjid al-Tawhid. This Wikipedia entry under “Islam during the Ming dynasty”, if correct, gives the origin of Chinese Muslim surnames such as Ma:

Foreign origin Muslims adopted the Chinese character which sounded the most phonetically similar to the beginning syllables of their Muslim names – Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa’I for Said and so on. Han who converted to Islam kept their own surnames like Kong, Zhang. Chinese surnames that are very common among Muslim families are Mo, Mai, and Mu – names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.

 

7. Are Allama Iqbal’s famous lines of poetry beginning with “Cheen (China)” imperialist or universalist?

Iqbal wrote these famous lines, known as Tarana-e-Milli or “Anthem of the Muslim Nation”, that begins:

Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara
Muslim hain hum, watan hai sara jahan hamara

China and Arabia are ours; India is ours.
We are Muslims, the whole world is ours.

Touheed ki Amanat seenon mein hai hamare
Asan nahin nitana naam-o-nishan hamara

God’s unity is held in trust in our hearts.
It is not easy to erase our name and sign …

I first learnt this as a child in its Arabic translation, such was Iqbal’s influence:

al-sinu lana wa l-hindu lana

wa l-‘arbu lana wa l-kullu lana

adha l-islamu lana dinan

wa jami’u l-kawni lana watana

tawhidullahi lana nurun …

Since Iqbal was a poet, he may have meant all of this metaphorically and universally, in the sense that the earth belongs to God and therefore to the true people of God. But many people read these verses literally, and imagine that they have the right to conquer and dominate other people. The age of military conquests is largely over, and any non-Chinese person who visits China and sees a fraction of its billion-and-a-half population, should know immediately that it is ridiculous to pretend or dream that China belongs to anyone but the Chinese. And the same goes for India, Arabia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Oceania etc.

But such delusions do persist: in Pakistan in 2003, I met a LeT supporter who had helped to establish a mosque in Islamabad and told me that the “mujahideen” during the Kargil incident had come close to “liberating Kashmir” and that they would have gone on to “liberate India” !! We Muslims need to have honest conversations about such matters. The divisions and conflicts are such a shame, especially when it is obvious that Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese etc. have so much in common, not least their eastern-ness.

Which reminds me: there is a famous saying, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

But the reality is: “East is East, and West is West, and the twain have met many times in all kinds of ways, and continue to do so.”

8. Ibn Arabi’s curious visionary prediction that the the last human ever to be born will be a boy, immediately preceded by his twin sister, in China. This boy will also grow up to be the last saint or holy person of humanity.

This is in his Fusus al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) under the bezel of Seth (Shith):

It will be in the line of Seth that the last true Man will be born, bearing his mysteries [of divine Wisdom], nor will such be born after him. He will be the Seal of Offspring. There will be born with him a [twin] sister who will be born before him, so that his head will be at her feet. He will be born in the land of China and will speak the language of that land. Sterility will then overcome the men and women of this land and, although there will be much consorting, there will be no bringing forth of children [as true men (?)]. He will call them to God without success and when God has taken him and those of his time who believed, the others will remain living like beasts with no sense of right and wrong, giver over to the law of the [lower] nature, devoid of intellect and Sacred Law [and Ethics]. The Last Hour will overtake them.

The above is in Austin’s translation, p. 70, with slight modifications by me. Austin summarises this prediction as follows (pp. 61-2):

Ibn al-‘Arabi concludes this chapter with a curious prediction concerning the fate of man as defined in his teachings. He says that the last true human, in the line of Seth, will be born in China and that he will have an elder sister. He goes on to prophesy that thereafter men will become as beasts, bereft of spirit and law, until the coming of the Hour. Thus, he indicates that that particular human synthesis of spirit and nature, of which we are all a part, will come to an end and the link be broken.

 

Usama Hasan (Ha)

London, UK

13/12/2017

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