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Islam in China

The Silk Road, which was a series of extensive inland trade routes that spread all over the Mediterranean to East Asia, was used since 1000 BC and continued to be used for millennia. During this large period of time, most of the traders were Muslim and moved towards the East. Not only did these traders bring their goods, they also carried with them their culture and beliefs to East Asia. Islam was one of the many religions that gradually began to spread across the Silk Road during the “7th to the 10th centuries through war, trade and diplomatic exchanges.

The Yuan dynasty started passing anti-Muslim and anti-Semu laws and getting rid of Semu Muslim privileges towards the end of the Yuan dynasty, in 1340 forcing them to follow Confucian principles in marriage regulations, in 1329 all foreign holy men including Muslims had tax exemptions revoked, in 1328 the position of Muslim Qadi was abolished after its powers were limited in 1311. In the middle of the 14th century this caused Muslims to start rebelling against Mongol Yuan rule and joining rebel groups. In 1357–1367 the Yisibaxi Muslim Persian garrison started the Ispah rebellion against the Yuan dynasty in Quanzhou and southern Fujian. Persian merchants Amin ud-Din (Amiliding) and Saif ud-Din) Saifuding led the revolt. Persian official Yawuna assassinated both Amin ud-Din and Saif ud-Din in 1362 and took control of the Muslim rebel forces. The Muslim rebels tried to strike north and took over some parts of Xinghua but were defeated at Fuzhou two times and failed to take it. Yuan provincial loyalist forces from Fuzhou defeated the Muslim rebels in 1367 after A Muslim rebel officer named Jin Ji defected from Yawuna.

The Muslim merchants in Quanzhou who engaged in maritime trade enriched their families which encompassed their political and trade activities as families. Historians see the violent Chinese backlash that happened at the end of the Yuan dynasty against the wealth of the Muslim and Semu as something inevitable, however anti-Muslim and anti-Semu laws had already been passed by the Yuan dynasty. In 1340 all marriages had to follow Confucian rules, in 1329 all foreign holy men and clerics including Muslims no longer were exempt from tax, in 1328 the Qadi (Muslim headmen) were abolished after being limited in 1311. This resulted in anti-Mongol sentiment among Muslims so some anti-Mongol rebels in the mid 14th century were joined by Muslims. Quanzhou came under control of Amid ud-Din (Amiliding) and Saif ud-Din (Saifuding), two Persian military officials in 1357 as they revolted against the Mongols from 1357–1367 in southern Fujian and Quanzhou, leading the Persian garrison (Ispah) They fought for Fuzhou and Xinghua for 5 years. Both Saifuding and Amiliding were murdered by another Muslim called Nawuna in 1362 so he then took control of Quanzhou and the Ispah garrison for 5 more years until his defeat by the Yuan.

The Hui Muslim community was divided in its support for the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. The Hui Muslims of Shaanxi supported the revolutionaries and the Hui Muslims of Gansu supported the Qing. The native Hui Muslims (Mohammedans) of Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) joined the Han Chinese revolutionaries in slaughtering the entire 20,000 Manchu population of Xi’an.  The native Hui Muslims of Gansu Province led by general Ma Anliang sided with the Qing and prepard to attack the anti-Qing revolutionaries of Xi’an City. Only some wealthy Manchus who were ransomed and Manchu females survived. Wealthy Han Chinese seized Manchu girls to become their slaves[132] and poor Han Chinese troops seized young Manchu women to be their wives. Young pretty Manchu girls were also seized by Hui Muslims of Xi’an during the massacre and brought up as Muslims.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Sun Yat-sen, who established the Republic of China, immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Man (Manchu), Meng (Mongol), Hui (Muslim), Tsang (Tibetan) and Miao peoples.

During the rule of the Kuomintang party, the Kuomintang appointed the Muslim warlords of the family known as the Ma clique as the Military Governors of the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia. Bai Chongxi was a Muslim General and Defence Minister of China during this time.

During the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese destroyed 220 mosques and killed countless Hui by April 1941.  The Hui Muslim county of Dachang was subjected to slaughter by the Japanese. During the Rape of Nanking the Mosques in Nanjing were flowing with dead bodies after the Japanese slaughters. Japanese smeared Hui Mosques with pork fat, forcing Hui girls to serve as sex slaves and destroyed the cemeteries of the Hui. Many Hui, Turkic Salar, Dongxiang and Bonan Muslims fought in the war against Japan.

In 1937, during the Battle of Beiping–Tianjin, the Chinese government received a telegram from Muslim General Ma Bufang of the Ma clique that he was prepared to bring the fight to the Japanese.  Immediately after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Ma Bufang arranged for a cavalry division under the Muslim General Ma Biao to be sent east to battle the Japanese.  Ethnic Turkic Salar Muslims made up the majority of the first cavalry division which was sent by Ma Bufang. 

In the Kuomintang Islamic insurgency, Muslim Kuomintang National Revolutionary Army forces in Northwest China, in Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Xinjiang, as well as Yunnan, continued an unsuccessful insurgency against the communists from 1950 to 1958, after the general civil war was over.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty following the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, who led the new republic, immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Hui (Muslim), Meng (Mongol), and the Tsang (Tibetan) peoples. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Muslims, along with all other religions in China, suffered repression especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In modern-day China, Islam is undergoing a period of intense repression, particularly in Xinjiang.

During the Cultural Revolution, mosques along with other religious buildings were often defaced, destroyed or closed and copies of the Quran were destroyed along with temples, churches, Buddhist and Daoist monasteries and cemeteries by the Red Guards.  In 1975, in what would be known as the Shadian incident, there was a uprising among Hui in what was the only large scale ethnic rebellion during the Cultural Revolution. In suppressing the rebellion, the PLA killed 1,600 Hui. Following the fall of the Gang of Four, apologies and reparations were made. During that time, the government also constantly accused Muslims and other religious groups of holding “superstitious beliefs” and promoting “anti-socialist trends”. The government began to relax its policies towards Muslims in 1978.

Eid al-Adha at Jiangwan Mosque, Shanghai

Restrictions on religious freedoms imposed by the government can vary from region to region. In 1989, China banned a book titled “Xing Fengsu” (“Sexual Customs”) which insulted Islam and placed its authors under arrest after protests in Lanzhou and Beijing by Chinese Hui Muslims, during which the Chinese police provided protection to the Hui Muslim protestors and the Chinese government organized public burnings of the book.  In 2007, anticipating the coming “Year of the Pig” in the Chinese calendar, depictions of pigs were banned from CCTV “to avoid conflicts with Muslim minorities”  This is believed to refer to China’s population of 20 million Muslims (to whom pigs are considered “unclean”). Hui Muslims enjoy such freedoms, practising their religion, building Mosques at which their children attend, while Uyghurs in Xinjiang experienced strict controls.

Since the 1980s, Islamic private schools (Sino-Arabic schools (中阿學校)) have been supported and permitted by the Chinese government among Muslim areas, only specifically excluding Xinjiang from allowing these schools because of separatist sentiment there. After secondary education is completed, Hui students are permitted to embark on religious studies under an Imam. 

Hui Muslims who are employed by the state are allowed to fast during Ramadan unlike Uyghurs in the same positions, the number of Huí going on Hajj was reported to be expanding in 2014 and Hui women are allowed to wear veils, while Uyghur women are discouraged from wearing them. Uyghurs find it difficult to get passports to go on Hajj. 

By 2013, repression of Uyghurs extended to disappearing dissidents and imposing life imprisonment sentences on academics for promoting Uyghur social interactions.

In March 2014, the Chinese media estimated that there were around 300 Chinese Muslims active in ISIS territories. Moving forward, the Chinese government stated in May 2015 that it would not tolerate any form of terrorism and would work to “combat terrorist forces, including ETIM, [to] safeguard global peace, security and stability.”

In the five years to 2017, a 306 per cent increase in criminal arrests was seen in Xinjiang and the arrests there accounted for 21 per cent of the national total, despite the region contributing just 1.5 per cent of the population. The increase was seen as driven by the government’s “Strike Hard” campaign. In 2017, driven by a 92 percent in security spending there that year, an estimated 227,882 criminal arrests were made in Xinjiang.

In August 2018, the authorities were vigorously pursuing the suppression of mosques, including their widespread destruction, over Muslim protests.

Also at that time, the growing of long beards and the wearing veils or Islamic robes, were banned. All vehicle owners were required to install GPS tracking devices.

The Associated Press also reported in late November that Uighur families were required to allow local government officials to live in their homes as “relatives” in a “Pair Up and Become Family” campaign. While the official was living in a home, the residents were closely watched and not allowed to pray or wear religious clothing. Authorities said that the program was voluntary but Muslims who were interviewed by AP expressed concern that refusal to cooperate would lead to serious repercussions.

From 2018 to 2020 the repression of non-Uyghur muslims intensified. Imams have been restricted to practicing within the region their household is registered in. Prior to these restrictions China had hundreds of itinerant Imams. During this period the Chinese government forced nearly all mosques in Ningxia and Henan to remove their domes and Arabic script. In 2018 new language restrictions forced hundreds of Arabic schools in Ningxia and Zhengzhou to close.

Concentration camps

In May 2018, it was reported that hundreds of thousands of Muslims were being detained in massive extra-judicial internment camps in Western Xinjiang.  These were called “re-education” camps and later, “vocational training centres” by the government, intended for the “rehabilitation and redemption” to combat terrorism and religious extremism. 

The camps have been reportedly described as “Orwellian” and some Western journalists have made comparisons to Nazi concentration camps.

On 31 August 2018, the United Nations committee called on the Chinese government to “end the practice of detention without lawful charge, trial and conviction”, to release the detained persons, to provide specifics as to the number of interred individuals and the reasons for their detention and to investigate the allegations of “racial, ethnic and ethno-religious profiling”. A BBC report quoted an unnamed Chinese official as saying that “Uighurs enjoyed full rights” but also admitting that “those deceived by religious extremism… shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education”. The state-run tabloid Global Times also responded that the controls in Xinjiang were “intense”, but not permanent. On 17 June 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which authorizes the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Chinese government officials responsible for re-education camps.

Ethnic groups

Muslim, Bonan children

Muslims live in every region in China. The highest concentrations are found in the northwest provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, with significant populations also found throughout Yunnan Province in Southwest China and Henan Province in Central China. Of China’s 55 officially recognized minority peoples, ten groups are predominantly Muslim. The largest groups in descending order are Hui (9.8 million in year 2000 census or 48% of the officially tabulated number of Muslims), Uyghur (8.4 million, 41%), Kazakh (1.25 million, 6.1%), Dongxiang (514,000, 2.5%), Kyrgyz (144,000), Uzbeks (125,000), Salar (105,000), Tajik (41,000), Bonan (17,000) and Tatar (5,000). However, individual members of traditionally Muslim groups may profess other religions or none at all. Additionally, Tibetan Muslims are officially classified along with the Tibetan people. Muslims live predominantly in the areas that border Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, i.e. Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai, which is known as the “Quran Belt”.

Uyghur Muslims in a livestock market in Kashgar.


The East Asian O3-M122 Y chromosome Haplogroup is found in large quantities in other Muslims close to the Hui like Dongxiang, Bo’an and Salar. The majority of Tibeto-Burmans, Han Chinese and Ningxia and Liaoning Hui share paternal Y chromosomes of East Asian origin which are unrelated to Middle Easterners and Europeans. In contrast to distant Middle Eastern and Europeans whom the Muslims of China are not related to, East Asians, Han Chinese and most of the Hui and Dongxiang of Linxia share more genes with each other. This indicates that native East Asian populations converted to Islam and were culturally assimilated to these ethnicities and that Chinese Muslim populations are mostly not descendants of foreigners as claimed by some accounts while only a small minority of them are.

Number of Muslims in China

99 names of Allah, in Chinese Sini

A 2009 study done by the Pew Research Center concluded there are 21,667,000 Muslims in China, accounting for 1.6% of the total population. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 1–2% of the total population in China are Muslims. The 2000 census counts imply that there may be up to 20 million Muslims in China. According to the textbook, “Religions in the Modern World”, it states that the “numbers of followers of any one tradition are difficult to estimate and must in China as everywhere else rely on statistics compiled by the largest institutions, either those of the state – which tend to underestimate – or those of the religious institutions themselves – which tend to overestimate. If we include all the population of those designated ‘national’ minorities with an Islamic heritage in the territory of China, then we can conclude that there are some 20 million Muslims in the People’s Republic of China.  According to SARA there are approximately 36,000 Islamic places of worship, more than 45,000 imams, and 10 Islamic schools in the country.

Within the next two decades from 2011, Pew projects a slowing down of the Muslim population growth in China compared to previous years, with Muslim women in China having a 1.7 fertility rate. Many Hui Muslims voluntarily limit themselves to one child in China since their Imams preach to them about the benefits of population control, while the number of children Hui in different areas are allowed to have varies between one and three children.

An early historical estimate of the Muslim population of the then Qing Empire belongs to the Christian missionary Marshall Broomhall. In his book, published in 1910, he produced estimates for each province, based on the reports of missionaries working there, who had counted mosques, talked to mullahs, etc. Broomhall admits the inadequacy of the data for Xinjiang, estimating the Muslim population of Xinjiang (i.e., virtually the entire population of the province at the time) in the range from 1,000,000 (based on the total population number of 1,200,000 in the contemporary Statesman’s Yearbook) to 2,400,000 (2 million “Turki”, 200,000 “Hasak” and 200,000 “Tungan”, as per George Hunter). He uses the estimates of 2,000,000 to 3,500,000 for Gansu (which then also included today’s Ningxia and parts of Qinghai), 500,000 to 1,000,000 for Zhili (i.e., Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei), 300,000 to 1,000,000 for Yunnan and smaller numbers for other provinces, down to 1,000 in Fujian. For Mongolia (then, part of the Qing Empire) he takes an arbitrary range of 50,000 to 100,000.[187] Summing up, he arrives to the grand total of 4,727,000 to 9,821,000 Muslims throughout the Qing Empire of its last years, i.e. just over 1–2% of the entire country’s estimated population of 426,045,305. The 1920 edition of New International Yearbook: A Compendium of the World’s Progress gave the number “between 5,000,000 and 10,000,000” as the total number of Muslims in the Republic of China.

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