The Oriental Mecca


Foreign believers revive Islam in Guangzhou

By Louise do Rosario

It is midday on Friday outside a modest green building in Guangzhou that houses the body of the first Muslim missionary to China, who arrived in AD 650.

The faithful queue up to pay their respects – Pakistanis, Hui Chinese with small, trim beards, Africans with white prayer caps and Chinese Uighurs in dark suits.

“Saad ibn Abi Waqqas was sent here by the Prophet Mohammed to convert the Chinese,” said Ma Guoxing, a native of Ningxia in northwest China who has lived in Guangzhou for over ten years. “He is famous all over the Islamic world and people come from everywhere to honour him.

“At our mosque here, we get 7–8,000 people every Friday, sometimes up to 10,000. Half of them are non-Chinese. The foreigners have revived Islam in the city. We do not have enough mosques now.”

Close to the tomb is a mosque built by the city government in the 1990s. The crowd is so large that the imam has piled prayer mats on the surrounding steps and paving stones for them to use.

“It is my religious obligation to pray on a Friday,” said Muhammad Lamine, a native of Senegal who lives in Angola and comes to China regularly to buy goods to export. “I feel comfortable in Guangzhou. The imam recites in Arabic, the universal language. In Islam, we are all brothers, whatever language we speak.”

He is one of the thousands of Muslims, from Africa, the Middle East and south Asia, who live in Guangzhou or come here regularly for business. They have rejuvenated the Islamic life of the city.

The Islamic Association of Guangzhou counts 30,000 foreign Muslims and 80,000 Chinese ones, from Guangzhou and other areas, especially the north and west. That means a doubling of the city’s Muslim population since 2008.

It has only four mosques, not enough to meet the demand. The government strictly controls the construction of new religious buildings.

Arab restaurants and Halal meat

The past ten years have seen a large influx of Muslims attracted by the surge in China’s foreign trade since its entry into the World Trade Organisation, in 2001.

Guangdong is the factory of the world and Guangzhou the front shop of this factory. Merchants earn a higher profit by placing orders themselves here, in Shenzhen, Dongguan and other production centres in Guangdong than by buying goods through middlemen.

The merchants either pay regular visits, like Lamine who has been coming to the city for more than ten years. Or they set up home here, with their families.

They mainly buy clothes, shoes, cosmetics and consumer goods, including mobile phones, computers, televisions and other electronic goods.

The influx was accelerated by 9/11, which made it harder for Muslims to obtain visas to the United States and other Western countries amidst the heightened anti-Muslim sentiment. In Guangzhou, such hostility is absent; foreign Muslims feel welcome. “People in Turkey buy Chinese clothes, shoes and other goods, as do people everywhere in the world,” said Ekrem Turkoglu, a Turk who has lived in the city for more than two years with his family.

“It is easy to live here. If you have money, everything is easy. My children speak Chinese at school and Turkish at home. I want them to learn Arabic, to read the Koran. But three languages – that is too much work!” he said.

To cater to this influx, a large number of Arab and Turkish restaurants selling food prepared according to Islamic regulations have been established in Guangzhou. Two are owned by a family from Yemen who has been living here for ten years.

“There are many of these restaurants now in Guangzhou and other Chinese cities,” said Turkoglu. “This is a very important issue for Muslims. I do not dare to eat in a Chinese restaurant. The food there may contain pork or meat that is not killed according to Islamic rules.”

This limits social contact between Muslims and Chinese, for whom pork is a central part of the diet; pig fat may also be used to cook vegetables and other dishes. Many Muslims follow the ban on alcohol, which can be an additional obstacle to social contact.

Guangzhou people welcome the visitors, as long-term residents or regular travellers.

“Guangzhou has a tradition of being an open city,” said Wang Minghong, a taxi driver. “We welcome foreigners to come here as long as they behave properly and respect the law. The Arabs mostly do trade and buy Chinese goods to export to their home countries. That is good for our economy.”

The welcome is more muted for the thousands of Africans who have made their home in Guangzhou. Drivers complain that they sometimes do not pay the fare and jay walk in front of them in a dangerous way and that their way of life is too different to that of Chinese people. “Arabs have a better reputation,” said Wang.

Arrival of Missionary

Even before Abi Waqqas arrived in Guangzhou, Arab merchants had established trading posts in the city.

Abi Waqqas was a maternal uncle of the Prophet and one of his first converts. According to Chinese Muslims, he arrived here in AD 650, 18 years after the death of the Prophet, as the first missionary to China and part of a dramatic expansion of the new religion.

He and his delegation sailed across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to reach Guangzhou. Then he travelled overland to Changan, now Xian, capital of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907).

He brought gifts and was well received by Emperor Gaozong, whose government was watching with intense interest the rapid expansion of Islam around the world.

After making his own investigations, the emperor gave his approval to the new religion, saying that it was compatible with the teachings of Confucius. He allowed Waqqas the freedom to propagate the religion and to remain in China.

This set the tone for the good relations between the Arab world and the Chinese state – Imperial, Nationalist and Communist – for the next 14 centuries.

In Guangzhou, Waqqas built the first mosque in China with a free-standing minaret; it is one of the oldest mosques in the world. At 12 metres high, it became known as the Lighthouse Mosque, serving as a beacon for centuries for ships on the Pearl River. It was the tallest structure in the city and had a weather-vane by which mariners could tell the direction of the wind. Today it is called the Huaisheng Mosque. Waqqas died a wealthy man in AD 664.

Chinese as well as many non-Chinese Muslims say that Waqqas is buried in the tomb in Guangzhou; but some Arab scholars say he was buried in Medina, Arabia. His is one of many tombs of Muslims in a large park full of trees; it is testimony to the Islamic presence in the city over the centuries.

His followers built imposing mosques in many cities in China, including one measuring 130,000 square feet in Changan and in Quanzhou, Hangzhou and Yangzhou. They were most successful in converting the people of the north and west but had little success in the heartland in the centre and south.

Nearly half of the Muslims in China are Hui, Han Chinese people who converted; most live in the north and northwest, especially Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces.

Among the faithful that Friday were many Hui, who are racially similar to the Han; many wear a white prayer cap and have a goatee beard. At the entrance were four of them holding out a cloth and inviting people to donate money for the building of a mosque in a county in Qinghai, west China.

The other major group of Chinese Muslims are Uighurs and other Turkic people from Xinjiang. Many live in Guangzhou and come to Friday prayers. Watching over them was a large police presence. In the street leading to the mosque were dozens of stalls selling halal meat, fruit drinks, carpets, prayer mats and Islamic clothes for women. Many beggars asked the faithful for an offering before they made their prayers.

Official figures put the total number of Chinese Muslims at about 22 million.

Most Guangzhou people are little interested in the tomb or the mosque. Many look down on the Hui as a minority with whom they have little in common. Inter-marriage with them is rare, since it involves the non-Muslim converting and adopting the dietary rules of the Islamic community.

Glory of Tang Guangzhou

Abi Waqqas arrived during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), when China was the richest and most developed country in the world.

Guangzhou was its major trading port and window to the outside world. It was the start of the ‘maritime silk road’ which carried silk, porcelain, tea and other Chinese products to India, Persia, Iraq, Arabia and Egypt, in exchange for spices, ivory, pearls and other exotic goods. It was one of the largest commercial cities in the world. The imperial government set up a customs office there; this revenue became an important part of the national revenue.

The collapse of the Roman Empire and the frequent dynastic changes in the Eurasian region disrupted the overland Silk Road and gave a great impetus to the maritime route along the southern waters.

Guangzhou attracted tens of thousands of merchants from the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, including Muslims, Jews and Christians. The government gave them land outside the city wall in a southwestern suburb between the city and the Pearl River; they built large houses, mosques, restaurants, schools and community centres. It was a centre of trade and intellectual exchange between East and Middle East – a forerunner of what is happening today.

It may have been the city with the largest population of foreigners in the world. It largely ruled itself; the emperor appointed a general to oversee this foreign quarter, implementing foreign rather than Chinese laws.

But it had a tragic ending. As the Tang dynasty declined, there was increasing resentment among the Chinese population toward the wealth of the foreign merchants.

In AD 878–879, a rebel army led by Huang Chao conquered the city and massacred between 120,000 and 200,000 foreigners, including Jews, Muslim Arabs and Persians, Zoroastrians and Christians.

Their only crime was that they were foreign and wealthy. They were a scapegoat for the troubles which plagued the end of the glorious Tang dynasty.

Photos by Louise do Rosario and Xinhua News Agency