My journey to visit the Muslim community in China started all the way back in Boston. Fortunately, I met two Chinese Muslim students; one ethnically Uyghur, and the other ethnically Hui.
The Uyghur Muslim apologized that he wasn’t able to help me more given the nature of my project and the strict secularism and censorship enforced throughout the Xinjiang region. I was disappointed, but completely understood and respected his reluctance.
My Hui Muslim friend was thrilled to tell me the story of the Chinese Muslims. Moreover, he was excited to host me in his hometown for a few days. His muslim name is Jumuah. His Chines name is Zhanhe.
Jumuah taken just before sunset at the Tongxin Great mosque in his hometown
The relationship between Hui and Uyghurs is complicated. On one hand, the Hui knowledge of what happens to the Uyghurs is limited, for the most part, to the official narrative, which if they narrate anything, it is that of terrorists and rebels. On the other hand, Uyghur only remember that in 1934 and 1947 China sent armies led by Hui to conquer and reclaim their land into the Chinese Republic.
Hui muslims are one of the 56 acknowledge minorities in China. However, the only differentiation between them and the Hans, the majority ethnicity in China, is the religion. So, if I may have the liberty in saying, Hui is muslim Han. The official census estimate around 10 million Huis concentrated in the Northwestern regions of China; Ningxia, Gansu, etc.
A muslim Hui man. He worked and lived in the muslim quarters of Xian all his life
The first time I met Jumuah, he told me about the difficulty of finding good halal food to eat when he arrived in Boston. “For days, I was barely eating anything. I was starving, until I started finding the halal food spots,” he told me. “Food is important … critical to the Chinese culture,” he explained to me before going on to explain in-details the glory of Muslim Chinese food in his home town or in Xi’an. “My home town is known for the noodles. But, if you manage to go to Xi’an, the Muslim quarters has the best Chinese muslim food!” he said then neither of us knowing that we will end up meeting in Xi’an.
The entrance to the muslim quarters.
The standard in the Muslim quarter is halal food. If a store sells non-halal items, they highlighted that.
I ran into this in one of the alleys. It is a place where they wash the body of the dead before burrying them.
Delicious peanut based sweets.
Every part of the animal is sold here!
Halal meat and no pork being the main ingredients of the Hui cuisine that differentiate it form the Han cuisine.
A few months later, I went to Xi’an to visit my Uyghur friends
. Jumuah was there for his wedding photo-shoot
. We met at the Great Mosque of Xi’an
in the Muslim quarters of Xi’an. The Great Mosque, though not the oldest, is a symbol and center for the Hui culture. I was honestly shocked to know that the Great Mosque is dated back to 742 A.D because that means it was built within 130 years of the first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca in 610. Moreover, that means islam has been in China since at least 742. Curious, I did my research and find out that the oldest mosque in China was founded in 627.
To put things in perspective, Muslim state didn’t reach Egypt till approximately 640.
Xian Daxuexixiang Mosque, founded in 705AD
Great Mosque of Xi’an
The inside of the mosque has the whole quran scripture carved on plates of woods on the walls
Taraweeh at the Great Mosque hit me with a new epiphany. This mosque is famous for having adopted a recitation of the Quran that is easier on the Mandarin speaking tongue. Half way through the prayer, I couldn’t continue because I didn’t understand the recitation. I could only cipher the quranic verses that I knew and expected to be recited. Other than that, it was a frustrating experience. So here I was frustrated and not being able to pray because I couldn’t understand the quran. “wow. this is what every non-Arabic speaking muslim feels every day,” I felt guilty because I was frustrated, but at the same time grateful for having the capacity to connect with the scripture that defines my faith because of where I was born.
The Audio file below is a partial recording of the taraweeh prayer at the mosque. It starts with Zikr then we start praying shortly after that.
Ok, the food. It was phenomenal. Though I wandered the muslim quarters the days prior to meeting up with Jumuah, I pretty much only tried street food just like every other tourist. And, there were plenty of tourists in the muslim quarters. Many of the muslims who live in the quarters have suggested that the government affords them more freedoms because of the number of tourists they attract. However, after iftar with Jumuah, we met up with his fiancé at a restaurant off the main street. “This is the best Chinese food I have ever had,” I proclaimed at the time. Jumuah smiled knowing that the journey is still not over.
Over the next three days, I went to Tongxin, Jumuah’s hometown. His amazing hospitality was indisputable, particularly in a time when he was preparing for a wedding only three weeks away. Moreover it was rather a competition he took onto himself to keep feeding me better meal than the one before. Until, of course, he talked me into eating sheep feet. There was a sharp decline in food-goodness-chart akin to the decline in stock markets value during the 2008 recession. Nonetheless, I tried it.
The Hui and Han Chinese share a similar culture but a different faith. A faith that creates dietary restriction on a culture that takes pride in its cuisine which has heavy reliance on pork which is one of those restrictions. The Hui were left with creating an industry and a tourist attraction of a cuisine that fits both their faith and culture.
* I was not able to visit the oldest mosque in Xi’an or the oldest one in China.
However, I visited the Daxuexixiang Mosque, a smaller mosque near the Great Mosque of Xian, which was reportedly founded in 705.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.