Brief History of Islam in China

Gone are the days when Islam in China was somewhat of an oxymoron; yet the growth in knowledge and interest is at times the outcome of unfortunate turns of events. As of this writing, likely more than one million Uyghur Muslims – a Turkicophone Muslim group in Western China – are interned in concentration camps (“vocational education centres,” so claimed the Chinese state).

Uyghurs are considered one of the oldest Turkic-speaking populations in Central Asia, with their homeland at the heart of the multireligious and multilingual Silk Roads. Today, most Uyghurs live in China, with growing numbers of diasporic Uyghur communities in Central Asia, North America, Australia, and Europe. Evidence shows an orchestrated movement of Han settlers into the Uyghur homeland by the Chinese government to attenuate the Uyghur population there, and there is also evidence of the government targeting Muslim religious figures and Islamic landmarks with the aim of erasing Uyghur cultural and historical legacies.

Amidst this turmoil that has caught the attention of international media, one often forgets that Uyghurs are not the only Muslims in China; and historically, between Uyghurs and other Muslim groups – the Hui, the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, among others – there has been continuous exchange of religious ideas and linguistic influences, to the point where ethnic boundaries that appear self-evident now were hardly applicable then in the same rigid manner. This preliminary idea drives our efforts in sharing manuscripts and records of ritual practice gathered from amongst the Sinophone Muslim community.

We do this by preserving and offering explanatory notes – as elaborate as we can manage – on Chinese, Arabic, and Persian manuscripts and other non-textual sources. These resources were collected primarily by Guangtian Ha, the principal investigator of this project, between 2010 and the present. Some of the texts were digitized at the time of collection, while others were purchased by or gifted to Ha during fieldwork and subsequently digitized at Haverford College. Most of the audio-visual files contained in this database document ritual practices long known to some scholars but which have never been observed or recorded first-hand. The Arabic and Persian manuscripts, in particular, while limited in number, show the wide range of texts – from manuals of religious creeds to grammar primers to elaborate Sufi hagiographies to political pamphlets – in the possession of Hui Muslim communities.

We aim to continue to increase the amount of the resources held in this database, and make them widely and freely available to interested researchers and community members around the world, bearing in mind that access can never be fully equal and restrictions placed on Internet access both in China and outside will undermine our efforts to spread the knowledge of Islam in China. Yet we remain hopeful that this project will be but a teetering first attempt that is to be joined by more rigorous work from other colleagues in China and elsewhere.