Average 4.8 / 5. Votes 167
Islam in China and the contribution of the Muslim community of China to Muslim heritage is the theme of this interview with Anthony Garnaut. The genesis of the Chinese Muslim community, its history and culture are dealt with brilliantly, as well as the interactions between the Islamic civilisation and China in science and technology, especially in what regards four great inventions, that is paper making, compass, gunpowder, and the moveable type of printing. To broaden the scope of the analysis, the interview touches upon subjects such as Ibn Battuta's travel to China, the particularities of spiritual life of the Muslim community in China, and the situation of Islam in China today.
This week’s topic focuses on the Muslim contributions in China and we are very grateful to have Anthony Garnaut all the way on the line from Australia to discuss this topic with us. I would just like to give a brief biographical account of Anthony for the benefit of our listeners. Anthony Garnaut completed his undergraduate studies in physics at Peiking University and worked for a time in Hong Kong before returning to Australia to pursue his graduate studies in History. He is now a PhD student in Islamic History at the Australian National University and he is currently writing a biography of a shaykh from central China who passed away a century ago.
Many Muslims are aware of the prophetic hadith which states “seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.” So can you briefly explain for the benefit of the listeners how your interest in Chinese culture and history came about?
My first trip to China was with my father and my family. My father worked in Beijing as a diplomat and I spent two years there as a child. I came back to Australia for High school, and after High school, I went back to China and I did my undergraduate studies and came out with a Chinese physics degree. One of the interesting things about Beijing is that there is a large Muslim community there.
What are the first documentary accounts from your research in this area of Muslims settling in this area and visiting China, and which century did this start in terms of the migration towards China or the influx towards China?
Well, it is not really until the 3rd Islamic century that we start to have a lot of documents specifically talking about Muslims in China. That certainly does not mean that there were no Muslims in China before that, even back to the times of the Prophet (pbuh) and the companions of the Prophet (pbuh). We just do not have a lot of written evidence about that. There were a number of tombs in Eastern China that are dedicated to some of the famous companions of the Prophet (pbuh). There is a tomb in Gunajo for example to the companion Sa’d ibn Waqqas (ra). Sa’d ibn Waqqas (ra) is one of the 10 companions whose place in paradise was foreseen by the Prophet (pbuh) and I think it is fair to say that he would have been a bit busy with his work in Arabia. He led the Islamic conquest of Persia. I think he would have been a bit busy to travel to China at the time. That certainly does not mean that there were not companions or there were no Muslim travellers or traders that went to China from the days of the Prophet (pbuh) and the early decades after his death.
What kind of reactions did the Muslims who decided to settle in China get in the early years from your research observations?
Muslims were a small part of the communities, the community of foreigners that lived in the trading cities in China. There were large communities of Christians, Zoroastrians, Manicheans that lived in China from pre-Islamic days. So in the early days, I think the Muslims fitted in with the people of other foreign religions. One aspect of the history of Islamic China is that there has been a series of religions that have been coming into China from the West and the most famous of these is Buddhism. Buddhism was initially seen as a western religion and I think Buddhism now is the most popular religion in China and has been for a long time even since pre-Islamic times. After Buddhism, other religions also came in from the West, including Zoroastrianism, the Syriac Christian church, Nestorian church and at a later period, Islam. In the early periods of the first few centuries of Islam’s presence in China, I think it is fair to say that Muslims lived mainly in Muslim trading communities, in the trading ports in coastal China and in some of the trading cities in the North West and the central Asian part of the Silk Road. There were accounts in Arabic of Muslim journeys through China. It is a bit hard to distinguish between Muslims living in China and Chinese Muslims until a much later date. It is only really in the 13th Christian century, the 7th century of Islam, that we start to have what we can call a Chinese Muslim community whose main language is Chinese and who think of themselves as Chinese people. Before that, the Muslims certainly lived in China for many generations, but at least in terms of the documents that we have describing these people, they tended to be associated with the Muslim trading communities in the ports and thought of themselves as part of the Abbasid Caliphate I guess.
How did the Muslim settlers in China integrate with the society and the population at large, whilst at the same time trying to preserve their religious beliefs and identity?
If we look at the history of the Muslims in China since the 13th Christian century, then we can start to talk about a distinctly Chinese Muslim community, and we can also begin look at various Islamic traditions that were Chinese in many ways. For example, we have Mosques developing in China that look a lot like the Chinese imperial palaces with pedoda style rooms and painted red columns on the outside. From a slightly later period, we also have a lot of Islamic books written in Chinese. Some of these are translations of Arabic and Persian religious texts. Certainly in the peaceful times, every emperor likes to have a rich empire and having a rich empire involves having trade with the outside world. It involves having the best doctors, having the best artists, having the best craftsmen, and if you start to think from the perspective of an emperor, then I think you can start to understand how Muslims were welcomed into China. Chinese history tends to be understood as a series of unified dynasties which then break apart into civil war then someone conquered the whole of China then we have another unified dynasty and that is followed by civil war. I think it is certainly reasonable to say that in the times when there were strong unified dynasties in China, then Muslims had a place within that empire as traders, doctors or artisans. I think certainly at some periods of civil war, Muslim communities in China were vulnerable to persecution and would get caught up in the civil war fighting and so on. At the end of the Tong dynasty which lasted from the time of the Prophet (pbuh) until three centuries later, towards the end of that dynasty, there was a rebellion in central China and one thing the rebels did was to kill all the foreigners they could find. There were large massacres of Zoroastrians, Christians and Muslims that lived in the coast of China. I would say that’s more the exception than the rule, and when the political process was going well in China, then the Muslims in China prospered within that.
There are two main groups of Muslims in China today. One of these groups is called the Hui Muslims. This is a group that’s designated as an ethnic group by the Chinese communist government, and the Hui specifically means the Chinese Muslims, the Muslims who speak Chinese and who look in most ways like Chinese people. Most of these Muslims live in central China or the cities of northern China. In Beijing for example, there is about two hundred thousand of the Hui Muslims or Chinese Muslims. The Hui are one group of Muslims and the other group is the Turks, the Muslims in north western China that speak Turkish or rather the dialects of Turkish. These two broad groups both have a population of about ten million people, which is a very large number, but in terms of the Chinese population that is a very small number. Ten million is less than one percent of the population of China overall. If we are talking of 2 percent of the population that is about the same as the percentage of the Muslim population of Australia and a smaller number as a percentage of the Muslim population of the United Kingdom.
Is the term Hui used just for a specific segment of the Chinese Muslim community, or is it used for the Muslim community at large?
This is referred specifically to the half of the Muslims in China. The half is specifically the Chinese Muslims. The history of this group goes back into the early days of the arrival of Islam in China. What is an important period in the development of this ethnic group in China is the Mongol period. In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered all of China and certainly the eastern half of the Islamic world. They conquered central Asia, they conquered Persia all the way up to Damascus. The way the Mongols went about their conquest, they first conquered central Asia in Persia and had a devastating effect on the Islamic community of those regions. There were lots of famous Muslim towns that were destroyed, but the Mongols never recovered. After the Mongols had stopped their conquering in the Islamic lands, the Muslims living under the Mongol rule tended to get on with their lives and part of getting on with their lives meant working within the Mongol system as craftsmen, scientists, scholars, bureaucrats and also as soldiers. When the Mongols conquered China, a large group of Muslims moved into China from that time, mainly from the Turkish lands of central Asia, from places like Bukhara, Samarkand and also the west, what is now Azerbaijan and the former Soviet central Asian states. If you look at the Hui community, I think it is fair to say that the main ethnic origin of the Hui community is amongst the Muslim Turks of central Asia but, over time, these people that migrated with the Mongols learned to speak Chinese as their first language. They took Chinese wives in many cases and a further community developed. The actual name Hui is related to the names of one of the Turkish tribes of central Asia. Specifically there is a tribe known as the Weegers and the Weegers now continue to live as Turks in North West China.
In what areas did Muslims make contributions and inventions in China?
One place to start to look at this question, but firstly it is important to mention that this is a very big topic. Muslims had a very big role in China, particularly in the area of science and technology, which is what the “1001 Inventions” Exhibition is focusing on. If we start with the perspective that in the first millennium of the Christian era, Buddhism was the main religion that connected China with the west and in China the west means everything west of China. With reference to Europe, people really did not know about Europe. If people did ever refer to Europe in travel accounts then it was the far west. The west firstly meant central Asia and after that it meant India and Persia. If we think in the first millennium, Buddhism was the main religion that connected people between China’s west and China itself. In the second millennium, from around 1000 CE, Islam was the main religion connecting China with the West. Chinese exchanged ideas in science and movements of new types of food, fruits and ways of making things. The exchange in these areas between China and the west tended to happen along the Muslim trade route and was brokered by the Muslim travellers, traders and scientists. One way to think about this question is to look at the four great Chinese inventions. There was a British scholar of history of science named Joseph Needham. He wrote a lot about Chinese science and he coined the term “the four great Chinese inventions” to describe the compass, gunpowder, paper making, and printing (he referred to the specifically moveable type). It is these four things that Needham described as Chinese inventions. For each of these four things, it is quite hard to say that they were exclusively Chinese inventions. Part of the nature of science and the development of science and technology involves the exchange of ideas. If someone comes up with one idea and someone else often in a very different part of the world comes up with another idea, that adds to the first idea, slowly new ideas and technologies emerge. If we start with paper, that first appeared in China two thousand years ago in the pre-Islamic period. The place where it first appeared in China is in the far north west of China and also in the far south east. The two corners of China that are most closely involved in interacting with the outside world and in both of these places paper was found. It was used by Buddhists to produce writing material. Back at that time, Buddhism was a new religion in China, a religion that had come from the west. So in these situations, I think it is fair to say that China did invent paper, at least a certain type of paper. This invention was premised on a close interaction with people that had travelled into China from elsewhere, in this case central Asia and India. That is one example from the pre-Islamic period. Another example that we could look at is the compass, and this is one where I think Muslims did have a lot to do with the development of the compass in China. The first solid description of the compass did not appear in Chinese text, but in Islamic text, in an Arabic text I think from the 8th Christian century. It was about the same time that we start to have descriptions of the compass in China described in similar terms. I think it is at least reasonable to say that the first compass that appeared in the Islamic lands was very similar to the first compass that appeared in the Chinese lands. This is the famous admiral from the Ming dynasty, from the 15th century. There is a book by Gavin Menzies which has become very famous in the last couple of years. A book titled “1421”, and it talks about the great voyages of this admiral and the Chinese pronunciation of his name is Zheng He. This Zheng, he was from a Muslim family and in the early years of the Ming dynasty, which started beginning of the 15th century or the late 14th century. This person led a series of long distance voyages on behalf of the Chinese state. He travelled to South East Asia and beyond, went to Sri lanka along the Indian coast called Gujarat, and visited the Persian gulf and all the way down to East Africa. Along a lot of this coastline, particularly in the south East Asia and East Africa, there are a lot of communities today that say they descended from Zheng He and from the people that came with his voyage. One of the reasons this book is famous is that “1421” is a good period before the great age of European exploration. Columbus discovered America in 1492, I think this is taking place 70 years earlier.
Is there a high level of authenticity in this assertion that Zheng He visited America before Columbus?
The specific time about visiting America I think actually is not well documented. It is not impossible, but certainly the reasons that Gavin Menzies gives are not well supported by scholarly evidence you could say. I guess that is the small part of the greatness of the mission of the voyages of Zheng He. And certainly the main voyages of Zheng He are well documented by many sources. The fact that he visited the east coast of Africa, for example, is well documented, and the east coast of Africa is just from China as America is from China. It is one thing for someone to travel from the Far East to the Far West. For a Chinese person, East Africa is a long way away and if you think of it from a European perspective, then China is a long way away. If you are standing in Muslim shoes, then the situation is quite different. From a Muslim perspective all Zheng He really did was to travel from one side of the Muslim world to another side of the Muslim world. There were ports all the way along the coast from East China down through South East Asia along the Indian coast line, the Persian Gulf and then down the east coast of Africa. Every one or two hundred kilometres along that journey, there were ports and in each of those ports, there were substantial Muslim communities. For a Muslim doing that long journey certainly is a logistical feet to make it all the way.
What accounts are there of travellers to the land of China and the observations of the Muslims and how they lived?
Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta are the two people that wrote very big and very long accounts of their travels and both of their journeys were quite spectacular. Marco Polo started out in Venice and then he travelled to Constantinople down through the Persian Gulf all the way across Iran and central Asia to China. He came back by the sea route through Indonesia, India and back to Venice. He describes all of these places on his journey. I have not counted miles that is, but it is certainly more travelling than most people do in their gap year. Ibn Batutta was a traveller from a slightly later period. Marco Polo was from the late 13th century and Ibn Batutta was from the early 14th century. He started in North Africa and went first on the hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]. And after the hajj he was curious about the rest of the world, so he continued through India and by the coast to China.He described all this in the book which has been also translated into English in three big volumes on his account of the world. Ibn Batutta particularly gives a rich description of the Muslim community in China. Ibn Batutta wrote his travel account for Muslims and one of the things that he was already most interested in is what the Muslims in different parts of the world were doing. It takes a bit of time to describe some of the traditions in Muslim community that he stayed with. He even gives an account of having stayed for -I think- 6 months at the Sufi teaching centre of a Shaykh in southern China, in the town what is now called Guanjo, a city near Hong Kong.
What were the main languages spoken by the Muslims that settled in China and how did they overcome any so called communication barriers that may have existed at that time? If you can correlate that also to today’s contemporary situation in China in terms of the languages that are spoken there it would be most appreciated.
Through the early days of the history of Muslims in China, I have to say it is not the question I have looked on in any detail. I think that the main languages would have been Persian particularly, but also different Turkish dialects and probably Malay and also Chinese of course for people that had been there. If you live in a place for a couple of years, you tend to be able to at least speak some of the language. For the early Muslim community, I think people were speaking a variety of languages. Persian and Arabic would have been the main written languages. People of course pray in Arabic, learn as much as they can of the Quran in Arabic ,and at least from the 3rd Islamic century increasingly most Islamic learning, particularly non religious areas, story books, would have been written in Persian. As the community developed in China, and as the Muslims started to be more and more Chinese, people maintained Persian and Arabic as the written languages even right up into the 20thcentury. Persian and Arabic were both widely taught at Madrasas in China. If you wanted to be an Imam, it was not enough to study a couple of years of Arabic and memorise a section of the Quran. You also have to study a number of hadith books in Arabic, and spending even more time studying some of the Persian commentaries of the Quran and some of the Persian theological texts of what is called Kalam.
On what you have touched on so far, can you mention any Muslim Scholars who have been influential throughout China?
One place to start is, if you go to some of the traditional Madrasas in China. There are still a number of these operating that teach a similar curriculum to what they taught in the earliest 20th century, before whole wave of new books came in from places like Cairo and Saudi Arabia. In the traditional Madrasas, most of the books that people study were written in Central Asia under the Timurid dynasty. The Timurid dynasty was a very big empire which was established first in central Asia but also conquered Persia, and this is in the 8th-9th Islamic centuries, around the 15th-16th centuries of the Christian calendar. One of the famous capitals of the Timurid Empire was in Heart [modern Afghanistan]. There is one particular sultan who had a very prosperous court and a group of famous scholars and painters and so on that lived under his patronage. There is one scholar in particular that is very famous from this period, he is Shaykh Abdul Rahman Jami. He is famous as a poet and a lot of his poetry was then translated into English. He is a polymath and he wrote books in lots of different areas in both Arabic and Persian. He wrote a number of Sufi mystical works. There are books by the title of Lamahat [Glimpses], Lawaih [Tables], and these were books that explain how the people engaged in Sufi practices in meditation. When a Sufi sets out on the Sufi path, what they are trying to do is to break down the barrier between themselves and God. The process of destroying the ego until there is no distinction between God and the self. Jami wrote a number of books that outline a programme of how to go about developing one’s spirituality, and these books were very popular in China.
In your biography you mention that you are currently researching about a Shaykh in China. Can you briefly mention how the interest in this particular Shaykh came about?
Since the Timirud period, when those books arrived such as the works of Jami into China, it was not just the books that came to China. It was also a particular school of Islamic practice and scholarship, and it is often talked about as the Naqshbandi school. I think it is fair to say that this is the biggest single Sufi school in the world today. There are large Naqshbandi communities in England, France, North Africa, Turkey, central Asia, India, and Indonesia, and also in Sydney and Melbourne you will also find Naqshbandi affiliated mosques. From about 400 years ago, Naqshbandi path became more and more influential in China. The person that I am studying comes out of that tradition. He was a Shaykh in the Sufi tradition; which meant that he was less an expert in books but an expert in Sufi practices. He did have a book-based education and he could give commentaries on the Quran and on the Hadith. But what he is most famous for is his spiritual poetries. He had quite a big community of followers somewhere in the region of around half a million people were included in his community.
What is the name of this specific Shaykh that you are referring to?
His name is Ma’un Zheng in Chinese and for most people it is quite hard to remember Chinese names. One thing that makes it easier to remember Muslim names is that more than half of the names have the same surname that is “Mah.” The surname “Mah” came about as a shortened version of the Muslim name Mahmood or Muhammad. If you turn Mahmood into Chinese you have the name Mahamuda and if you take the first part of that name, you have “Mah.” That became the first part of the surname of a lot of Muslims. This person, his Arabic title is Siddiq Allah and the community that he led is called the Jahariya. I guess one of the interesting things I found about this person, is that he had a great religious authority. He had a large community of followers that took him as their spiritual guide. At the same time he was very influential in politics. Perhaps that is something which just comes with having a large community. He is one of the few Muslims scholars in China who has left a substantial body of writings in Chinese especially as Muslim scholars tended to write in Arabic, Persian and producing commentaries. Because this person was a community leader, he was active in politics. He did not take an official title. He spent a lot of time visiting and being visited by various political figures and so we have a large collection of his poetry and his prose writings in different areas.
Can you assert that the role of Sufism has had an influential impact in terms of spreading the message of Islam in China itself both historically and in today’s contemporary day and age?
Certainly I think if you go back 200 or even 100 years, it would be unusual to find a Muslim anywhere in the world that did not have some association with Sufism. Particularly if you look at India, a lot of the famous Shaykhs there or the famous Muslim scholars there would have been initiated into upwards of a dozen different Sufi traditions. They would learn their fiqh, legal scholarship, Quranic commentaries. These are the areas of the sciences that they would study while becoming a respected scholar. They would also study the science of personal spiritual cultivation, and this science is what we can describe as Sufism. Sufism was particularly influential in central Asia. The Sufi institutions from at least 500 years ago were very powerful, not just on religious terms, but also politically. And the early conversions of some of the Mongol nobles after the Mongol conquest would often happen at the hands of Sufi leaders. Certainly Sufism has been very influential in China and in some parts of China; Sufism was influential just as a set of personal practices. In other parts of China, Sufism was influential as a more concrete institution where Sufi organisations might meet on particular ceremonies. Certainly in the case of the person I am studying, upwards of thirty thousand people would go to the larger celebrations that were held under the guidance of this Shaykh.
What is the current situation of the Muslims who live in China, especially today, as in the 20th century communism had a strong political influence in China. How have the Muslims accommodated themselves and adjusted in light of these political transformations that have been taking place in China?
That is a big question. A lot has happened in China in the 20th century. The 20th century began with the big revolution in which the last dynasty was kicked out and the Republic of China was established. The most famous person here is Sun Yat Sen who was involved in the creation of the Republic. Then in the middle of the century, the communists came into power and that was another big revolution that came at the end of a long civil war in which a lot of people died. That was not the end of the big events that happened in China. There is also what is called the Cultural Revolution which happened in the 60s and 70s and that was essentially another revolution where the Mao Tzetoung encouraged all of the students and the people that were outside of the state, the people that weren’t bureaucrats, Mao encouraged most of these people to rise up against figures of authority. So there is another, I guess, social revolution which took place then. And then in the 80s, we have a period of capitalism when Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao Zedong as the leader of China. He encouraged farmers to sell their goods on the market rather than selling them all to the State, and he encouraged people to start up business, private enterprise and he encouraged trade.
In all of these big changes that affected China, the Muslims were also affected. I would say, in the Republic of China Muslims tended to do quite well politically. They held a lot of the senior positions in government. In the communist period, it has been more up and down, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, one of the things that the Chairman Mao encouraged people to revolt against, was religion. Mao said that all of the traditions are bad and all of these old things are keeping China mired in the feudal past. He encouraged people to burn old books, to destroy old temples; old buildings and he also encouraged people to destroy religion. There was a 20 year period when all of the churches were closed in China and most of the Buddhist monasteries and also the Mosques were closed. There is a very small amount of Mosques which remained open, mainly for the foreign communities that lived in China. Essentially during that period, mosques had their doors locked or the use of Mosques was changed and became schools or warehouses or something like that. Then in the 1980s, that changed again, after Chairman Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended and there was a new period of liberalism which took place in China. So markets were set up and religion was allowed to exist again as a public institution. So from that time, the Mosques were opened again and the Muslim community practices were started again.
If you look at the situation now, I think it is different if you are talking about the Chinese Muslims or whether you are talking about the Turkish Muslims. If you look at the Chinese Muslims there, I think, it is fair to say that they are doing quite well in China today. One of the reasons for this is that in China now business is what everyone is doing. It is the businessman that has social status, and Muslims tend to be good at business. Business is one of the main traditional occupations. So there is a lot of Muslim trading companies, Muslim restaurants. For Muslims, things are basically quite good. If you go to Beijing, or if you go to one of the other famous old capital cities in China called Sian, then you can see very prosperous Muslim communities there. In Beijing for example, there are a number of very big halal supermarkets, where you have 20 isles stacked up to the ceiling with halal instant noodles, halal sausages, and all the works. So that is the situation for the Chinese speaking Muslim.
For the Turkish Muslims in northwest China, the political context is quite different. There is an issue of separatism there. A lot of the Turks of North West China see themselves as part of central Asia, as part of the Islamic traditions of Turkish central Asia and don’t see much in common with China. And so out of those tensions, the Chinese government has for the last 15 years in particular has had a very handed policy of suppressing any activities of the Turks that could be associated with Turkish nationalism. For Muslim communities, Islam is closely associated with personal identity as nationalism is personally associated with personal identity. When the government tries to crack down on nationalism, one of the things they crack down on is religion. So all of the Madrasas in that part of China have been closed down.
As an observer and researcher of the Muslims contributions and settlements in China, what lessons can we (in the UK) learn from the emergence of the Muslims community in China and the challenges that Muslims face in what is usually classified as the west in places like UK, Europe, USA and even Australia. There are certain issues like identity, integration, even problems such as terrorism today. Are there any lessons that we can learn in terms of how the Muslims integrated in China?
It is a tough question at the moment, particularly in the UK, as at the moment I am sure you are all feeling the increased tensions there. Australia is probably similar to the UK in the pressure that the Muslim community is under-funded by the government, the media, the community at large, firstly to control Islamic terrorism and secondly to reform in some ways so that Islam is able to exist in harmony with western enlightenment values. This is a hard debate and I do not know if I have any obvious solutions for the European context. I do think that it is very helpful, for not just Muslims in the UK, but for people in Europe generally to look at the history of Islam and Muslim communities outside of Europe. The history of Islam and Europe is something that is very particular. There are Muslims minority communities in most of the parts of the world, in China, India, in parts of South East Asia and Africa, where there is not a traditional animosity between Islam and the central state and the dominant tradition. If you go to China, Muslims are part of the landscape really. Non Muslims are very comfortable and familiar with Muslims in Beijing. If you talk to a non Muslim taxi driver in Beijing, he says “Muslims make the best meat pies in the east of Beijing”. The Muslim community has been in Beijing for a thousand of years and people are very much used to them. Muslims and non Muslims certainly in eastern China and in China proper, the part of China where people speak Chinese, Muslims and non Muslims generally get along. From time to time, episodes of communitarian conflict do occur but the conflicts generally do not come to much. The Chinese setup plays a reasonably effective role in resolving communitarian disputes, and so when there are local conflicts, they do not become out of control and become a general phenomenon where every non Muslim is scared of Muslims and every Muslim is scared of non Muslims. For people in the UK that are just looking at certain parts of Chinese society, it certainly gives them a different perspective and does give a perspective of how Muslims can live in a minority context quite peacefully. If you look at the history of Western Europe, it has a very unique history not just with respect to non Muslims but with respect to non Christian peoples. I do not know what happened to the Pagans in Europe, but there aren’t many of them left today. The Jews in Europe have had a very difficult time, and the Muslims in Europe traditionally I think they have had an even more difficult time. The Muslims were expelled from Spain before the Jews were expelled from Spain after the Christian recon quest.
There is a push to promote British identity and citizenship on these shores. In terms of the Chinese experience, it seem that the Muslims very much feel part and parcel of the host community or the host society in which they live; as sometimes, you can find certain segments in society that seem to have a conflict with the ideals of their faith and the ideals and values the state is promoting.
That is right. China tends to be pluralist in terms of the religion and that is something different to the European tradition. I think it is probably also different with respect to the Muslim tradition. In Islam, there is a tradition of tolerance towards other religions, particularly the people of the book. That is a very strong tradition of tolerance towards Christians, Jews, and Sabians and in some cases Zoroastrians. In China, religion has a slightly different status. Traditionally in China it was quite common for someone to be Buddhist and Confucianist and Taoist and something else. People would see religion as something like a scholarly tradition that you can learn more than one tradition. Generally this did not hold for Islam. It was not possible to be a Muslim and a Buddhist just because you are in China. The tradition of pluralism in China does mean that people tend to see religion as something which does not change everything about a person. Just because someone has a different religion, it does not mean that they are totally weird and totally different to you.
I think particularly in the European tradition, religion is very closely associated with identity, I would say, particularly in the Protestant tradition, more than the Catholic tradition. That for someone to have a different religion somehow changes their total being. Just looking from Australia to Europe, for Australia, I think the future of Australia is looking ok from a religious perspective simply because Australia is a little island of white people, a little island that is maybe half white surrounded by non white people and by non Christian people. Just to Australia north, our closest neighbour is Indonesia which is the largest Muslim country in the world. Our main trading partners are all in Asia, Japan and China, increasingly India. So for Australia, to simply keep on going as a prosperous place, it is essential for Australia to engage with other traditions. At the moment particularly with our current Howard government, we are part of the war on terror. We are fighting in Iraq and there is certainly a media frenzy looking for people with long beards. But I think in Australia the historical trend will force us to get over this moment. For Europe, not so much UK, but particularly in continental Europe, I do not necessary think it is the same, that particularly continental Europe seems to be digging a hole for itself in looking towards a pure past before it had migrants, when everyone was Christian, preferably when everyone was Catholic or Protestant. That is a backward looking feeling, I think, which is very strong.
The final question which I would like to ask is about somebody who is intending to visit China, what are the famous buildings, monuments or Muslim heritage sites that you recommend they should pay a visit to?
There are some big Mosques in Beijing which are certainly worth a visit. There is one particular area in Beijing which is traditionally the main Muslim quarter and that is called Ox Street. It is the area where the beef market used to be and there you can find a very large Mosque. Probably more interesting for a Muslim visitor from outside China is seeing the big halal supermarket where you can find every Chinese goods. That is one area based in Beijing which is the Ox Street.
Another area which is called the Xian, and the people that visit this place often go there to see the entombed warriors. That is where we have these vast pits full of tens of thousands of warriors which one of the emperors of China made out of clay to protect himself in the afterlife. In that city, there is a very large Muslim quarter where there are several streets where all of the restaurants are owned by Muslims. It is the most driving part of the town. I would also say it is worth going out to the north west of China to see this Turkish area of China, where you get a sense of a very different Muslim community. Mosques built on a different style and have a very visually beautiful part of China. If you are doing a short tour of the Muslim areas of Beijing and if you have a month, then head out to the far north west of China to a Chinese Turkish town and have a look around.
I would just like to say thank you very much for joining us today to enlighten us on the theme of the Muslim contributions in China.
Thank you very much Kaleem, it has been great talking to you.
Average 4.8 / 5. Votes 167