History is no alien to an advanced civilisation that was China. Since 4,000 years ago, China was home to one of the earliest civilisations known to man, thanks to the fertile valley along the Kunming River that flows across North China.
The political and leadership systems were one worth studying too, from the first dynasty of Xia (2000 BC) until the last one, Qing, which was later replaced with a republic system in the 20th century AD.
In conjunction with the cultural celebration of Chinese New Year, how about digging into some of the names of Muslim leaders who gloriously contributed to the growth of Islamic Da’wah in China’s history?
1. Ar-Rasul, peace be upon him – the starter
The persecution faced by the Sahabas during the early age of Da’wah was truly a bitter part of the Seerah we remember. Due to the pressure of the Quraish non-believers in Mecca, ar-Rasul ordered the Sahabas to emigrate.
As a leader responsible for a rising movement of faith, strategic measures had to be employed to establish new bases and facilitate the spreading of Islam. Moreover, the lives of the Sahabas, who were the first cohorts of pioneering agents in spreading Islam, were also at stake.
In short, the motivation was none other than for the sake of Da’wah continuity.
Following the order of ar-Rasul and guided by the revelation, the Sahabas emigrated to numerous places, one of which was what is known today as Ethiopia.
Not only that the devoted Christian King of Najashi welcomed them with an open hand and heart, it was afterwards that some of the Sahabas continued their trip to China in 619 AD.
Although historians are still debating whether the Sahaba involved in the trip was Sa’d ibn Waqas or Sa’d ibn Lubayd, this was among the first trips of faith to China, a trip to install Tawheed as the foundation of faith there since as early as 630 AD.
2. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas or Sahabo Sahadi Wogesi, the Sahaba – the first disseminator
During Caliph Uthman ibn Affan’s reign, a delegation of 15 people was sent to Canton (now known as Guangzhou) led by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas.
The year was 651 AD (30 years post-Hijra). The envoy brought along the mission of Da’wah sculpted in the form of gifts, sending the message of diplomacy and peace. It successfully captured the heart of the emperor, Kao-Tsung (Gaozong) of the Tang Dynasty.
The imperative of both elements of gifts and diplomacy was clear, for consequently, Islam was not deemed as politically threatening against the Emperor and the prevailing Confucianism embraced by the locals.
Although it was said that the emperor wasn’t converting, he was kind-hearted to allow the Sahabas to stay and spread the word of Tawheed among the locals. The emperor also ordered the first-ever mosque in China to be built in the memory of ar-Rasul, namely Mosque Huaisheng.
Now, given that the possibility of harm from the authorities was removed, and the mosque as the centre of faith established, the work of Da’wah proceeded smoothly in China.
Some Chinese and Arabian records said that this could be during the third sojourn of Sa’d to China, suggesting his enthusiasm to spread the light of guidance to the land of China.
3. Su fei-erh – the father of Chinese Islam
Sometimes, the starting of things wasn’t just as good as the impact it brought. During the Song Dynasty, the emperor, Shen-tsung (Shenzong) invited thousands of Muslim men from Bukhara to settle in China in 1070 AD.
As generous as this move might seem to be, the intention was for them to assist in the fight against the conquest of the Liao dynasty while establishing a buffer zone between the weaker Chinese and the aggressive Liao.
Ten years later, 10,000 more Muslims joined in from Bukhara and settled down in numerous provinces. They were led by their Emir (Chief) known as Su fei-erh (in Chinese).
Trusted to govern the city of Yunnan to restore order there, and given the title of ‘Prince of Hsien Yang’ by the Chinese emperor to honour his leadership quality, Su fei-erh played a crucial role in establishing the Muslim Hui people in China.
Su fei-erh also gave Islam the new name of Hui Hui Jiao (the religion of the double return — returning to Allah) replacing the Dashi fa (the law of the Arabs) which prevailed since the Tang dynasty.
4. Yusuf Ma Dexin – the first translator of the Quran into Mandarin
Living in Yunnan during the 18th to 19th century, Ma, who also went by the names of Ma Fuchu and Abd al-Qayyum Ruh al-Din Yusuf, produced the first translation of the Quran in the Mandarin language known as 宝命真经直解 (The True Revealed Scripture).
Not only that, he also wrote numerous books on Islam in Arabic and Persian language, all of which totalled up to over 30 books encompassing Islamic history, Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy, Arabic grammar, and some analysis of works by other Chinese Muslim authors.
Hugely concerned over the authenticity of Islam to be practised by the Muslims in China, Ma also criticised the absorption of Buddhist and Taoist elements into those practices of the Chinese Muslims.
All of his contributions to the empowerment of Islamic teachings in China came as no surprise since he had previously travelled to the Middle East, stayed there for more than eight years, studied at al-Azhar University, and visited various sites of the Ottoman Empire.
5. Wang Daiyu – ‘The True Old Man of Islam’ (真回老人, Zhenhui Laoren)
This is also one interesting scholar and Daie in the history of Islam in China. Believing in the common localisation of Da’wah, this Hui scholar of the Ming dynasty put his great effort in providing Chinese-language versions of Islamic works throughout his life circa the 16th to the 17th century AD.
His move was also prompted by the need to overcome the limitations of the locals in comprehending original Islamic texts and concepts in the Arabic language, as well as the challenge of Da’wah faced in introducing an alien religion and worldview into the locals’ pre-existing culture, civilisation and scripts.
As a strategy of Da’wah, Wang explained the concept of Islam in a Neo-Confucian context as being locally embraced by the educated locals of the cosmopolitan city of Nanjing, which subsequently became an important centre of Islamic study. In doing this he criticised Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, on how they failed to perceive the Islamic notions adequately. His audiences were not only the new and current Muslims in China but also the non-Muslim Han Chinese.
From such action, his works and those of the other scholars’ Ma Zhu and Liu Zhi, which were compiled in the Han Kitab had become an inspiration to those interested in exploring interfaith dialogues. With the application of moderation (wasatiyya) they were able to bridge the cultural gaps while highlighting common grounds between Islam and other Chines traditions.
6. Zheng He – the geo-political networker
For the Muslims in countries such as Malaysia, Admiral Zheng He (Ma He) or locally known as ‘Laksamana Cheng Ho’ is a familiar name.
As a fleet admiral during the Ming dynasty, Zheng was trusted by Emperor Yongle to command a maritime expedition around the world, including to Southeast Asia. Consequently, Zheng played an important part in developing relations between China and Islamic countries.
It was after Zheng’s arrival in Malacca that the diplomatic relationship between China and Malacca was established through the tributes and the claimed royal marriage of Hang Li Po to Sultan Mansur Shah. This was also prompted by the foreign policy of the Ming dynasty to support the Muslim Sultanates in Southeast Asia and protecting them from the imperial threats of Thailand, Majapahit and Portugal.
Zheng was recorded to have arrived at Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, as well as credited by the renown Indonesian Islamic scholar Hamka as having contributed significantly to the development of Islam in Indonesia.
Zheng’s remarkable leadership capability was testified by the fact that he was cited in Chinese records as the first Muslim to be trusted with the highest military rank of Grand Director.
Although his voyages were intended for geopolitical networking and imperial supremacy demonstration, Zheng had carried the spirit of Da’wah along to wherever he sailed and developed the Muslim community there.
Not only that he positioned the consuls, diplomats and ambassadors for China’s geopolitical purposes, the Chinese Daies were also deployed to spread Islam to the locals, as seen historically in Palembang, Sambas and Java.
Until today, there are still many mosques in Southeast Asia that are dedicated to his name, as proof of his legacy there, despite the on-going debates among historians as to whether Zheng was actually a Muslim or not.
The effort of Da’wah and the development of Islam in China had undergone a multitude of ups and downs throughout the centuries: from the introduction of Islam during the earlier dynasty of Tang, followed by its increasing espousals by the rulers and locals throughout the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, to its subsequent struggle and fall during the Qing’s.
Today, there is even some unpleasant news that is affecting our Muslim brothers and sisters in China that we should feel concerned about: the issue of human rights, the worsening limitation of religious freedoms, and the Sinicisation of religions by the ruling political establishment.
It was, in a nutshell, a journey of Da’wah of more than 1,000 years. With the crimson festive season around the corner, it is relevant to ask what lessons can we learn from this unique, long history of Islam in China that can prosper Da’wah around the world?