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June 23, 2017

Islam in East Asia – How Islam spread in China, Japan& Korea

Islam in East Asia

Islam has spread to all parts of East Asia, a region that features  some of the world’s major centers of Islamic influence.

Islam in China

With a Muslim population conservatively estimated at twenty million, China today has a larger Muslim population than most of the Arab countries of the Middle East, and yet few scholars have concentrated on this unique community located at the far reaches of the Muslim world. Of China’s fiftyfive officially recognized minority peoples (China’s majority ethnic group is known as Han Chinese), ten are primarily Muslim: the Hui, Uighur, Kazak, Dongxiang, Kirghiz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar. The largest group, the Hui, are spread throughout the entire country, while the other nine live primarily in the northwest.

As a result of the extensive sea trade networks between China and Southwest Asia dating back to Roman times, there have been Muslims in China since shortly after the advent of Islam. Small communities of Muslim traders and merchants survived for centuries in cities along China’s southeast coast, the most famous settlements being Canton and Quanzhou (Zaitun in the Arabic sources). During the first several centuriesthere was limited intermixing between the Muslim traders  and the local Chinese population. It was not until the thirteenth century with the establishment of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1278–1368) that thousands of Muslims from Central and Western Asia were both forcibly moved to China by the Mongols as well as recruited by them to assist in their  governance of their newly acquired territories. Although some of the higher-ranking Muslim officials may have been able to arrange marriages with women from their places of origin, it is generally assumed that most of the soldiers, officials, craftsmen, and farmers who settled in China during this early period married local women. Despite centuries of intermarriage, the Muslims who arrived at this time were able to establish communities that have survived with many of their cultural and religious traditions intact down to this day.

Islam during Ming Dynasty 

During the early part of the Ming period (1368–1644), the emperor Yongle ordered Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from Yunnan in southwest China, to lead a series of massive navalexpeditions to explore the known world. In all, between 1405 and 1432, seven major expeditions were launched involving hundred of Chinese vessels and thousands of tons of goods and valuables to be traded throughout the southeast Asian  archipelago, the Indian Ocean, and as far as the east coast of Africa. The success of these trading expeditions was no doubt in part due to Zheng He’s religion and his ability to interact with many of the Muslim rulers and merchants encountered along the way. However, shortly after the death of the Yongle emperor, China’s cosmopolitan and international initiatives gave way to a period of conservatism and the redirection of imperial resources toward domestic issues and projects. During this period numerous laws were passed requiring “foreigners” to dress like Chinese, adopt Chinese surnames, speak Chinese, and essentially in appearance become Chinese.

Despite these restrictions and requirements, the Muslims of China continued to actively practice their faith and pass it on to their descendants. By the end of the Ming dynasty there were enough Chinese Muslim intellectuals thoroughly educated in the classical Confucian tradition that several scholars developed a new Islamic literary genre: religious works on Islam written in Chinese that incorporated the vocabulary of Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist thought. These texts, known as the Han Kitab, were not apologist treatises written to explain Islam to a non-Muslim Chinese audience, but were rather a reflection of the degree to which the Muslims of China had become completely conversant in intellectual traditions of the society in which they lived. Moreover, as more and more Chinese Muslims lost their fluency in Arabic and Persian, it became clear that in order to insure that future generations of Muslims were able to have a sophisticated understanding of their faith, religious texts had to be written in Chinese.

The linguistic challenges of transliterating Arabic and Persian religious terms and proper names into Chinese also facilitated the blending of Chinese and Islamic principles as Chinese Muslim authors sought to create new Chinese terms to replace Arabic and Persian ones. Several of these terms are striking in their ability to use traditional Chinese characters to reflect fundamental Islamic concepts: God is translated as zhen zhu, or “the true lord”; Islam is qingzhen jiao, or “the pure and true religion”; the five pillars of Islam become the five constants, wu chang; and the prophet Muhammad is known as zhi sheng, or “utmost sage.”

Islam in East Asia map

Islam during Qing Dynasty

In 1644, the Qing dynasty was established, marking the beginning of a period of unparalleled growth and expansion, both in terms of territory and population. Travel restrictions  were lifted, and the Muslims of China were once again allowed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and study in the major centers of learning in the Islamic world. During this period several Hui scholars studied abroad and upon their return they started a movement to revitalize Islamic studies by translating the most important Islamic texts into Chinese and thus making them more accessible.

Despite the opportunities for travel and study that arose during this period, the Qing dynasty also represented a period of unparalleled violence against the Muslims of China. As reform movements led by Muslims who had studied overseas spread, conflicts arose between different communities.

In several instances the government intervened, supporting one group against another, leading to an exacerbation of the conflict, outbreaks of mass violence and the eventual slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and several rebellions.

In southwest China, it was the growing number of Han Chinese migrants moving into areas where Muslims had lived for centuries that led to violent conflicts. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China experienced a massive population explosion resulting in millions of Han Chinese moving into the frontier regions. As more immigrants moved into Yunnan province along the southwest frontier, there were increasing clashes with the Hui who had settled there in the thirteenth century and whose population is estimated to have been one million. In a series of disputes between newly arrived Han migrants and Hui who had lived there for centuries, local Han Chinese officials (who themselves were not local residents), repeatedly decided to support their fellow Han Chinese against the local residents. Fighting escalated and eventually a Chinese Muslim leader led a rebellion and in 1856 established an independent Islamic state centered in Dali, in northwest Yunnan. The state survived for almost sixteen years, and the Muslims worked closely together with other indigenous peoples. Eventually, however, the Chinese emperor ordered his troops to concentrate their efforts on destroying it. The massacres that ensued wiped out the majority of Muslims in Yunnan. Some fled to nearby Thailand, and their descendants still live there, while others fled to Burma or neighboring provinces. Estimates of those killed range from 60 to 85 percent, and more than a century later, their population has still not recovered its original number. Another consequence of the rebellion was a series of government regulations severely restricting the lives of Muslims.

In the aftermath of the rebellions, the first priority of the survivors was to pool their resources, rebuild their mosques, and open Islamic schools. Having lost most of their material possessions, they were clearly determined not to lose their religious legacy. This period saw renewed contact with other centers of learning in the Muslim world and the establishment of schools that concentrated equally on secular and religious education.

The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 was followed by a period of unrest and warlordism. After the rise of the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, a civil war ensued, in which both parties sought the support of the nation’s largest minority groups with promises of religious freedom and limited self-government. Many of the Muslims chose to support the Communists, and in the initial period of the People’s Republic of China, the Muslim minority peoples enjoyed a period of religious freedom. However, during subsequent political campaigns, culminating with the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the Muslims of China found their religion outlawed; their religious leaders persecuted, imprisoned, and even killed; and their mosques defiled, if not destroyed. During this period all worship and religious education were forbidden, and even simple common utterances such as insha_allah (God willing), or al-hamdulillah (thanks be to God) could cause Muslims to be punished. Despite the danger, Muslims in many parts of China continued their religious studies in secret.

In the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, the Muslims of China lost no time in rebuilding their devastated communities. Throughout China, Muslims began slowly to restore their religious institutions and revive their religious activities. Their first priority was to rebuild their damaged mosques thereby allowing communities to create a space in which they could once again pray together, but also so that the mosques could reassert their role as centers of Islamic learning. Over the next two decades mosques throughout most of the country organized classes for not only children and young adults, but also for older people who had not had the opportunity to study their religion. Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to the 1990s Islamic colleges have also been established throughout most of China. Within China, when asked how to explain the recent resurgence in Islamic education, community members cite two main reasons: a desire to rebuild that which was taken from them, and the hope that a strong religious faith would help protect Muslim communities from the myriad of social problems presently besetting China in this day and age of rapid economic development. Chinese Muslims studying overseas reiterate the need to equip themselves and their communities for their future in a state that seems to be ideologically adrift.

Islam in Korea

In some respects, the history of Islam in Korea mirrors that of China, but more as a faint reflection than as a comparable historical phenomenon. Little archaeological evidence has survived but it is commonly believed that some of the Muslim sea traders who regularly traveled to the southeast coast of China also made it as far as Korea. Arabic geographers note the existence of al-Sila, a country beyond China, and it is believed that this name is derived from the Korean dynasty Silla (668–935). Although there is some archaeological evidence of goods from Western and Central Asia being found in ancient tombs in Korea, it is not known if they were brought there directly or acquired by Korean traders in China, which had much more extensive sea and land trading routes with the rest of Asia. During the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1278–1368), Korea also fell under the control of the Mongol empire. As they had a policy of recruiting tens of thousands of men from Central and Western Asia to help them in administering their newly acquired territory, it is probable that some of these Muslims ended up serving in Korea, and that many of them settled there. However, it appears that over the centuries those who settled completely assimilated to Korean society and culture.

It was not until the modern period that Muslims returned to Korea. Beginning in the 1920s, thousands of Muslims escaping the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia fled overland through Korea, and many settled there before being forced to leave in the 1940s. The next group of Muslims who arrived were Turkish soldiers sent under United Nations auspices during the Korean War. Several soldiers settled in Korea, establishing the first mosques in Seoul, Pusan, and Taegu. Today the fledging community of Muslims living in Korea is made up of some converts, but primarily recent Muslim immigrants from South Asia.

Islam in Japan

Although Muslim traders had sailed the seas off the coast of Japan for centuries, there is no known evidence of any Muslim communities settling in Japan until the early part of the twentieth century, when of the thousands of Muslims who fled Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, several hundred were granted asylum in Japan. Many were settled in Kobe and Tokyo, which became the sites of Japan’s first two mosques, built in 1935 and 1938. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the Japanese military government became increasingly interested in encouraging scholarship on Islam as part of its policy to portray itself as a protector of Islam to the Muslim communities of China and southeast Asia. As Japan invaded neighboring countries under its “Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere” campaign, it justified its actions in part as a plan to safeguard all of Asia from Western imperialism, but also to protect Islam.

At present there are an estimated 100,000 Muslims living in Japan, the overwhelming majority of which are immigrants from South Asia and Iran; only a few thousand are Japanese who have converted. Scholarly research on the Middle East and Islam has developed tremendously since the early 1980s, with several research centers at major universities around the country.

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