China is the world’s most populous nation with over one billion people. However, many would be very surprised to learn that some 20 million of China’s population – according to official count –  are Muslims although, unofficially, it is said that the number is much higher.
The Chinese Muslims generally belong to some ten minority ethnic groups, with the Hui and the Uyghurs being the largest. The other groups are, among others, the Kazacks, Tartars, Kirgizs, Yajiks, Uzbeks and Dongxiangs.  In physical appearance, lifestyle and in matters of dress, the Chinese Muslims are somewhat different from the dominant Han Chinese, who form the bulk of China’s population. The  Chinese Muslims generally have dark hair and many even have Arab-like features while some are even blonde and blue-eyed. Also, the Chinese Muslims often speak a different language and many also write in Arabic rather than in Chinese.
The population of China, in fact, comprises some 56 ethnic groups, ten of which are Muslims with the largest being the Hui – short for Huizhou. The second largest group are the Uyghurs who, unlike the Hui, speak a Turkic dialect. The Chinese Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni in belief and generally follow the Hanafi school of thought (mazhab).  The Hui form the largest Muslim minority group in China and are ethnically and culturally Chinese and literally undistinguishable from the Han Chinese, who form the majority of China’s billion plus population.
The Hui Muslims have been in China for over a thousand years. They are spread in every province of China and have, in their own ways, influenced China’s history. They have generally lived in peace with their fellow Chinese of other ethnic groups,  participating and contributing to every sector of Chinese life. Living, as they have for over a thousand years in a non-Muslim environment, the Hui Muslims have managed, over the years, to create an indigenous Islamic culture that is « uniquely and simultaneously Chinese and Muslim, » which, as Dru Gladney observes in his book Dislocating China,  makes « the Hui experience a standing refutation of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. »
Islam arrived in China in the seventh century A. D. – that is, only a few decades after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him (pbuh). However, officially, Islam was introduced in China during the Tang  dynasty, that is, in the year 651 A.D.  with the arrival of the first emissary of the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman bin Affan. That was just some twenty years after the Prophet’s death. It is a well known fact that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was well aware of the advanced civilization of China, and the staunch proponent of knowledge that he was,  he ever urged his followers to be in quest of knowledge even if they had « to go to China. »
That advice of the Prophet was not lost on his followers and the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan,  lost little time, after he became head of the umma (Islamic community), to send one of the sahabas (Companions of the Prophet), Sa’ad ibn abi Waqqas, as his emissary to the Imperial Court in Beijing where he was warmly received.  Before that abi Waqqas had already visited China twice before, travelling overland with a group of traders from Chittagong and had introduced the new faith to the Chinese.  Besides, the Arabs, who were then well known traders and master mariners plied the east coast of Africa and South East Asia and the Indian seas unchallenged for some six centuries in their dhows carrying extensive trade with the coastal ports and towns setting up settlements and trading posts and instilling in their successors « a sense of belonging to Chinese society as valuable contributors. » So much so, within less than eighty years,  pagoda-style mosques began to appear on the Chinese landscape and it was not long before the Chinese Emperors took Muslims in their employ as government officials and soldiers.
During the Tang and Sung dynasties (618-907), many Arabs merchants arrived in northwest China by way of the Silk Road and by sea to Quanzhou in the south and established settlements and promoted trade and cultural exchanges with the Arab countries – exchanges that would eventually help usher in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. These Muslim traders,  who also brought their new religion with them, also built several mosques some which stands till today.
By 1279 when the Mongols, under Kublai Khan, established the Yuan dynasty and extended their dominance over the whole of China, the Chinese Muslims were classified as ‘foreign guests’ and were granted citizenship and the liberty to live wherever they chose to. That eventually led to the development of a fully indigenous Chinese Muslim population and culture. The Mongols, who were a minority themselves, encouraged Muslim migration to China  and also took many Muslim Chinese in their employ. So much so, during the Ming dynasty, Hui became the standard denomination for Chinese Muslims, who flourished as a community in almost all the provinces of China.
In 1949, China fell to the communists led by Chairman Mao Tze Tung and the People’s Republic of China was established. It was a godless, Marxist state that was antagonistic to all religions. So much so, the Hui, together with the other religious groups were persecuted and had many of their places of worship closed or even destroyed. The Communists regarded religion as « the opium of the people » and the Cultural Revolution that followed proved disastrous to all religions in China. Most religious activities went underground. Muslim prayed at home with their families. When the Cultural Revolution ended, the mosques were re-opened and, it is said that the Imams were surprised to discover that the iman (faith) of their flocks had become stronger and that their congregation had also grown larger.
After 1978 when the pragmatic Chairman Deng Ziao Ping became leader of China, things started to change for the better not only for the minority Muslims but for China as a whole. Realising the economic potential of the Hui, the government adopted a friendlier attitude towards them. Muslims were allowed to group themselves in associations and found schools and build mosques and Islam in China literally witnessed a kind of revival. It is said that there are now more than 43,000 mosques in China and that the Muslims there are permitted to engage in inter-ethnic activities and also with Muslims from other countries and also go for Hajj (Pilgrimage) to Mecca. Last year over 10,000 Chinese Muslims made the trip to Mecca to perform the Hajj.  As a matter of fact, conditions have changed much for the Chinese Muslims. One traveller to China reported recently: « Many people who would not admit to being Muslims before out of fear of harming their livelihood, now openly say they are Muslims. »
All Muslims in China are united under the Chinese Islamic Association, which is an umbrella religious body  controlled by the government. All the officials, including, Imams of the mosques, are appointed with the endorsement of the government.
The Chinese Muslims, despite their ethnic diversity, have been resilient and have held on tenaciously to their faith and culture even through the terrible years of Mao Tze Dong’s  Cultural Revolution and have survived in the rigid Communist society. And, in spite of persecutions and discrimination, the Muslims have stood the odds and continue to go strong as a part of the rich Chinese civilization. Sure, there are areas, like in the province of Xinjiang, home of the Ugyhurs, which has been restive but the issue there is more about politics and autonomy and not religion.
It is said that the Chinese Muslims have survived the odds in China because they have long learned to find common ground between the rich Chinese culture and their own and to create a kind of ‘fusion’ between what is Chinese and Islamic. Indeed, Islam in China is a good example of how Muslims, as a minority group, have learned to co-exist in a non-Muslim environment. The Chinese Muslim experience also illustrates well how minority religious groups can live harmoniously alongside an overwhelming majority in the predominantly communist society by holding strongly to their  cultural and religious lifestyle, which is « both Muslim and indigenous. »  That and their unfaltering religious faith, perhaps, explains why Islam continues to be a vibrant religion in China.