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Faith in the present

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

Bangladeshi Akhal Miah sits cross-legged in a small room, facing a coffin draped in blankets, and chants verses from a Koran hanging from the wall.

'People from all over the Islamic world come to pray at this tomb, from India, Pakistan and Arab countries,' he says. 'Everyone knows it. [Saad ibn] Abi Waqqas brought Islam to China.'

Outside, three Muslims from Ningxia, in northern China, have arrived to pray.

Waqqas was a maternal uncle of the Prophet Mohammed and one of his first converts. According to Chinese Muslims, he arrived in China in AD650, 18 years after the death of the Prophet, as part of a dramatic expansion of the new religion. Waqqas built in Guangzhou the first mosque in China with a free-standing minaret. At 12 metres high, it became known as the Lighthouse Mosque, serving as a beacon for centuries for ships on the Pearl River. It was the tallest structure in the city and had a weather-vane, by which mariners could tell the direction of the wind.

Fifteen metres from the mosque is a tomb that Chinese say belongs to Waqqas; many Muslims also believe this although some Arab scholars say he was buried in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Next to the tomb is a compound with prayer rooms and a place for the faithful to wash along with other Muslim tombs, some dating to the late Qing dynasty.

'We all know of [the mosque],' says Muhammad Hakim, a businessman from Algeria, while eating a dinner of halal meat at an Arab restaurant in Guangzhou. 'We go there for our prayers on Friday. Abi Waqqas was well received by the Chinese emperor. There has never been a war between the Arabs and China.'

Hakim is one of the tens of thousands of Muslims - who live in Guangzhou or visit regularly to conduct business - who have rejuvenated the religious life of the city's Islamic community.

'A total of 10,000 people attend the four sessions of prayer on a Friday,' says Mi Wengang, an imam at the mosque who was born in northern China. Even more attend prayers around the tomb, where there is more space. 'In Guangzhou, we have only 9,000 registered Muslims. But many others come from north and west China and from India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. We recite the Koran only in Arabic, which everyone knows. We give the homily in Chinese.'

Staff at the mosque say the minaret is the oldest of its kind in the world still standing; those in the Middle East and elsewhere have crumbled with age. The muezzin used to make the call to prayer five times a day from the minaret but now a recording is used instead.

The mosque was rebuilt in 1350 and in 1695, after being destroyed by fire. It was closed during the Cultural Revolution but has retained its 17th-century design - a mixture of Chinese and Islamic architecture, with white pillars and a roof of green tiles curved at the ends. In front is a courtyard with trees and shrubs and the whole place is a haven of tranquillity in a city devoted to money-making and consumption.

'I was lost in contemplation for a while, visualising a theme of Arab merchants gathering in this very courtyard, reflecting on their long, arduous and hazardous sea adventure,' writes Mohammed Khamouch, a Moroccan, in an account of visiting the mosque posted on the internet. 'Thinking of such great men, all of whom I wish to pay tribute to, transported me back in time and I was put into a kind of trance as I sat in the cloistered courtyard ... I thought about all the Muslim envoys who had come to China, resided here and who prayed in this very hall. There were Muslim merchants who traded here but never returned to their homeland.'

He also describes his elation at hearing the call to prayer in Arabic, in China.

THE PAST 10 YEARS have seen an influx of Muslims to Guangzhou, attracted by the surge in the mainland's foreign trade and its entry into the World Trade Organisation, in 2001.

'People in Turkey buy Chinese clothes, shoes and other goods, as do [people] everywhere in the world,' says Ekrem Turkoglu, a Turk who has lived in Guangzhou with his family for two years. 'It is easy to live here. If you have money, everything is easy. My children speak Chinese at school and Turkish at home. I want them to learn Arabic, to read the Koran. Three languages - it is too much work.'

Turkoglu is eating lunch with an Iraqi friend who gives his name as Muhammad. 'Of course, Guangzhou is safer than Baghdad and everything works smoothly. Over there, we have power cuts, up to 12 hours a day in the summer. I considered moving my family here but it is a big decision and things are getting better there.'

The two are sitting in Saba, one of two restaurants owned by a family from Yemen who have been living in Guangzhou for more than eight years.

'There are many Arab and Turkish restaurants in Guangzhou and other Chinese cities,' says Turkoglu. 'This is a very important issue for Muslims. I do not dare to eat in a Chinese restaurant. The food may contain pork or meat that is not killed according to the Islamic rules.'

Playing on a television screen in the corner is Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, showing highlights of football World Cup qualifying games.

'This time we [Algeria] qualified by beating Egypt. Everyone in my country is elated,' says Hakim, who is sitting at another table, tucking into a dinner of lamb, onion, tomato and freshly baked bread. 'We are at home here - we have our mosques, our restaurants, our friends and our community. We speak different forms of Arabic but can understand each other.'

The mosque and Waqqas' tomb mean more to foreign Muslims than they do to most residents of Guangzhou, for whom Islam is discreet. Like the mainland's Christian ministers and Buddhist priests, the imams of Guangzhou cannot make use of the radio, television or other media and cannot open public schools or hospitals. They work under official supervision, which requires a strict separation of religion and public life.

In April 2001, the government set up the China Islamic Association, 'to help spread the Koran in China and oppose religious extremism'. It is run by Islamic leaders who are responsible for making 'a correct and authoritative interpretation' of scripture and supervising sermons made by imams around the country. Official figures put the number of Muslims in China at about 20 million, which includes Xinjiang's Uygur population.

The Guangzhou mosque lives off rents and donations from the faithful, with a small contribution from the government. The mosque can accept money from abroad, provided there are no conditions attached to its acceptance.

Mi admits it is hard to spread the message of the Prophet: 'I rely on friends and introductions and we have our own magazine.'

The city does not have its own college to train imams. Mi studied for six years in Beijing, where he learnt Arabic, and there are colleges in cities such as Shenyang, in Liaoning province, and Zhengzhou, Henan.

The rules of devotion as required by the Koran separate Muslims from most of Chinese society, especially in a city like Guangzhou, whose residents place such importance on what they eat. Muslims cannot drink alcohol, eat pork or any animal that has not been killed according to Islamic rules. Smoking is discouraged, but not totally banned. They must pray five times a day and fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan.

Strict observance of these rules would preclude the faithful from the social and dining life of most Guangzhou people but Mi says that only a few of his congregation are that devout. Most of them, however, adhere to the prohibition on pork, the favourite meat of Han Chinese, and especially the Cantonese.

'In Chinese society, Muslims have a low social status and do low-status jobs,' says Chen Mingjie, a middle-school teacher in Guangzhou. 'Few are in high positions in business or the government; their religion and its rules are seen as a handicap. They run restaurants and small businesses. The Public Security Bureau has Hui [Chinese Muslims not included in other ethnic groups such as the Uygur and Dongxiang] police to look after them. There is very little inter-marriage.'

Unlike the Western colonial powers and Japan, the Arabs and Ottomans made no attempt to conquer parts of China or obtain special rights for their citizens.

Historically, the Chinese and the Arabs have seen themselves as victims of colonialism. The first major Muslim settlements in China were peaceful, as in Guangzhou - Arab and Persian merchants lived in well-established communities in Quanzhou, Fujian province; Hangzhou, Zhejiang; Yangzhou, Jiangsu; Kaifeng, Henan; and Changan (now Xian), Shaanxi.

The most famous Chinese Muslim was Zheng He, an admiral who led seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433.

Relations between Muslims and the government deteriorated during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), which banned the ritual slaughter of animals, the construction of mosques and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Repressive policies and discrimination led to five major Hui rebellions, which the government put down ruthlessly. In 1856, a Muslim named Du Wenxiu started a rebellion in Yunnan province with the slogan 'Unite the Hui and Han people, get rid of the Manchu barbarians'. Over the next 12 years, it took control of more than 40 towns in the province before the Qing army prevailed, killing up to a million Muslims and sending many fleeing across the border into Burma.

Another religious war was the Dungan Revolt, between 1862 and 1872, the aim of which was to set up a Muslim country on the western bank of Yellow River, in Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia. The government crushed the rebellion, killing millions of Muslims and forcing thousands to migrate to the central Asian regions of tsarist Russia. Entire towns and villages in the region were emptied.

During the Cultural Revolution, Islam was, like other religions, the object of attacks. Mosques were destroyed, defaced or closed, copies of the Koran and other religious books were burnt and imams were paraded through the streets covered in paint. In some places, Muslims were forced at gunpoint to eat pork.

The main region of current dispute between Han and Muslim is Xinjiang, but the disagreement is over the political status of the region and not Islam itself.

While the Muslims of Xinjiang are being forced to submit to the will of Beijing, their coreligionists in Guangzhou, at the other end of the country, are free to find peace by submitting to the will of their god.



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