Islam and Muslims have been in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons.

Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, a relative of the Prophet Mohammed, is traditionally credited with having introduced Islam to China. As head of a diplomatic mission dispatched by the Rashidun Caliphate, he was received by Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty, in AD651.

He wasn’t the first Muslim on Chinese soil, however; there had been Muslim traders in ports such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou, in Fujian province, prior to his arrival. The outcome of his mission was that the emperor allowed a mosque to be built in Guangzhou. Huaisheng Mosque (also known as the Lighthouse Mosque), China’s first, still stands in Yuexiu district, though the present structure dates from 1695.

During and after the Tang period, Muslims continued to arrive in China but their faith and customs set them apart from the Han Chinese majority. During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the Mongol ruling caste elevated Central Asians, a majority of whom were Muslims, to the second highest caste in Chinese society, and many held high positions in government. During the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368- 1644), many Muslims were assimilated into Han society through intermarriage, though the majority kept their faith, but the policies of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) towards Muslims tended towards repression.

Some estimates put the number of Muslims in China today at 20 million.