Islam During the Tang Dynasty


The History of Islam in China goes back to the earliest years of Islam. According to China Muslims' traditional legendary accounts, Islam was first brought to China by an embassy sent by the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan in c. 651, less than twenty years after the death of prophet Muhammad. The delegation to the Chinese Gaozong Emperor was led by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of Muhammad. The Tang emperor who received the envoy then ordered the construction of the Memorial mosque in Canton, the first mosque in the country, in memory of the prophet. While modern historians believe that Muslim diplomats and merchants arrived to Tang China within a few decades from the beginning of Muslim Era, however there is no evidence of the visit of Waqqās himself. The Tang Dynasty's cosmopolitan culture, with its intensive contacts with Central Asia and its significant communities of originally non-Muslim Central and Western Asian merchants who lived in Chinese cities, helped the introduction of Islam.

Early contacts between Islam and China

Arab people are first noted in Chinese written records, under the name Dashi in the annals of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), (Tashi or Dashi is the Chinese rendering of Tazi--the name the Persian people used for the Arabs). [2]. Records dating from 713 speak of the arrival of a Dashi ambassador. The first major Muslim settlements in China consisted of Arab and Persian merchants.

In 751 the Abbasid Caliphate defeated the Tang Dynasty in the Battle of Talas River. The Tang Dynasty saw the creation of the first Muslim embassy, with the exchange of an emissary from Emperor Gaozong of Tang, with a general from the Caliph Osman. There were also requests for help from the Muslim soldiers. In 756, a contingent was sent to Kansu to help the emperor Su-Tsung in his struggle against the rebellion of An Lushan. Less than 50 years later, an alliance was concluded between the Tang and the Abbasids against Tibetan attacks in Central Asia. A mission from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (766-809) arrived at Chang'an. These diplomatic relations were contemporaneous with the maritime expansion of the Islamic world into the Indian Ocean, and as far as East Asia after the founding of Baghdad in 762. After the capital was changed from Damascus to Baghdad, ships begin to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Malaccan Straits and South China. Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port in South China, counted among its population of 200,000, merchants from Muslim regions.

Early Muslims in China

One of the earliest mosques in China, the The Great Mosque in Xian, was built in 742 according to an engraving on a stone tablet inside.

During the Tang Dynasty a steady stream of Arab and Persian traders arrived in China through the Silk Road and the overseas route through the port of Quanzhou. The Muslim mosques were located in the foreign quarter on the south bank of the Canton River. Not all of the immigrants were Muslims, but many of those who stayed formed the basis of the Chinese Muslim population and the Hui ethnic group. In 758 a large Muslim settlement in Guangzhou erupted in unrest and fled. The same year, Arab and Persian pirates who may have been based in a port on the island of Hainan, caused some of the trade to divert to Northern Vietnam and the Chaozhou area, near the Fujian border. The Muslim community in Canton had constructed a large mosque (Huaisheng Mosque), which was destroyed by fire in 1314, and reconstructed in 1349-51 (however, only the ruins of a tower remain from the first building).

The Arab and Persian immigrants introduced polo, their cuisine, musical instruments, and their knowledge of Islamic medicine to China. In 923, the Chinese botanist Li Hsün's Medical Matters from the Countries beyond the Sea described 121 medicinal drugs imported from the Western Regions, generally referring to Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. He introduced fifteen new entries to the Chinese lexicon adopted from the Western Regions. The famous Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (known as Rhazes in Europe) had a Chinese student who impressed him with his ability to listen to his lectures and take down notes very quickly using a form of Chinese shorthand known as 'grass-writing'. This may have inspired the naming system used by Razi to classify drugs in Arabic pharmacology. Some Arab pharmacologists in the 9th century had also learnt Chinese herbal medicine.


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