China Muslim

  • In July 2010 I arrived in Beijing from the Middle East as part of a wider round the world trip of independent travelling. I started my trip in Istanbul and then worked down through Syria and Jordon. I love to travel and as part of my trip wanted to find out more about Islam and how Muslims in other parts of the world live their lives. My intentions in embarking on this 1 year journey were simply to strengthen my faith and in doing this contemplate this world and previous worlds.

    I found it easy in Syria and Jordon to pursue my intentions, Islam was everywhere, people seemed to live and breathe it, I loved the inspirational mosques and the beautiful use of Arabic in which everything evolved around Allah. When I flew to Beijing from Amman in Jordon I knew it would be a complete change in culture. What I perhaps had no comprehension of was how difficult it was going to be to access geographically and verbally Muslims in China. I gradually realised that in terms of Islam in China I would simply be touching the tip of the iceberg and reluctantly had to accept that at this point in my trip this was all I could do. I travelled down to Shanghai and made my way south into China seeing some beautiful places, but the language barrier meant that I could only scrape the surface.

    My next leg of my journey took me to Singapore, here I found out there was a planned Qurban tour of muslim areas in Yunnan Province in November to be run by sister Mariah. I knew straight away I had to join, Yunnan was a place I yearned to go to, it was after all, the place where Islam first came into China. I travelled through South East Asia for two months and then returned to Singapore for the tour.

    As part of the tour then we arrived in Kunming the 'spring city', on the day before Eid. It was to be one of my best Eid experiences, not that I knew that at the time. On Eid we made our way from Kunming arriving for Eid prayers at Dabaiya muslim village. As we arrived the whole village was out on the roadside waiting to greet us in the way our Prophet (saw) was greeted in Medina. It was very humbling and touching, I started to feel the strong presence and spirituality of Islam in China. The mosque had a huge courtyard and we women sat in it, as the men prayed their Eid prayer in the mosque. So packed was the mosque that people stretched far out into the courtyard. As the prayer ended they all greeted each other, caught in each others duas. I realise, finally I am starting to see the Islam in China which I had so yearned to see. Children ran around in their Eid clothes, excited and exhilarated, clearly happy to have us as their guests. They had prepared a huge feast for us and all they were concerned about was servitude. We spilled down through the village to the river area crossing fields of crops to where the quarbani was taking place, you really felt a part of it. I had to think twice, almost feeling like I am back in some kind of Arab country, finally I am able to see the wise Chinese Muslim faces I had envisaged.

    The tour took us to some amazing places, meeting many locals en route who have devoted their lives to improving living conditions for their communities. Next we go to the stone forest, crossing gradually across Yunnan, through ethnic villages of minority group. China has 10 Muslim nationalities, totalling more than 30 million. These nationalities have their own written and spoken languages as well as cultures and traditions, so the minority villages start to give some insight into the vast scale and context of this vast country and the role which Muslims play in it.

    Dali is our next stop set against its backdrop of Cangshan mountain. The hotel we stayed in is traditional crafted with an intricate set courtyard in the middle. It was my first experience of stunning snow scenery in China, and just when you thought it couldnt get any more beautiful it did. We travelled deeper into Yunnan province to Lijiang, an ancient town dating to the Ming dynasty, with a nice informal feel to it. In the evening we just sat out having coffee taking in the landscape of the awe inspiring Jade mountain backdrop. My favourite bit of the whole trip was the next leg through Tiger leaping Gorge and Shangri La. We split into 2 groups to make it easier to venture through this mountainous region on the winding roads approaching the Haba mountain region. The terrain one of deep canyons with altitude gradually ascending. Tiger leaping gorge was stunning, and as the sun went down so did the temperature, the air felt pure and the landscape magical.

    As we approach Shangri La, the terrain becomes gradually more Tibetan with all signs now in Mandarin and Tibetan, and Tibetan architectural styles starting to creep in. For me what has made the whole experience special is the whole local interface, we were able to experience first hand the lives, the issues, the context of muslins in China, the local guides are people who live and breathe their culture. With sister Mariah guiding the experience it felt like we had indeed had a true glimpse into the lives of real Muslims living their lives in China, not some tourist perspective but a real perspective.

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  • Mystical China

    Yunnan-China Chinese Muslim Qurban Tour (16-24 November 2010)

    By Kamariah Yusoff

    The saying that encourage us to seek knowledge till China along with the Singapore government great emphasized on China’s potential – the country being seen as the next mega power –through endless collaborations and partnerships between the two countries (and I suspect the emphasized on the Speak Mandarin Campaign got to do with this too). It made me wonder, is China all about economic benefits – what more does China has to offer?

    I would described myself as a ‘backpacker’ traveler; I do not recall any experienced travelling with a group tour let alone a specialized tour for Muslims. Equip with the spirit of wanting to learn along with an open mind and a faint idea of the itenary – an intentional choice towards keeping an open mind – I decided to brave myself to join the Muslim China Tour to Kunming organized by Sister Mariah Mah. Having a friend along for this trip – as someone familiar – had helped to ease my anxiety!

    I was pretty surprised when I was informed that there will be more than thirty of us in the group tour and I wondered what is so attractive of this particular tour. My initial instinct was the idea of carrying out qurban beyond our shores is deemed as our own small effort to extend our spirit of brotherhood in Islam – to help our fellow Muslims friends in another country who might benefit more from the ritual was the main pull factor.

    The advantage of being a part of this niche tour group, is to visit places which I believe no other mainstream tour agencies would be able to provide. Thus providing such great insights which I personally found it to be of valuable learning where I could get the first hand experience to get to know more of the local community – its people, practices, culture and challenges especially the Chinese Muslim community. Coming from a country that tend to generalize Muslim = Malays, this trip gives a refreshing break and highlighted once again that one race does not dictate one religious belief.

    The other highlight of the tour is the opportunity it provided me to reflect how the Chinese Muslim placed a great importance on seeking knowledge through a visit to a female madrasah. The community has taken education as an inclusive approach – a right to all Muslim regardless of their gender and social economic status. It is indeed a humbling experience to learn that Muslim girls came all over the vast country to seek knowledge at one of the country’s fine and reputable religious institution. I am sure it was not an easy decision and experience for both parents and daughters to be separated thousands of miles apart for months and years in pursuit of knowledge at an institution which I would describe as providing only basic needs – no high teach teaching equipment, no elevator serving the four storey high school, toilet which in need of upgrading. What touches my heart most is to know that the villagers – of whom most are struggling to meet ends meet – contributed financially to the running and operation of this madrasah. Such warm and hospitality values of the local was indeed felt when we were welcomed by the local villagers through their dzikir of selawat nabi. Masyallah, the experience was speechless and one has to be there to understand what I meant! Touching indeed!

    Throughout the tour, the organizer’s effort to provide wonderful service to ensure the group had a great experience in China from ensuring our basic needs are met – good food & good accommodation – really came across. The opportunities to interact with the local guides – Katijah, Ali & Asyiah – who had provided excellent service, added colors to my first group tour experience. Travelling the 8 days with a group of strangers turned friends who are fun and adventurous just made the entire travelling experience a memorable one! A heartfelt appreciation to Sister Mariah Mah for the brilliant idea in coming up with specialized tours for Muslim to get to know our other Muslim brothers and sisters in different countries better.

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    Kamariah Yusoff

  • Assalamu Alaikum, Ni how Ma?

    It has been a while now since i first decided on travelling to China. To the Ancient Chinese it was known as "The Middle Kingdom" One of the richest, most powerful and inventive civilizations the world has ever known. To some one like myself who was born and brought up in the west, the very name China conjures up in the mind something exotic and far away.

    As a Muslim, I knew that there was a Hadith of the Prophet (SAW) which recommended that anyone wishing to seek knowledge should travel to China. China of course being the farthest point on the globe known to Muslims at the time of the Prophet (SAW). I set off on April 8th 2010 and arrived at last in Beijing on the 12th hoping to see what kind of Knowledge i would find.

    I met up with sister Mariah a week later on the 18th of April 2010. Sister Mariah Mah made for a very interesting travelling companion; she is an energetic woman who looks many decades younger than her age. She travels back and forth through out this vast country and her Singapore base. Together with her Brother, Jaafar,they have established two state registered Muslim NGO's Zhangjiachuan Charity Center in Gansu province and Xiji Charity Service Center in Ningxia Province. Their charity projects include supplying water to remote mountain villages, building and repairing of wudu places, toilets and masjids, especially in earthquake regions, giving subsidies to poor farmers' children from preschool to tertiary level as many can ill afford to go to school, setting up Muslim orphanages and carrying out the yearly Qurban and aqiqah in poor Muslim villages on behalf of Muslim overseas .

    Accompanying Sister Mariah was another Singaporean Muslim of Indian origin called Ibrahim. A very softly spoken man with kind eyes and a deep knowledge of the Qur'an.

    We first visited a Muslim restaurant which was run by locals. The food was as Chinese as it could be but according to Islamic dietary laws and regulations. However tasty the food was, what I really wanted to see were the Mosques. My wish was at last granted when I visited the Niu Jie Libai Si (Ox Street Mosque). According to locals this Mosque dated back to the 10th century and was Beijing's largest. It was so beautiful I did not wish to leave. From the outside the Mosque looks very much like a traditional Chinese temple. However, it is from the inside that you can see that you have entered an Islamic space.

    It is decorated with a mixture of Arabic and Chinese calligraphic flourishes and plant forms. This was an Islam that was adapted to local taste as indeed Islam has done so in different parts of the world.

    The Muslim people I met in Beijing were a mixture of different ethnic minorities who came from all four corners of the Peoples Republic. However, it was the Hui who most fascinated me. They are the descendents of Muslims who had travelled to China long ago and intermarried with the local people. They are almost indistinguishable from the local Han except for the fact the mostly Hui men wear white scull caps and many woman don the Hijab (Veil)

    Many of those I talked to not only could speak and write Chinese but were also literate in Arabic. I spoke to one young man whose Arabic was so good that I would have mistaken him for being Arab if it were not for his facial features. What was more remarkable was that he had never been to any Arab or Arabic speaking country. It was so beautiful to see this in a country whose people eat a lot of pork, where gambling and belief in luck is high and many are obsessed with worldly things. That Muslims have survived at all is remarkable indeed. Over the next two days we got to see the famous 'Forbidden City' home of the Qing dynasty emperors and climbed the Great Wall one of the 'Seven Wonders of the World' For most people seeing these two monuments alone merit a trip to China. Before we left Beijing we also saw an acrobatic show and visited a traditional Chinese medicinal centre.

    On the 21st, we arrived in Xi'an. Xi'an of course is famous for it been the home of the terracotta warriors as well as the final resting place of 'The First Emperor'. Seeing this was amazing not only for its scale but also for its rich details. Less well known until you get there is Xi'an's Muslim quarter. This area was like a giant rabbit warren and filled with many different kinds of shops and small hidden Mosques. The real gem of Xi'an for me however was the Great Mosque. First built during the 7th century and renovated many times during its history it is one of the oldest Mosques in China. Also built in the classical Chinese style, inside this Mosque were the most beautiful Islamic wooden panels I had ever seen. They were made up of complete surahs in both Arabic and Chinese. A trip to a ceramics factory and a tea house completed a great tour of Xi'an.

    We arrived in Linxia and Lanzhou next. Although these two cities are not that far apart, it took many hours for us to travel between them because of the long mountainous and scenic roads. These areas have always acted as gateways for Islam to enter China.

    This was also in evidence just by looking at all the different facial features with many people here looking just like people from central Asia. The people here are also very beautiful with bright red rosy cheeks.

    We visited many orphanages and madrasahs which sister Mariah helps to subsidize its maintenance. I was very moved when some orphans approached me for their Islamic caps which Sister Mariah was distributing along with blankets.

    The highlight of my whole trip however was the school i visited in Linxia run by a Chinese Muslim called Abu Bakr Lan. Abu Bakr is a true visionary in every sense of the word. After travelling extensively to many different Muslim countries, he came back to open up a Muslim school that is probably the best that i have ever seen. The children there are taught three languages, Arabic, English and Chinese. They are also taught everything from maths and science, music, martial arts to Quranic recitation in fact anything and everything a child needs to live in the modern world without sacrificing his Islamic identity

    Although not part of the tour, in Lanzhou i did something which i just had to do. Together with a young and adventurous teacher from one of the Islamic schools, we crossed the mighty Yellow river on a raft! The Yellow river along with the Yangtze is considered as one of the cornerstones of Chinese history and mythology. Lanzhou being the only major city where this long river runs straight through it. Along the way I took many pictures of the multitudes of Mosques and temples which are dotted along the river. There was even a very curious Mosque here in Lanzhou run by a group of 'Muslim Monks'. Here was an Islam that resembled Buddhism with its emphasis on monasticism. Most of the monks never marry and instead dedicate their lives to prayer and disciplining themselves.

    I was very sad to leave Lanzhou especially because my travelling companion Ibrahim had to go back to Singapore but next I headed south to Kunming which cheered me up. We arrived in Kunming on the 30th May and spent the next 8 days in the southern Yunnan region. The people here were different still with a definite trace of Thailand, Burma and Bangladesh in their faces. The food here was delicious but also hotter just like the weather. We toured many Mosques and schools but as have always loved martial arts I also got the chance to train a little with a young Muslim instructor who helps Sister Mariah. He showed me something called 'Wudhu Kungfu' with hand and feet strikes imitating the Islamic ablution rituals.

    However my tour was coming to an end and I sad again when Sister Mariah had to depart for Singapore after what had been one of the most exciting 20 days I have ever had.

    I found this whole tour to be an illuminating experience. Muslims here just like anywhere else strive to better themselves and their families lives. I saw a rich culture and tradition which very much part of the Islamic world is but not generally well known to the outside world.

    I want to thank Sister Mariah for her kindness and letting me be part of such a wonderful journey which I shall never forget. Her tours are truly unique in that you can travel deep inland to Muslim villages and meet locals up close to see how they really live. I urge anyone and everyone to listen to the Prophet Muhammad's (SAW) advice and come to this fascinating land and glimpse even a trace of the wonder that can be found here. Insha Allah, you will come away a changed person just like I have.

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    Wassalam, Muhammad Ali London, United Kingdom