The first Muslim envoys reached China almost as early as the first Muslim armies reached North Africa, and began peacefully establishing communities there almost immediately. These ancient Islamic settlements of China, small though they were, are nevertheless among the oldest continually active Muslim communities in the world. The Great Mosque of Xi’an is a relic and symbol of that period, and for over thirteen centuries has been recognized as the most important mosque in China. Even after all of these years, it is still one of the largest active mosques in the Far East, and one of the oldest effectively intact mosques still standing anywhere in the world.
According to fairly reliable tradition, Islam arrived in China as early as 650 AD during the reign of Uthman, the third Rashidun Caliph. A somewhat less reliable but nevertheless romantic tradition suggests that the first Muslim to travel to China was Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, a close relative of the Prophet Muhammad. Within a year of that visit the emperor ordered the construction of China’s first mosque in the city of Guangzhou.
In the ensuing centuries, Islam spread throughout China, mostly to the larger trade cities where Muslim traders commonly visited with their caravans. Because Muslim armies never occupied or even attempted to conquer China, Islam was never more than a minority religion. Nevertheless Muslim communities sprouted up in many major cities, many of which survive to the present day. The largest Muslim community in China arose in Xi’an, which was both one of China’s largest cities as well as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.
Muslims have lived in Xi’an since at least as far back as the 600s. Sometime during the Tang dynasty period in the late 7th or early 8th century, the prosperous merchants and leaders of the burgeoning Islamic community of Xi’an constructed the Great Mosque of Xi’an. From the time of the mosque’s completion Xi’an was regarded by Chinese Muslims as the defacto capital of the Islamic religion in China. For nearly a thousand years, until the rise of the Qing dynasty, Muslims were among the most educated, prosperous and influential ethnic groups in China.
Islam in China began to wane in the 17th century, when many of the Qing rulers attempted to suppress foreign political and religious influences. After a brief renaissance during the Republic period, Chinese Muslims became heavily persecuted by the Communists. The nadir came during the Cultural Revolution, when many of China’s mosques were destroyed. Luckily, the Great Mosque of Xi’an, which had stood intact for nearly thirteen centuries, was spared. As Islam once again begins to grow and expand throughout China, the Great Mosque of Xi’an has once again resumed its place as the great symbol, and chief pilgrimage destination, of China’s Muslims.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an was constructed sometime around the year 700 AD, and largely dates from this early period, though extensive renovations were undertaken in the 14th century. Despite the fact that the earliest Muslims of China were of Arabic and/or Persian origin, the style of the mosque architecture is that of a traditional Chinese temple, with virtually no trace of Middle Eastern influences except for a few minor decorative touches.
The most famous, and memorable, element of the Great Mosque is the minaret, which is in fact a three-story pagoda with an upper-level terrace from which prayers can be called. The pagoda-minaret may in fact have not originally been part of the mosque but might have been acquired or built at a later date.
The Great Mosque of Xi’an is located next to the city’s famous Drum Tower close to the very center of Xi’an, approximately 580 miles southwest of Beijing. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: http://en1.xian-tourism.com (official tourism website of Xi’an)
Despite its great age and importance, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is not, in fact, China’s oldest extent mosque. That honor goes to the Masjid Huaisheng in Guangzhao (Canton), which may have been founded by the Prophet’s uncle. China’s other best known mosques are the Masjid Id Kah in Kashgar and the Masjid Niujie in Beijing.