Travel to China: Inside A 700 Year Old Mosque in Xian City

The holy words of the Quran engraved in stone at the entrance of the Great Mosque.

In a recent travel to China, I visited the ancient city of Xian and discovered a 700 year old mosque layered with history and tradition. The entrance felt like a Zen garden with shades of green and Arabic letters of the Quran carved in stone and wood. As I walked quietly and slowly along the ancient stone, a gray-bearded man with small eyes and a kind face followed. 

“I am the imam,” he said, passing me his business card. I trailed after Imam Mohammad Isherg into the main hallway situated in the very front of the long walkway. 

Inside, I discovered the most breathtaking view of minarets, pavilions, archways, decorated dragons and sacred inscriptions.

The imam led me inside a magnificent place of worship. Along the wooden walls, the holy Quran is carved on 600 pieces of wooden boards, 30 of them in Chinese, and the rest in Arabic.  In all my travels, I had never seen anything like this.

Unlike the modern mosques I had visited in the rich Arab Gulf states, the Xian mosque is a historical and cultural site.

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A brief history

Xian is an ancient and glorified city. It is famously known for the site of China’s first kingdom and the great palace walls of the Ming dynasty remain standing, towering over the city and along a still waterway. It is open to visitors year-round. Inside, the placid-looking stone warriors stand fixed to protect the resting king’s graveyard, according to legend. 

The city is also famously known for the Xi’an Great Mosque built in 742 AD during the Tang Dynasty. During the different dynastic periods, the mosque was restored and preserved. 

Today, a small minority known as the Hui group worship inside the grand mosque, which covers a total area of more than 13,000 square meters. Its impressive size, along with its brilliant complex of four courtyards, is a gift from the past–the inscription of “One God” was carved by an official of the Ming Dynasty on a board next to decorated dragons. 

Inside the prayer hall, there are 675 geometric pieces of board, each one painted in shades of green, an indigo blue and gold. I look up and read: 

Peace be to Allah (God), Almighty unto Allah, Grace to Allah, Mercy unto Allah. 

On the ceiling, the 99 names of God are inscribed as French-style lanterns hang above worshippers’ bobbing their heads like sparrows.

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The Hui group

The ethnic Hui group are one of China’s largest minority groups. With descendants from the Arabic and Persian merchants, the Hui came to China during the 7th century and are mostly Muslim. Many girls and women wear the traditional headscarf and the men sport beards. Like Arabs, they feast on lamb though they prefer noodles over rice. 

Hui

A picture of an old man (not the imam).

At first glance, the Hui group resemble Central Asians with their high cheekbones and round eyes. Many speak Mandarin and Chinese as well as Arabic, including the imam I met at Xi’an mosque. We were able to communicate through a translator although the imam, who studied English in school and Arabic in the Middle East. Given the imam’s multiple languages and educational background, he could share his experiences with me in short English-and-Arabic phrases. 

 In the prayer hall, the imam recited the Quran for me. I prayed. We walked together towards the pulpit, where he leads the Friday prayers. 

“This entire space is filled on Fridays. First, I give the sermon in Chinese. Then I say it in Arabic,” he said.

On the wooden pulpit, there is an inscription that reads: But teach (thy Message) for teaching benefits the Believers. (Quran 51:55)

The imam continued: “The spirit of Islam here combines local culture and language.” 

In his office, we shared cups of loose green tea. The imam is hospitable, said my Chinese translator. Yes, of course, I thought, this is Muslim hospitality.

As I listened and tried to understand, I know there is so much unsaid. Later, I learn that da’wa or missionary work is prohibited by the Muslims in China. The way Islam spreads in China is quietly and by families having children–giving birth to a new generation of Muslims is the most effective and silent way of expanding a community.

When I leave the imam’s office, I stopped to read a saying imprinted behind glass for all visitors to see. Qing Zheng or “Allah is pure,” a Chinese saying that was once a Buddhist word later adopted by Muslims in the Ming dynasty.

And so it is here, in the most unexpected places, that Muslims live.

To  learn more about the history of Xi’an city, go to Encycolpedia Britannica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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