Niujie Mosque in Beijing — a symbol of tolerance
ABDUL LATHEEF DUL LATHEEF / CHINA—As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began last week, the traditional greeting of Ramazan Mubarak poured in from friends and family. One of my friends in the United Arab Emirates, though, was curious about how or even whether Ramazan is observed in China. The reason for his anxiety was media reports that suggested China doesn’t allow its Muslims to observe fasting.
I told him Ramazan is very much observed throughout China. In Beijing, mosques have been spruced up for the occasion with new carpets and lights. His call, however, sparked a new interest in me to look into the deep history of Islam in China.
It turns out that China was among the first countries where Islam was established after the religion was founded in present-day Saudi Arabia more than 1,400 years ago. Successive Chinese dynasties have whole-heartedly welcomed Islamic scholars to the country.
China’s first mosque, the Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, was established in AD 627, some 11 years after Islam was introduced to the country. It was one of the first mosques built outside of Saudi Arabia. Thousands more have been built across China since then.
One that stands out is Beijing’s Niujie Mosque, one of the oldest in China. Originally built in AD 996, the mosque is an architectural wonder, combining Chinese and Arab styles. The interior design is pretty much Arab, while the exterior is Chinese. Covering more than 6,000 square meters, it is the biggest mosque in Beijing.
It is so well known in Southeast Asia that there are travel companies offering “Muslim tours” of Beijing with the Niujie Mosque as the central attraction of the trip.
I visited the mosque last week for Friday prayers. As it was the first Friday of Ramadan, the mosque’s prayer halls and courtyards were filled with thousands of worshippers — some of them expatriates and visitors, but mostly Beijing residents.
After the prayers, many visited the Niujie museum that exhibits numerous Islamic treasures, while others took photos. One exhibit that drew particular visitor interest was a huge copper cauldron, built in 1702. It is displayed in the main courtyard.
In olden days, an inscription says, it was used to prepare meat congee on the night of the 27th of Ramadan. That is the holiest night on the Islamic calendar, the night Muslims believe the first verses of the Quran were revealed. Congee is an integral part of the Ramadan diet throughout Asia, and is prepared in a number of ways depending on the country. Niujie’s cauldron is a testimony to how far the authorities went to make it easier for the area’s Muslims to fast. Ramadan Mubarak to all!