Muslims of the Far East

The Muslim community prides itself on the diversity of Islam and it’s not without reason. Islam is undoubtedly diverse in ethnic cultures and nationalities from it’s very origins with mother Hagar to the melting pot we have now in our gatherings at Ramadan and Jumaah prayers.

However mention Islam to someone who has zero knowledge in the faith and one of the first things they will mention is Middle Eastern Arabia. It still comes as a surprise to many when a black, white or far east Asian Muslim announces their faith. This does, inadvertently contribute towards the overlooked racism within the community itself. Despite Islam having a history rich in racial integration, inherent racism does exist and the need to challenge it is swept under the carpet and polished off with Chapter 49,

verse 13 :

We have created you and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another, not despise each other.

As a child I was always asked to prove I was Muslim. I was asked to quote a Muslim prayer or why I was wearing a headscarf when I’m Chinese. It sometimes felt like peoples jaws were squatting on the floor when they found out I was Muslim. I was told, ‘oh your type of Islam is so liberal’ on the basis of my ethnicity. Unofficially, liberal is a dirty word in conventional Muslim communities. Another person saw me as ‘passing as Chinese’ therefore too privileged to face Islamaphobia. Others would see me as confused or suppressed, a delicate Madam Butterfly unable to break free from the religion of her parents. The choice to follow my religion was never seen as my own.

‘But there aren’t any Muslim’s in Chinaland!’

So your local Chinatown would unlikely have a halal butcher. Considering European and American Chinatowns are usually made of migrants from non Muslim Hong Kong, go figure. Go to any mosque and there’s bound to be a Far East Asian Muslim in their topi or hijab praying with you. China is home to over 20 million ethnic Chinese Muslims alone. Countries with the highest Muslim population are mainly Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia where the total is 240 million people identifying as Muslim. Surrounding countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines also have significant Muslim populations.

Islam first reached Far East Asian shores as early as the 7th century. Contrary to orientalist theory, Islam did not spread through the sword. For us, it spread through shopping ; via various national sea ports and the infamous Silk Route. Throughout history, East Asians enjoyed embracing a culture that intermingled with their own, which is sadly coming to a close. Traditional shadow puppets, Qur’an reading competitions for girls and even a madrassah for the trans community have recently been outlawed by certain regions who want to appear ‘more Islamic.’

But all is not lost. While conservatives express outrage at female led prayers calling it a western disease, China is still home to the first official female imams who have been leading prayers for over 300 years. The north west of China has women only mosques that have been in successful operation for centuries. Until today, female imams in China and their peaceful existence remain ignored or erased from common knowledge due to refusal to acknowledge any value in Far Eastern culture for Muslims. Want even more history? One of the most successful sea admirals was a seven foot Muslim Chinese eunuch called Zheng He. He commanded a fleet of self contained ships across Asia and Africa in the 15th century. There is also belief that Zheng He contributed towards Islamic presence in some of the countries he travelled to. His last trip was to perform Hajj in Mecca before he died. Again, his achievements have been failed to be recognised by the Muslim community ; amongst a recent exhibition of Islamic history where Middle Eastern actors portraying Ibn Sina and Mariam “Al-Astrolabiya” were jazzing up the event, Zheng He’s achievements were deduced to a short paragraph and a tiny model of a boat.

Of course it would be wrong to say the Muslim world is intentionally racist ; our religion clearly forbids it. In practice Islam has made racial unity the norm for over 1400 years which is something to be proud of. However it needs to be known that especially in current situation, the progression of Islamic societies is not just up to the noticed efforts of a few but everyone regardless of where they are from.