Today’s China is home to a large Muslim population – around 1.6% of the total population, or around 22 million people. Uyghurs are predominately Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims who live primarily in the autonomous region of what is now known as Xinjiang, but vociferously rejected by Uyghurs and continued to be recognised by them as East Turkestan.
Prior to Islam, the Uyghurs embraced Buddhism, Shamanism, and Manicheism. Islam was introduced to China by envoys from the Middle East who travelled to meet Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century.
Shortly after this visit, the first mosque was built in the southern trading port of Guangzhou for Arabs and Persians who travelled around the Indian Ocean and the South China Seas. During this time, Muslim merchants established themselves in Chinese ports and in Silk Route trading posts.
Uyghurs embraced Islam in 934 during the Karahanid Kingdom. Kashgar, the capital of the Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centers of Islam. However, they lived segregated from the Han Chinese majority for five centuries.
This changed in the 13th century under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, when Muslims came to China in unprecedented numbers to serve as administrators for the new rulers who were descendants of Ghengis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire.
The Mongols had little experience running the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire and turned to Muslims from important Silk Road cities like Bukhara and Samarkand in Central Asia for help. They recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Central Asians and Persians to help them govern their expanding empire to the Yuan court.
During this time, wealthy officials continued to bring their wives with them, while lower-ranking officials took local Chinese wives.
After Ghengis Khan conquered much of Eurasia in the 12th century, his heirs ruled different parts of the continent, leading to a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This allowed cultures to flourish and goods and ideas to travel more freely. It brought the cultural traditions of China and the Muslim world together in new ways.
Art, the sciences, music and literature flourished as Islamic religious institutions nurtured the pursuit of an advanced culture.
In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged. Thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works include the Uyghur scholar Yusuf Has Hajip’s book, The Knowledge for Happiness and Mahmud Kashgari’s dictionary of Turk languages.
For about the next 300 years – during the Ming Dynasty – Muslims continued to be influential in government.
Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchanges between the East and West and developed a unique culture and civilisation of their own based on Islam.
In the 18th century, the relationship between Muslims and the state in China began to change. This period witnessed some violent clashes as the state tried to exert more direct control over territories where the majority of Muslims lived.
The Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 through 1911, marked a period of unprecedented population growth and territorial expansion. During this period, Muslim populations clashed with the Qing rulers and revolted on numerous occasions.
The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence and prosperity until the Manchu Empire invaded the nation in 1876.
After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu Empire formally annexed East Turkestan into its territories and renamed it “Xinjiang” (meaning “New Frontier”) on November 18, 1884. Xinjiang is roughly the size of Iran and borders several Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkestan fell under the rule of the nationalist Chinese government.
Uighurs have always had uncomfortable relations with the authorities in Beijing. In 1933, during the turbulence of China’s civil wars, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar declared a short-lived independent Republic of East Turkestan. The Uyghurs, wanted to free themselves from foreign domination and staged numerous uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule once in 1933 and again in 1944.
Its official designation as an “autonomous region” belies rigid controls from the central government over Xinjiang, and a policy of settling hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese there that has left the Uyghurs comprising a little less than half of the region’s roughly 20 million people.
The Uyghur Muslims have little desire to assimilate into Han society due to their strong attachment to their cultural practises of Islam. Their reluctance to do so is met with reactions ranging from chauvinism to claims of ingratitude by the Han elite.
For over a decade, under the guise of counter-terrorism and ‘anti-separatism’ efforts, the government maintains a pervasive system of ethnic discrimination against Uyghurs Muslims and sharply curbs their Islamic practises and expression.
China is accused of encouraging internal migration into the Xinjiang province to increase the non-Uyghur population and power in the region.
The overall effect of the Communist Party of China’s policies in the last six decades is unmistakable and stunning. The Han population in the region increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000.
Officially the 2010 Census puts the Xinjiang population at 45.8 per cent Uyghur and 40.5 per cent Han, with Kazakh, Hui, and other ethnicities making up the rest.
In recent years, there have been many reports of students, teachers, and civil servants have been forbidden from fasting during Ramadan, forbidden from wearing their traditional dress and even keeping a beard.
China’s approach to the region is captured in a recent plan to bulldoze much of Kashgar’s historic Old City — an atmospheric, millennia-old warren of mosques and elaborate mud-brick houses — and replace it with a tourist-oriented theme park version, resettling its Uighur population (who were not consulted) in “modern” housing miles away from the city.
Uyghurs continue to be the only population in China consistently subjected to executions for political crimes, and these executions are often both summary and public.
With the rise of China as the expected superpower of the 21st century, such repressive policies against the Uyghur Muslims are likely to get worse.