Islam in China, And Islamic Chinese Food in L.A.

In partnership with The Los Angeles/Islam Arts InitiativeThe Los Angeles/Islam Arts Initiative brings together nearly 30 cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles to tell various stories of traditional and contemporary art from multiple Islamic regions and their significant global diasporas.

Scholar Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad has become better known as Wang Daiyu since he started his blog, Islam in China. He studies both Muslims in China and Chinese-American Muslims: both groups that are fascinating but little-studied. Given the huge Chinese immigrant population of L.A. County, we asked Ahmad to explain the links between the Middle East, China, and the San Gabriel Valley.

How did you become an expert in Islam in China?
The topic of Islam in China is a very fascinating subject. The Chinese people constitute one fifth of all humanity and Muslims constitute one forth of all humanity, however people who belong to both these groups (Chinese and Muslims) are a small group of people with a very long history. The Chinese Muslim culture has many characteristics which are not found in any other Muslim culture e.g., the Chinese Muslims have a long tradition of all-female mosques with female religious leaders, the style of Arabic calligraphic is based on Chinese calligraphy techniques, even the Chinese language is taught with the Arabic script in some Chinese religious schools etc.

Did you change your name at some point? What was the impetus?
I adopted the name Wang Daiyu as my nom de plume when writing on the subject of Chinese Muslims. While Muslims had been in China for hundreds of years their primary mode of instruction for teaching their children about Islam was in Arabic or the Persian language. In the 16th-17th century many Chinese Muslims started to use Chinese language and philosophy to teach the new generation of Chinese Muslims in Chinese. Wang Daiyu was a Chinese Muslim scholar who was instrumental in steering Chinese Muslims in that direction.

Tell us briefly about the origins of Islam in China.
Islam has been in China almost since its beginning. There is a legend among Chinese Muslims that it was the uncle of Prophet Muhammad who reached China during the lifetime of the prophet. While historians do not believe in this story, they do state that Islam likely reached China within a decade of the death of Prophet Muhammad. In fact one of the oldest mosques in the world, the Lighthouse Mosque in Guangzhou, is in China. Muslims came to China mainly as traders, mainly through the sea route, and through Central Asia from the land route.

Are Muslims in China integrated into mainstream society?
It is difficult to generalize about Muslims in China. If we talk about the Hui Muslims then yes they are very well integrated. They speak the same dialect of the Chinese language as their non-Muslim neighbors and even their culture is very similar to their non-Muslim counterparts. The main difference is of course the religion. The other main group of Muslims in China are the Uighur people who are Turkic in origin. There is some discrimination against the Uighur people and ethnic conflict in the region.

Los Angeles County is known for its relatively large Chinese immigrant population. Any idea what percentage of them are Muslim?
A relatively small percentage of Chinese people in the U.S. are Muslims, which is less than the percentage of Chinese Muslims in China itself. Thus less than one percentage of Chinese people in the Los Angeles County are Muslims.

Are there any Islamic restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley?
There are a number of Islamic or halal restaurants in San Gabriel Valley. In the case of Chinese Muslim cuisine the following come to mind: China Islamic Restaurant in Rosemead, Mas' Chinese Islamic Restaurant in Anaheim and Omar's Xinjiang Halal Restaurant in Artesia and Silk Road Garden in Rowland Heights.

What are some elements of Chinese Islamic food that are different from what most Americans would consider Chinese food?
The Chinese Islamic cusine has Central Asian influences. Pork is of course notably absent from Islamic cuisine and in general beef and lamb are used much more as compared to more traditional Chinese cuisine. The food of the Uighur people is of course very similar to the Central Asian dishes. Naam and kababs are a staples foods of Xinjiang cuisine which one associates with Persian or Turkish food and not Chinese food. Lamian noodles and beef noodle soup are usually associated with Muslims in China even though these dishes are not well known in the U.S.

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