Global/Local Perspectives on Chinese Muslim Origin Narratives and Guangzhou’s Islamic Heritage Sites

Post Author(s)

Alongstanding tradition among Hui Muslims attributes the arrival of Islam in China to a mission led by Saʿd ibn abī Waqqāṣ (ca. 595-ca.574), a relative of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632). Although the historicity of this story has been questioned to the point of incredulity, Saʿd ibn abī Waqqāṣ is associated with two important sites in Guangzhou – the Huaisheng Mosque and a tomb where he is purportedly buried.

Guangzhou was one of the original centers of Muslim commerce and immigration in the Tang dynasty (618-906), and in recent decades has seen an influx of both Hui domestic migrants, as well as international Muslims coming to do business. The Huaisheng Mosque and Waqqāṣ tomb have emerged as focal points for both groups of Muslim newcomers, as symbols of Guangzhou’s ancient Islamic heritage.

The tomb in particular attracts Muslims from around the world, who treat it as a sacred site, and the person buried there as a saint. The mythic power of the Waqqāṣ narrative has not only persisted among Hui Muslims, who invoke it as a source of identity, but has also expanded well beyond China to Muslim communities around the world, who treat the tomb as a mazār, or pilgrimage site. These overlapping trends have helped situate Guangzhou as a center for trade and religious tourism, building links between China, its Hui Muslim population, and the global Muslim Ummah.

The proposed project will trace the history and development of Islamic heritage and Muslim life in Guangzhou, using the mosque and tomb as points of reference. Specifically, it will explore how these sites have helped Hui Muslims create an origin narrative that tethers them to the sacred memory of Islam’s origins in Arabia, thereby contributing to the construction of a communal identity imbued with legitimacy and religious prestige.

The research will also encompass the role of Guangzhou’s Islamic heritage sites in anchoring foreign Muslim merchants and other sojourners in China, and more recently in attracting international religious tourism.

Finally, the project will examine how the prestige of the Islamic heritage sites has brought mutual benefit to both the Muslims in China and Chinese government authorities, who have collaborated in making Guangzhou a hub along the Belt and Road in a convergence of local, national and global interests.

Note: This subproject has been developed into a separate GRF grant, ‘Global/Local Perspectives on Chinese Muslim Origin Narratives and Guangzhou’s Islamic Heritage Sites’ (RGC Ref No. 14602319)

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