Travelogue: Chinese Muslims
We flew into Lanzhou from Beijing in the afternoon. Three buses waited for us to take us to our hotels. We were looking forward to getting some rest or to quietly gaze at the countryside that separated the airport from the ancient city, said to be located in the east-west center of China.
Dozens of brick-baking kilns smoked along side the narrow highways. Small trucks overburdened with stacks of red bricks sputtered on the shoulder of the road. Happy-looking people sat on straw crates with bowls of steaming noodles in their hands. The greenery beyond and between the kilns was surprising because of the obvious fecundity of the land and its bold contrast with the structures of the brick-making industry, especially the ochre patches of terrain from which raw resources were scraped.
By dusk, we finally arrived in the city itself, crossing a large well-lit iron bridge that traversed the Yellow River, one of the world’s greatest waterways. It was on the banks of this sediment-rich river that Chinese civilization began millennia ago, confirming the firm bond between human settlement and water.
In and around Lanzhou, a bustling city of three and half million people, there are more than 60 mosques (more than three thousand in the province of Gansu). The next day, one of the first things we wanted to do (after the museum outing) was to visit the central mosque of the city, established more than 800 years ago; but to do so our buses needed to stop on a crowded thoroughfare. From there we walked like army ants through narrow streets, as the local folks watched a hundred American Muslims streaming through their neighborhood. Some people pointed toward us; many waved and smiled. Others kept their solid faces toward us, wondering who we were, what we wanted, and where we were from.
After more turns down streets and alleyways, we finally saw a tall wall standing alone, free from anything behind or before it or on its sides—a simple barrier blocking out street life from the courtyard of a magnificent mosque with familiar Chinese architecture that popped out from nowhere. When we walked beneath the archway toward the mosque, we saw and heard things—a new norm and culture—that reaffirmed the very impetus that sent us to travel through the earth, as the Quran states with frequency.
Inside, our generous Chinese hosts greeted us with reverence, as if we had halos over our heads. Throughout our trip, in fact, bighearted hospitality made us feel like old friends and special guests among a people we had never known before. Later we were taken on a tour of the premises by one of the religion teachers who spoke standard Arabic, which turned out to be the main medium through which we were able to communicate with Muslims in China. After Prayer, we were led to a second-floor classroom in a building that flanked the mosque, and in the classroom we took our seats. After a short wait, about six or seven young men with bashful smiles walked in and out of the room, reluctant about something. They didn’t say much, and when they did speak, we didn’t understand their words.
In a moment, though, the language barrier was removed. Standing before us in what looked like loose choir formation, the men and students of the madrasa fell silent and turned their gaze downward. They then broke into a melodic song praising God and His Prophet. I recorded the song and am replaying it now as I write.
The song was composed of short melodies repeated in cycles, as the singers themselves swayed gently and slightly from side to side. Every third or fourth cycle, one sturdy voice projected through the rhythm with deep sonority and passion, as if an unveiling had occurred. With time at a standstill, their song achieved a spiritual cadence that evoked in many of us our own affirmation of God’s Oneness and the love of His beloved Prophet Muhammad in a manner that, personally, I had never dreamt of before.
But there was something else about this experience that added puissance to our feelings. This mosque, like most of Lanzhou’s mosques, had been destroyed during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976)—during Chairman Mao’s campaign to raze institutions, history, and artifacts that did not conform to his cultural plan for China. The mosque, however, has since been rebuilt. Its architecture—in a manner we would witness throughout the trip—bore distinctly Chinese motifs in a profoundly Islamic synthesis: Chinese archways, pagoda-like roofs, and mesmerizing Chinese and Arabic calligraphy. Decades after the tribulations of the “Cultural Revolution,” China’s Muslims had obviously returned. They did not need to speak a single word about their faith: we saw their handiwork and listened to their songs that affirmed their sense of devotion. It was sacred art conveying to strangers—none of us speakers of their native language—the quintessence of faith in a way no other manner could dare attempt.