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The Great Mosque of Xi’an – History of Islam in China – Part 1

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The hut shaped articulate structure with bilateral symmetry is an eye opener for everyone. If this fantastic structure is of any Historic Mosque; this leaves no choice besides praising it from heart. This was my feeling when I visited The Great Mosque of Xi’an in China.

Last year I got a chance to visit China for the first time. This was a business trip which turned into the most memorable trip of my life. My stay was in Eastern city of Xi’an; it was just for couple of weeks but it was worth it.

Before going there I tried my level best to study as much as I can before going there. There were many magnificent facts I came to know about this centuries old city which I never heard of. Xi’an is the capital city of Shaanxi province. It is also among the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It has been capital under Zhou, Qin, Han, the Sui and Tang dynasties but this city is believed to exist for 1 million years. Two human skeletons believed to be 500,000 years old were discovered and not only that, two villages named Banpo & Neolithic were also discovered in outskirts of Xi’an which are believed to be 6,500 years old. Just these couple of facts tells you how important this city has been over period of time.

When I arrived in Xi’an, I was joined by very good group people arrived from different part of the world. My blog would be worthless if I didn’t mention my new friends. Zaid was from Iraq, Muhannad also from IraqMuzaffar was Tajik, Bakhoudir Uzbek, Surgey Ukrainian, Naran Mongolian, John Zambian, Jane from Lesotho & I being Pakistani made the best multinational group one could imagine. Not only that; our team was lead by Miss ZhangHuanHuan; rather Miss Ashley (Chinese National) and she was the best support we could wish to have. It was just because of her that our trip turned into a memorable trip.

In our small stay of just two weeks, we went to see many historic places and not only that we all being crazy about soccer also got a chance to play a soccer match with Chinese university Soccer team. It was leveled by 0-0, just because of our two Iraqi forward players; otherwise you could imagine the result when the match is between group of lazy engineers and professional university soccer team.

Among the historic places we visited were Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin dated about 210 BC. Secondly we visited Giant Wild Goose Pagoda which Buddhist worshipping place dated back 652 AD during Tang Dynasty. This Pagoda is also surrounded by very large fountain which plays every night at 08:00 PM with different kinds of music. But our really trip started when we entered the old central city of Xi’an; more like Androon Lahore. This old city of Xi’an is surrounded by City Wall of Xi’an. This existing wall was started by Ming dynasty in 1370. The city wall stands 12 meters, 12-14 meters across the top, 15-18 meters thick at bottom and 13.7 kilometers in length with deep moats surrounding it. You can also enjoy walking or by cycling on the wall, which can be rented from the wall. We almost walked half the wall as after that our legs started getting angry with us.

Entering into this old city takes you back to old Chinese civilization for which they are very proud of.  The first thing you will see after crossing very crowded market on both sides of the road is The Bell Tower. This is 40m height square tower proudly built in 1384 by Ming dynasty. It also contains many bronze caste bells from Tang Dynasty. This tower is perfect example of Chinese architecture; it rings every morning at 08:00 AM in the morning to wake up the whole city. By passing through the famous tunnel under the Bell Tower you are welcomed by huge tower, The Drum Tower. It was erected in 1380 again in Ming dynasty. If Bell Tower announces the start of day then it is duty of Drum Tower to indicate the end of day by beating of huge drums on its first floor.

Just to north of Drum Tower you will enter into most crowded, most exciting and most hustle bustle part of Xi’an. “Welcome to Muslim Street” is proudly hanging on the entrance of this street. This street represents the very existence of the Great of Islam is every corner of the world, this street makes you feel you are at home and the hospitality of the people assures our unity. Residents are almost 100% Muslims; its very existence is proven by writing on the walls, by names of restaurants, by food which is being served, by white caps on men and scarf on women heads.

This street is the busiest market of Xi’an. You will see shops on both sides of the road and even two lanes of carts in the middles. Everything is being solved here, from cheapest to most expensive one, from clothes to souvenirs and from chicken roast to famous Chinese tea.

When you entered the streets you are welcomed by overwhelming smell of chicken tikka being grilled in front of every restaurant; and one every restaurants an Arabic text is written very boldly saying “Mat’am Al-Islam”, meaning Islamic Restaurant; and every worker on these restaurants were wearing white caps proudly showing their Islamic identity to everyone. In country of majority non-Muslims population, this was blessing for us. We had Chicken Tikka, Naan, Pulao Rice to our full; no doubt it was the refreshing for us as for long time we were stuck with white rice and fish only.

After filling our tummies we went to look around. We saw every kind of people from all around the world, but we were also saddened by conditions of Muslims their. They mostly seemed poor and living in small apartments; but they didn’t look sad for it. We saw one very old guy singing song for us just for small amount of money, we went to one shop filled with souvenirs which was run by one Muslim women wearing scarf. While working she was also teaching his little kid who was at the shop doing his homework. After seeing all this; I really felt myself at home and praised to Allah for making me part of largest united society of the world, known as Muslims.

As the shops on this street are about to end you will turn left, which will lead you to the centre of the market. There you will again find many shops. The hospitality and marketing strategy of the shopkeepers will force you to buy anything from them. On our small trip to this market, I almost spend 3000 yuan. Sounds excessive, but I couldn’t help it. But I don’t think it was waste of money as I bought many cool Chinese traditional things for example Chinese famous Kungfu shirts like the one worn by Master Sheefu in Kungfu Panda and bought packs of famous Chinese Jasmine and green tea.

At the end of this street we again turned left to a very narrow street, hardly to the width of one person. Here we found some of the very old homes, giving me the feeling of Androon Lahore streets. Most of the residents here were Muslims, we met many people sitting outside and greeting us with Islamic greetings of Asalam-o-Alaikum, means Peace be upon you. We also one home, on top of its front door it was boldly written with golden ink on Black background, La Ilaah Ha-Illah hu Muhammad Ur-Rasool Allah; “There is no god but ALLAH and Muhammad (PBUH) is the last messenger of Allah”. As the street was about to end and there were no shops around you, we went to the place for which we have come that far; which made me right this whole blog; we saw a big board saying “Jam’ia Al-Kabeer Bi-Shian”, The Great Mosque of Xi’an.

As we went near the big wooden brown gate of The Great Mosque of Xi’an we were welcomed very graciously by two elderly men and women wearing white cap and scarf; showing their identity as Muslims. They asked us, “Muslim?” as we nodded yes they immediately greeted us with Asalam-o-Alaikum and let us without any Ticket.

As we entered the mosque; we were amazed by size and marvelous structure of the mosque. As I wrote in the beginning, when Chinese architecture is mixed with any religious worshipping place like Mosque, it becomes a site worth seeing and worth admiring. This Mosque is built east to west so worshippers can pray toward Ka’aba which is towards the western side of Xi’an.

First thing we saw was the Wooden Memorial Archway. This archway which is believed to be built in beginning of 17th century has special upturned eaves, many layers of brackets and glazed roof tiles makes it a magnificent historic architecture. On both sides of this archway there are two North and South Exhibitions Halls which exhibits some old furniture from Ming and Qin dynasties.

As we move forward; we see one hall of rectangular shape with articulate pointy hut structure, known as The Five – Room Hall. On both sides of this hall there are two rooms assigned to The Islamic Association of Xi’an. Just behind The Five – Room Hall, there stand three connected gateways supported with four pillars, they are now known as The Stone Memorial Gateways. On top of middle main gate there is a title carved in Chinese calligraphy. It says: “The court of heaven”. These gateways are also surrounded by stone carved fences with two passages for entering and exiting on both sides. This stone complex is believed to be built in the Ming Dynasty.

Behind these gateways there stand two high towers or tablets with decoration of carved dragons. Both of them are also carved with inscriptions about the repairing of mosque at the imperial orders of Ming and Qin Dynasties. On the both sides of the stone gateways and stone tablets there are two rooms assigned for reception of different guests visiting the Mosque.

The next building which will welcome you as you move forward is The Imperial Hall, which is supposed to be the oldest building inside the mosque. As you enter inside the hall after couple of stairs, there will be almost six tomb stone like tablets erected with many text inscribed in Chinese and Arabic. It is said that one of the tablet inside The Imperial Hall is called “The Moon Tablet”, with Arabic text on it which is believed to be written one of the old Imam of this mosque by which people use to calculate the Hijri calendar.

Just next to The Imperial Hall, in he middle of very vast courtyard is the most amazing structure we saw, it is The Minaret or tourist call it The Introspection Tower. I would definitely call it The Minaret as a Mosque is incomplete without a minaret. The courtyard in which this minaret stands is called Qing Xiu Dian (“Place of Meditation”). This minaret which is tallest structure of the mosque is also known as the Xing Xin Ting (“Pavilion for Introspection”) or Sheng Xin Lou (“Tower of the Visiting Heart”). It is octagonal articulate structure which has three vast floors. Unlike earlier mosques, this tower combines two functions into one: the moon watching pavilion (or bangke tower) and the minaret. It is designed in traditional Chinese style: the exterior is decorated with blue glazed tiles and dragon heads. Inside, the carved ceiling is brightly painted with lotus flowers. On the southern side of minaret is the official reception hall which is The Domestic and Foreign Visitors’ Reception Hall of Great Mosque, while one the northern side is one lecture hall where we saw little kids learning how to read Quran. This hall has old written copy of Quran of Ming Dynasty and map of Makkah City from Qin Dynasty which are well preserved. To the east of reception hall there are baths and ablution areas where Muslims were washing themselves for the prayer.

This is courtyard is separated by the next courtyard via stone wall. This stone separation wall has three doorways. On top of every doorway Arabic text is written, on one doorway it is written in Arabic Al-Masajid Biyuut Ill-Al Mutaqeen, translated as Mosques are home for Pious and on top of middle door it says La Ilaah Ha-Illah hu Muhammad Ur-Rasool Allah; “There is no god but ALLAH and Muhammad (PBUH) is the last messenger of Allah. As we pass through we see three connected doorways decorated with fine brick carvings. This is called The One God Pavilion. It is a very special building with a combination of the Chinese traditional archway and pavilion. The whole architecture is also called The Phoenix Pavilion, there is also hung one small board with says One God in Chinese. On both sides of this pavilion there are two rooms which serve as small museums.

Next to this pavilion you will step on very big and vast platform through stone gateways. There were many old fountains, trees and chairs in the middle and side of the platform. This also holds the magnificent The Worship Hall. As we entered this worship hall we were stunned by the magnificent decorations and interior of the mosque. There were many Muslim men praying and reciting Quran inside. On the worshipper stood after seeing us and immediately greeted and asked, “Pakistani?”. After telling him that I am Pakistani, I loved to see the excitement on his face and how happily this person welcomed me to this mosque. That time I felt proud to be the citizen of only country created as on the name of Islam.

After entering this hall, one can very easily guess how old this mosque can be. Inside is decorated with beautiful colorful patterns of grass and flowers. We also see many old and beautiful light chandeliers still maintained very well. The walls are made of wooden boards in which whole Quran is carved, on top in Arabic and on lower part with its Chinese translation. As we move little bit forward, we saw wooden Mimbur where Khateeb delivers his sermon every week. On right side of Mimbur there is very old painting which seems to be old painting of Holy Mosque in Makkah. Then we entered the second part of the hall which is the farthest most part of Mosque. There we saw most beautiful, magnificent and marvelously decorated front wall which holds Mahrab, where imam stands and leads every prayer. This wooden wall is carved with flowers and leaves. Many Quranic Verses are also written on top most part of the wall.

After touring around and taking as many pictures as we can, we prayed Two Nawafil and then sat there for a while thinking what people of that time would have done to make this magnificent mosque and done the decorative work inside this hall. After that we went towards exit to leave the mosque, there we were met by one person, he asked from me some Coins of Pakistan. He told me whenever anyone comes to this mosque, I ask them coins of there respective countries which is his hobby. Well I didn’t have Pakistani coin at that time but I promised him next time when I will visit this mosque Inshallah; he also replied Inshallah very loudly and smiled. Then he gave one small Guidebook of Xi’an Great Mosque which turned out to be very informative for us. All the historic fact I entered above about the mosque is mostly from this book. As I started reading this book, the thing which fascinated me is the time when this Mosque was constructed.

This mosque was built in 742 A.D in Tang Dynasty. 742!!! … Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in 570/571 A.D, he received his first revelation in 610 A.D, meaning Islam arrived in 610 A.D and Islam got its strength when HE (PBUH) migrated to Madina in 620 A.D. So just with 132 years of arrival of Islam a magnificent mosque came into existence on farthest east of the world. This historic fact inspired me to do research how and when Islam came to China.

(stay tuned for part 2 …!!)

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Written by Junaid

April 4, 2010 at 10:35 AM