Answering the call to prayer

Updated: 2014-04-04 07:26

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

Another contentious issue for Muslims is the education of their children, according to the 51-year-old imam. "A Muslim naturally wants his or her children to be educated in the Islamic tradition. As far as I know, Guangzhou does have a couple of Islamic schools for children aged between 5 and 16, operated by Arab Muslims. But due to a number of reasons, ranging from cost to cultural differences, African Muslims - apart from those from the Arabic countries of North Africa - rarely send their children to these schools," he said. "Behind the growing number of African Muslims in the city, there is an even larger number of children left back home in Africa. The separation must be painful for all concerned."

Growing competition

According to Wang Caixia, who operates a small logistics company on Xiatangxi Road, just around the corner from Baixun Hostel, the Muslim traders have not been helped by the economic situation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the continued appreciation of the yuan and the growing competition among themselves.

Reporter's Log:

An oasis of calm at the center of the hustle and bustle

Answering the call to prayer

I've always regarded Guangzhou as the epitome of the bustling Chinese mega city - both in terms of its huge population of migrant workers and its trade volume - so to step into Xianxian Mosque in the city's old town was like entering a time capsule. It left me with an enchanting sense of disbelief; I couldn't believe such an oasis of calm could exist in such a busy city.

The clamor and cacophony that has long provided the background music to the city's energetic - or, to some people, energy sapping - atmosphere was inaudible, replaced by a silence only occasionally punctuated by birdcalls. One of my interviewees told me: "Allah listens to you the most clearly when you speak in a whisper." I have no idea how he reached that epiphany, but the total immersion in silence had induced a feeling of deep introspection, something often overlooked yet essential to humankind, Muslim or not.

Zhang Qiuxiang, a convert to Islam, has been married to an Egyptian Muslim for 10 years. No particular rituals were involved in her conversion. "I stepped out of the plane at the end of a flight and was immediately seized by the beauty of the burning dusk sky. At that moment, I made a promise to Allah and became a Muslim," she said.

While ceremony has the undisputable function of enhancing religiosity, to become religious is first and foremost a matter of the heart. And although the question of whether love can really make people start to believe will always remain open to debate, for Zhang and her fellow Chinese women living in Guangzhou and married to Muslims from overseas, love has indeed opened a window onto a world and a history. For some, the exploration has continued long after love ceased to exist.

Talking about history, the most contentious part of the city's history regarding its relation with Islam centers around Xianxian Mosque. While many Chinese historians consider it to be the final resting place of Saad bin Abi Waqqa, a close companion of the prophet Mohammad - and possibly even his maternal uncle - other scholars argue that Waqqa died in Medina in Saudi Arabia, and the Arabian-style tomb at the mosque in Guangzhou mosque is the grave of another disciple of the prophet who arrived in the city about 1,400 years ago.

The riddle is unlikely to be solved because the origins of most religions are shrouded in mystery. But for those who have breathed the air, heavy with the scent of the Hong Kong orchid, and listened to the eloquent silence within the walls of the mosque, either by design or chance, the solution of historical conundrums is unimportant compared with the quieting of inner chaos and the calming of souls.

I visited the mosque on a mild day in early spring. It had rained the previous night, and petals from the branches of the giant trees were strewn on the ground and on the gray-tiled rooftop of the ancient prayer hall. Dewdrops rolled and sparkled on the quivering grass leaves.

As I wandered along the well-trodden paths, I pondered if it was a deep-seated part of human nature to search for signs of permanence in a world of perishable beauty.

That's when the words of Aly Sidy Baby, a Malian Muslim I had interviewed the previous day, came to mind: "Guangzhou makes me more spiritual."

"Have you noticed the line of minivans parked outside along the street? They are responsible for sending the African traders' purchases to our storerooms and ultimately to the port," she said. "If you take the hotel as the central point, within a radius of 5 kilometers, there are around 30 logistics companies, including ours. Collectively, our businesses offer telltale indications of the economic health of the Africans."

Wang said the best days were those directly before 2008, when the goods her company transported filled nearly 100 containers every month. Today, that number has dropped to somewhere between 10 and 20, depending on the month of the year.

"With the onslaught of the financial tsunami, things took an abrupt turn and went into what seemed back then like free-fall. But it touched the bottom by the end of 2009, and from that point, things have consistently improved, although I'm still not too sure about the chances of a full recovery," she said. "The fact that most of the traders are dealing in the middle-to-low end of the market has made them extremely vulnerable to the fickleness of the economy."

Amadou Ndiaye, a Malian Muslim whose transformation from wide-eyed foreign student to businessman and old China hand took nearly 30 years, said the pinch caused by the rising value of the Chinese currency has been palpable. "We have to sell the goods we buy in Guangzhou at a much higher price to people in Africa, which means goods that used to take one week to sell now routinely take two or three months," he said.

But the traders continue to arrive, undeterred by any uncertainty that might appear on the horizon. This, according to Ndiaye, has as much to do with religion and family ties as entrepreneurship.

"When I first came to Guangzhou in 1985, I was a student at the city's South China Agricultural University," recalled the 54-year-old who spends 75 percent of his time in Guangzhou running his business. "Only one mosque was open at the time and the few foreign Muslim students - mostly from Mali - would sometimes join the 200 or so Chinese Muslims for Friday prayers. But those occasions were quite rare: Most of the time, we just prayed at the dorm, led by a fellow Malian student who was an imam back in Africa."

These days, the mosque to which he referred, Huaisheng, or Holy Remembrance Mosque, receives more than 2,000 worshippers on Fridays. However, that number is dwarfed by attendances at Xianxian, or Bygone Sage Mosque, which is reputed to attract nearly 10,000 people to the weekly Jumu'ah. Both mosques are located in the old town in the city's heart and will be forever associated with one man - Saad bin Abi Waqqas, an important companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Some say he was the prophet's maternal uncle, and the first Islamic preacher in China.

He is reputed to have arrived in China in around AD 620 and it was at his behest that the Huaisheng Mosque was constructed in around AD 625 during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), making it the oldest mosque in the country. Historians differ over both the date of his death and his final resting place, but according to a theory espoused by the bulk of Chinese scholars, he passed away in around AD 630 and was buried in Guangzhou. Xianxian Mosque was later built close to the grave.

An international metropolis

On days other than Friday, Xianxian, covering 28,000 square meters, is a garden cemetery with a solitary beauty, enveloped perennially in the lush greenery of the subtropical city. The slab-covered trail leading to what is believed to be Waqqas' burial chamber is regularly washed clean by the rain and is trodden by pious Muslims year-round.

"Trade brought the Muslims to Guangzhou 1,400 years ago, in very much the same way it does today," said Wang Wenjie. "Back then, they introduced Islam to the coastal city and partly through that, the entire country. Today, the influx of foreign Muslims has made Guangzhou an international metropolis and a magnet for Chinese Muslims who have opened more than 1,900 halal noodle restaurants in the city."

Mohammed Nagi, a Libyan Muslim who has lived in Guangzhou for eight years, said his attachment to the city began after his first visit to the Huaisheng Mosque.

"Someone told me that the mosque once sat right on the banks of the Pearl River, which runs through Guangzhou and the minaret served as a beacon for approaching ships. The water has since receded to about 2.4 miles (3,860 meters) away," he said. "Time can change a lot, but history lives on in the present. Every call to prayer rising from the top of the minaret echoes down the millennium."

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Peng Yining, Yang Yang, Li Wenfang and Zhang Yu'an contributed to this story.


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