By Hasnah Jusid
BEIJING (Bernama) -- Eating halal in non-Muslim countries is always one of the challenges for international Muslim travellers.
However in China, it is not so difficult to find a Muslim restaurant in the major tourist cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin, Guangzhou.
Halal food was one of this writer’s major concerns during her early days in Beijing, with doubts over the availability of Muslim food in the republic especially when Muslims only comprise about one to two per cent of China’s population of 1.4 billion.
Many questions had been playing on the writer’s mind when she first arrived in China in mid-July: Where do they get their halal food supply? How do they perform their religious obligations?
OLDEST, LARGEST MOSQUE IN BEIJING
All these questions were answered when this writer visited the Niujie Mosque, the oldest and largest mosque in Beijing and among the world’s famous mosques located in the sub-district of Guang'anmen, Xicheng district.
This writer first visited the mosque in 2019 during a programme organised by China Public Diplomacy Association.
Niujie is located in the city’s largest Muslim district, home to more than 300,000 Muslims of Hui ethnic group.
Using the smartphone map as a guide, this writer, who currently resides in Jianguomen, in the heart of Beijing city, picked up the courage to travel alone to Niujie, using the subway for the first time.
After a 40-minute ride, I proceeded on my journey by walking towards Niujie Mosque.
However, I had a rude shock on arrival at the mosque when all doors were closed, with a signboard notifying visitors that it was under construction.
Although several other tourists who were there for the same purpose decided to return to the city, I decided to stay on, waiting for a “door of opportunity” to enter the mosque and perform Zohor prayer, which was about an hour away.
I patiently waited for the “miraculous moment” until a man in his white kopiah (cap) emerged from the mosque.
“Mǎláixīyà (Malaysia),” said the writer as she introduced herself to the man in his 70s named Wang and Alhamdulillah (praise to Allah), and to my surprise, he allowed me to enter the mosque.
There was a sense of calmness when I stepped into the premises of Niujie Mosque. More importantly, it was the first time I could visit the mosque especially after spending more than a month in Beijing.
Several men, mostly senior citizens in kopiah or white jubah, were having a chat while waiting for prayer time – a sight that is no different than in mosques back home.
“Assalamualaikum (peace be upon you).”
This writer was greeted by the imam of the mosque. The salam greeting was indeed heart-warming as it reflects Muslim solidarity that transcends racial boundaries.
Due to language barrier, this writer could only return the imam’s salam with a smile.
MOSQUE THAT TRANSCENDS 6 ERAS
The Niujie Mosque, the largest of all the mosques in Beijing, was first built in 996. A tourist attraction, the mosque has not been fully opened to the public.
From the outside, its architecture shows traditional Chinese influence and the inside has a blend of Islamic calligraphy and Chinese design.
The main prayer hall is 600 square metres in area, and can hold more than 1,000 worshippers. The blank white tiles and fixtures look Muslim, but the intricately and richly coloured Chinese roofs and designs add a Chinese look. Many fences, walls and doors are painted bright red.
Outside the mosque is a minaret, a lecture room for religious classes and a two-storey tower structure that is called the Tower for Watching the Moon. It looks like a two storey pagoda. There is also a souvenir shop and the imam’s office.
According to history, the mosque was first built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) and made out of timber. It was named ‘Liasi’ by the emperor in 1474. It covers an area of 10,000 square metres, featuring classic classical Arabic mosque and Chinese royal palace flavour.
The mosque has transcended six eras starting from Liao Dynasty, Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty till modern day China.
Within the period, it has gone through several renovations such as in 1955 and 1979 in addition to a major reconstruction in 1996 in conjunction with its 1,000th anniversary with the latest undertaken several years ago.
Based on information displayed at the mosque, the Niujie Mosque is reserved as the Key Point of Cultural Heritage & Relic under the State-level Protection by the State Council since Jan 13, 1988.
“This is my first visit to Niujie Mosque and it is indeed magnificent, with its original nuances, especially from the architectural and design aspects, which reflect Islamic influence in China,” said Marshalina Gitafadilla Munir, a journalist from Indonesia.
As I was capturing the moments on video and photo, an elderly woman in her 60s greeted me. Without a word, she used hand gestures and body language as a means of communication. It was clear that she wanted to know the women’s section for prayers and for ‘wuduk (a room designated for ritual washing before daily prayer).
A warm smile lifted the corners of her mouth and her eyes burned of motherly warmth. It was a brief encounter yet a memorable one.
HALAL FOOD HAVEN
After prayers, I managed to catch up with Wang. Guided by a translation app on the smart phone, I expressed my heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity to pray at the mosque and hoped to return with some friends.
Wang only nodded, smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.
Needless to say, travel is incomplete without exploring the neighbourhood and in this case, the streets of Niujie near the mosque and its halal food.
Without wasting time, this writer decided to walk along Niujie Street. Based on some valuable tips shared by local residents, if a building and premise is green in colour, it shows that it is serving halal food. I was glad that the buildings in Niujie were painted green in addition to a signboard displaying the word ‘halal’ in Chinese.
Nearly all shops and stalls were selling halal snacks, such as lamb and beef pau, bean soup, Baiji rice cake and various types of bread with halal meat filling.
A takeaway food outlet was drawing customers who were making a beeline for its popular lamb and beef pau, hot from the oven. I decided to join the bandwagon.
Thanks to its efficient staff and the cashless system in place, I did not have to wait long.
Niujie literally means Ox Street. This area is actually the key market for Muslim supply of beef and lamb as the animals are slaughtered in accordance with Islamic laws. In fact meat that is sold in Niujie is said to be among the best in Beijing
Several restaurants managed by the ethnic Uyghur group from Xinjiang here serve various types of their traditional authentic food, among others the popular lamb kebab.
“During Ramadan, the Niujie area would be packed with Muslims buying halal meat and breaking their fast at Niujie Mosque,” said a local resident.
This writer also had a taste of the popular lamb kebab. The meat pieces were well marinated with a blend of spices and they were tasty, soft and succulent. Its exquisite taste was similar to those sold in Xinjiang, one of the most popular cuisines in the region.
MUSLIM COMMUNITY IN CHINA
The Hui ethnic group is the largest group of Muslims in China, followed by Uyghur. Both ethnic groups form about 90 per cent of the Muslim population in China.
The Muslim community in China also comprises Kazak, Kirgiz, Uzbek, Tatar, Tajik, Dongxiang, Salad and Bao’an ethnic groups.
An estimated 25 million Muslims are found across China, with Islam being widely spread and focused on small groups. Islam is one of the four or five religions officially recognised in China.
Muslims in China are largely found in Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.
The Xinjiang region has the largest Muslim population in China with about 50 per cent of the people in the region are Muslims.
According to Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief, including Islam.
“Currently, there are 30,000 mosques in China. In Tibet, there are more than 1,700 places for various religious activities of Tibetan Buddhism,” said Prof Ma Junyi, senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in her lecture recently.
(This writer is currently in Beijing as a participant of the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 (CAPCC) at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association. The programme from June 20, 2022 is scheduled to end middle of November.
Organised by the China International Press Communication Centre (CIPCC), this programme saw the participation of over 70 international media practitioners from various nations. Participants are given insights on socio-economic developments, diplomacy, culture, science and technology, journalism training and practical training with Chinese media as well as visits to selected regions. Participants are also given the opportunity to cover main domestic and diplomatic events in China).
Translated by Salbiah Said