Muslims in China and the Quran in Chinese

by Roberto K. Ong, Ph.D.

The Light & Islamic Review (US), November/December 1992 Issue (Vol. 69, No. 6, pp. 8–10)

Note by the Editor: Dr. Ong, of Montreal, Canada, is at present rendering into Chinese Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Quran. The following is the text of a speech he delivered at last year’s North American Convention of the A.A.I.I.L., held in Toronto on 31 August – 1 September 1991.

I am greatly honoured to be invited as a non-Muslim to address this Convention, which incidentally is the first of its kind I have ever attended. My knowledge of Islam is at best fragmentary and perhaps not entirely free from some of the usual distorted notions of it, in spite of the fact that in either China, my ancestral homeland, or the Philippines, my country of birth, the Muslim community is large enough for the respective governments of these two countries to find it necessary, from time to time, to deal with it as a distinct ethnic group, albeit a minority. I have no up-to-date information as to how many Muslims there are in the Philippines, whereas the Muslim population in China has been variously estimated (or guesstimated!) at anywhere between 10 to 40, or even 60, millions (Winters 1979:57).1

When did Islam come to China?

If we don’t know exactly the size of the Muslim population in China, we do know with certainty that they have been there for a long time already. As a matter of fact, some Chinese Muslim sources claim that Islam was introduced into China during the Sui dynasty. Now, the Sui dynasty extended from the year 589 to the year 617 of the Christian era; but we know that the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] was born in 570, that he responded to the Divine Call in 610, and that the Hijra [migration] took place in 622. So, if the Chinese Muslim tradition were historically accurate, Islam must have come to China even before it had come into being as a coherent religious entity. But this is technically impossible! So, what’s wrong with this claim.

Well, the chronological discrepancy may be obvious to us but not to the Chinese Muslims of the 14th century, who are said to have been responsible for this tradition (see Broomhall 1987:88)2. They did not know that the Arab lunar calendar and the Chinese luni-solar calendar are not exactly the same: they did not know that the Arab year is approximately 11 days shorter than the Chinese year, and that this difference amounts to about 3 years a century. So when the ancient mosque at Canton (=Guangzhou) was restored in the year 1351 C.E., the Chinese Muslims undertook to convert the Arabic chronology into Chinese by simply counting back the 753 Arab years since the Hijra as so many Chinese years, which of course resulted in the anachronism. This systematic process of antedating also explains why, in a standard Chinese biography of the Holy Prophet published in 1785, his birth is said to have taken place in the year 546, the commencement of his prophethood in 586, and the Hijra in 599.

Early Muslims in China:

If we find the Chinese sources somewhat wanting in historiographical rigour, it is nevertheless plausible that some followers of the Holy Prophet came to China even during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. For trade and travel between China and the Middle East across the Asiatic desert had started as early as the second half of the second century before Christ (Winters 1979:7).1 Later, during the Tang dynasty (618–906 C.E.), Chinese merchant marines left the port of Canton in the south to go westward, crossing the Indian ocean and sailing straight into the Persian Gulf. During the reign of Emperor Tai Zong (627–649) of this dynasty, there were as many as 4,000 foreign ships which anchored at Canton each year, bringing Persian and Arab traders with their shipments of spices and precious stones in exchange for Chinese silk. It was these seafarers who introduced Islam into China, and it was they who built the famous mosque of Holy Remembrance at Canton. This mosque still stands there today, and according to tradition, no less than the maternal uncle of the Prophet himself is said to have been buried in a grave still there as well. Then in the 8th century large numbers of Muslims of Persian, Arab and Turkish origin came to northern China by the traditional land route, some as merchants and others as soldiers. Eventually some of them settled down, married Chinese women, and became accultured to the point of forgetting their native tongue but not, providentially perhaps, their religious faith and practices.

Maulana Muhammad Ali’s Translation in Chinese:

The foregoing summary of the introduction of Islam into China is intended to point up the historical and cultural significance of the Chinese Muslims in terms of both time and space. While going over the literature, what strikes me as a bit odd is my impression that Muslims in China have received very little if any attention from the rest of the Islamic world. This impression is corroborated by the fact that “China” is not even featured in the subject index of the periodical Islamic Culture, which has been publishing since 1927. Under these circumstances, I think the idea of producing a modern Chinese version of the Holy Quran based on the English translation of the late Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore is significant in several respects.

To begin with, when friends and colleagues ask me,

“What have you been up to these days?”,

and I reply,

“Among other things, translating the Quran into Chinese”,

their next question almost always is:

“But why, isn’t there any Chinese [translation of the] Quran?”

Well, to date there are at least nine different versions of the Quran in Chinese, and the latest one was published barely two years ago. Is there any real need, then, for another Chinese translation of the Quran? My answer to this last question is, Yes, because the translation I am working on is not merely another Chinese version of the Holy Book but, most important, it will embody the results of the lifelong study and meditations of one of the most prominent Quranic scholars in modern times.

Even for a reader who is totally ignorant of the Arabic language, it is not difficult to gather from Maulana Muhammad Ali’s copious footnotes in his English translation of the Quran that he was in full command of the source language, and that the philological skills at his disposal were formidable, if not downright overwhelming. In this connection, I must point out that of the nine existing Chinese versions of the Holy Quran I have seen three, all done by professed Chinese Muslims, and that all these three translations refer to the Maulana’s work. It is thus clear that his scholarship is not unknown to Chinese Muslim writers and readers. In this light, the importance of our present enterprise lies precisely in making this work available in its entirety to the Chinese readership, Muslim or otherwise, for purposes of research and/or devotion.

Stylistic Problems in Translation:

Secondly, I recall that during our first meeting in Montreal, I asked Dr. [Noman] Malik about the purpose of rendering this English version of the Holy Quran into Chinese, and he told me quite simply that it was for proselytisation. It then occurred to me that if this was the case, a style of language accessible to the general Chinese reading public of today would be in order. This would entail, for example, that personal names of biblical origin, like Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary, should be given in the forms in which they have already been familiar to Chinese readers. The Maulana himself seems to have adopted a similar principle, when he chose to use Abraham rather than Ibrahim, and Mary instead of Maryam in his English text.

Other stylistic problems involving diction and syntax are to be considered with a view to achieving effective communication. Outmoded turns of phrase are to be avoided vigilantly and as consistently as possible. When read aloud, the text should sound like the speech of a modern educated Chinese. No attempt should be made to simulate or approximate the English archaisms. To adopt such measures, however, is not to detract from the merits of the style of English which the Maulana had apparently considered appropriate in his day for the translation of the premier Holy Book of Islam. I would not even recommend a revision of this English text, because to my mind the result would only just be another English translation. Object-lessons in this regard are available from the various so-called “revised versions” of the King James Bible. However you look at them, these are no mere revisions, but re-translations in their own right, albeit in varying degrees of thoroughness, which in some cases even involve utilization of source material unbeknown to the original translators, such as the Dead Sea scrolls.

Maulana Muhammad Ali’s Incomparable Erudition and Scholarship:

Thirdly, I wish to point out that this forthcoming version of the Quran in Chinese will owe its distinctiveness not only to the profusion of footnotes but, in large part, to Maulana Muhammad Ali’s Preface, Introduction and chapter summaries. These materials are highly informative and definitely conducive to a better understanding of the Divine message which the Holy Book seeks to convey to humanity at large. Although some of the existing Chinese translations also have similar features, none of them in my opinion is comparable in erudition or scholarship.

In conclusion, allow me to read the opening passage from a text inscribed on a monument found in a mosque in Xian, the ancient Chinese capital. Tradition places the date of this particular monument at 742 C.E. It says:

“That which endures for a hundred generations and stays unmoved is Truth. That which spans across the ages to motivate humankind is Mind. Since sages are of one mind and possess the same truth, they motivate each other and remain constant throughout the ages. Hence, within the bounds of the four seas, sages have emerged everywhere to share the same mind and the same truth. Muhammad, the Sage of the Western Realm, was born after Confucius, and lived in the country of Arabia. How great indeed the spatiotemporal distance which separated him from the Sage of the Middle Kingdom! And yet, linguistic differences notwithstanding, their doctrines are compatible. Why? because, being of one mind, they embraced the truth” (A reduced facsimile of the original Chinese text to be found between pages 84 and 85 of Broomhill 1987)2.

I will just add that the word which I have translated as truth and as doctrines in the above passage is tao, which literally means a way or path, as in the traditional school of Chinese thought popularly known in the West as taoism. In archaic Chinese this word is also used as a verb meaning to say. That is why in the first verse of St. John’s Gospel, which states,

“In the beginning was the Word”,

the word word (from Greek logos, ‘word, discourse, reason’) has also been translated into Chinese as tao. It refers, of course, to the Divine Word or Doctrine. It is interesting to note that in the Holy Quran the metaphor of a way or path is also repeatedly used to denote Allah’s revelations, which provide guidance to erring humanity. Isn’t that beautiful? On this note, I thank you.


  1. Winters, Clyde-Ahmad 1979: Mao or Muhammad — Islam in the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong, Asian Research Service. Location 1 in text↩ | Location 2 in text↩
  2. Broomhall, Marshall 1987 (first published 1910): Islam in China, A Neglected Problem. London, Darf Publishers Ltd. Location 1 in text↩ | Location 2 in text↩