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Life of a Muslim Foreigner Living in Tianjin





Islam in Tianjin is a religion that is growing day by day.  It is said that the faith first appeared in China around 650 AD, introduced by Arab traders journeying along the silk route. Today its population is estimated to be over 24 million.


On the streets of Tianjin, Islam is a term that when mentioned, is certainly acknowledged and at times even met by violent nodding and a murmur of understanding. The city’s geographical location can be said to aid its growing presence of Islam. Its close proximity to other major Islamic cities such as those in XinJiang, Gansu and Ningxia has helped it to become one of the more Islamically populated cities in China.


‘Muslim’ is a word that most locals are acquainted with, but the extent of their understanding is usually limited to its association with the Arabic language and the concept of ‘bu neng chi zhurou’ (not being allowed to eat pork). Islam in China is an area of study that most Western scholars have ignored as it is something that does not fit with our general and conventional understanding of China. Moreover, it adds a complexity that confuses and disorientates our understanding of Chinese culture and society.



My personal experience

Having being exposed to Islam in the UK, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, I can honestly say that my experience in Tianjin has been an eye-opening one. In Tianjin, when a foreign Muslim is recognized to be a follower of Islam by a local Muslim, it is not uncommon to be greeted in the Arabic language, ‘Asalam Walakum’ (peace be upon you). This is something quite alien in any society where Arabic is not spoken, making it especially rare in China as most people do not speak Arabic. Yet the local Muslim people insist on greeting one another in the Arabic tongue, the Quranic language. When eating in a Muslim restaurant I have also found that Chinese Muslims have often directed me to the nearest mosque and encouraged me to be part of their Islamic community.


Practicing Islam as a girl in Tianjin has been a fairly simple affair. I have walked into several mosques to pray, as well as engaged in conversation with the friendly Imams who have extended their generosity by engaging me in conversations about my life here in addition to inviting me to dine with them. One must note however that due to my poor Chinese, I have had to carry out my conversation in Arabic, a language that they are very well acquainted with, despite being Chinese.


Furthermore, finding ‘qingzhencai’, (halal food) has also been easy due to the ever growing number of Muslim restaurants here. Before I arrived in China, my Muslim friends and I shared the similar fear of being subjected to a life of veganism. However, upon our arrival in Tianjin, we realized that this was indeed an error in judgement.


During Eid, the mosques around Tianjin opened their doors to all Muslims to join in their festivity and holy celebrations. Free food, group prayers and plenty socializing was done. I myself found it to be warm and refreshing as I was ushered into a mosque.



Wider society

After trying to integrate within the foreign and local Muslim community here, I have been enlightened and somewhat perplexed by the obstacles and feelings faced by Muslims.


Local students at universities admitted to finding it difficult to pray regularly as they are forbidden from praying in their dormitories. Some, however, still pray in their rooms despite the rules, of course with the approval of roommates. Other Muslim students find it distressful that non-Muslims eat in the same cafeteria as them as this would mean the sharing of chopsticks. A few Muslim girls have also expressed their discontentment at not being able to wear the hijab.


Some foreign Muslims feel  that although practicing Islam is easy, communication with the Chinese Muslim community was difficult. This extended to talking with the Imams, as they only speak Chinese and sometimes Arabic, and of course not all Muslims can speak this. Furthermore, they feel that the way they practiced their religion in the Arabic language was not accurate, and found this difficult to come to terms with.


Young local Muslims sometimes feel isolated in their beliefs and feelings. Not drinking at parties and eating as vegetarians at most restaurants contribute to problems with social integration, or so some have claimed.  At times a few have felt the need to be low key about their religion too.


Even though the streets of Tianjin flourishes with Muslim restaurants, the food of which is renowned to be most delicious, it is also common knowledge that many of them  are Muslim restaurants under a false pretence. There is a lot of anger within the Muslim community about being cheated, where some ‘Muslim’ restaurant actually serve their meat mixed with pork or meat that is not actually halal.


Final thoughts

I cannot help but feel impressed by the high standing of Islam that is present in Tianjin. I must admit that had I not been able to speak Arabic, Urdu and a little Chinese, as well as forcing myself to integrate with Muslims from all over the world, I may not have found out much about Islam in Tianjin. But after questioning Muslim expatriates and locals, it is incredible to see that there is a truly vibrant Islamic community here that is easy to be part of.  


By Sarah Ali 

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