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Chinese Qur'an

This 17th-century Chinese Qur'an shows how Islamic styles of calligraphy and illumination were combined with local styles, symbols and aesthetics that came from a very different culture.

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Chinese Qur’an

Chinese Qur’an, 17th century. Part six of a set originally in 30 volumes
BL Or. MS 15256/1, ff. 55v–56
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Qur'an?

The Qur'an is the central text of the Islamic faith. Islam takes its name from the Arabic word for 'submission' since believers must submit themselves to the will of God - in Arabic, Allah.

It is believed to be the actual word of Allah, as revealed by the archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad from around 610 until his death in 632. This marked the start of Islam. Muhammad is seen as last in a line of prophets stretching back to Abraham, from whom Judaism and Christianity also claim descent.

Abraham was the leader of a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. He established a religion that departed from other beliefs in worshipping just one, all-powerful god. The revelations of Muhammad were seen as a cleansing of Abraham's tradition, which had grown corrupt in Judaism and Christianity.

This heritage is reflected in the content of the Qur'an, which has much in common with the Bibles of Jews and Christians. The word Qur'an comes from the Arabic verb meaning 'to read' as it is designed to be recited aloud.

How is this Qur'an distinctively Chinese?

The influence of local style and culture is predominantly evident in those Qur'ans produced in China, particularly in their adaptation of symbols to Chinese art and culture.

Examples of this include the final pages of this Qur'an in which the diamond in the centre of the lantern motif has become the vehicle for the text on its decorated pages. The structure of the lantern is outlined in gold and set within a rectangle drawn with a double red line. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by hanging tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structures.

The script used here is a variation of muhaqqaq, a popular script for large illuminated Qur'ans as its angular and cursive features giving the calligrapher an opportunity to combine fluidity with rigidity. It is penned in a way that suggests the brush strokes associated with Chinese calligraphy, and is often referred to as sini (Chinese) Arabic.

How did Islam come to China?

Islam has a long history in China: in 650, a companion of Muhammad was sent as an envoy to the emperor who ordered the construction of the first mosque. Census returns do not include information on religion, so putting a figure on the number of Muslims in the country today is a matter of informed guesswork; estimates vary between 10 million and 100 million.

Many live in the areas bordering Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, and do not speak Chinese as their native language. The Chinese-speaking Muslims belong to a people known as the Hui, who number about 10 million. The vast majority of Hui practise Sunni Islam, and are divided into a number of traditionalist, Sufi and reformist factions.

In the early 20th century, missionaries set out to China to reach what they thought would be a pool of potential converts to Christianity. Their success was limited, as they had underestimated Hui commitment to Islam, but it had the effect of interesting many scholars who came out to study, interview and photograph the Muslim communities first-hand. They produced a great deal of valuable sociological research.

Women-only mosques and female imams are a notable feature of Chinese Islam. As is usual around the world, mosques generally reflect local architectural styles. China is generally tolerant of religious minorities: even through the Cultural Revolution, every Chinese town would have a Muslim restaurant serving halal food.