Relaymedia

22 Million Chinese Respond to an Arabic Call to Prayer

Dec 13, 2002 12:23 PM EST

WESTERN CHINA -- Sitting around the table, the Wong* family laughs and talks. They tease each other as their elderly mother brings a dish of noodles from the kitchen. Chopsticks fly, diving into the steaming hot bowl.

Off to the side, smiling and reveling in the joy of children and grandchildren, sits the father of the house. He listens to the chatter as he strokes his long, gray beard. He is blessed to have such a family. All three of his daughters are married as well as his three sons. All have jobs -- hard to come by in this part of China.

The rotund father glances at the clock and rises. He nudges his eldest son and then disappears. The son grabs his hat and rushes out the door.

A few doors away, a young Chinese man steps up to a microphone. He belts out a guttural song much different than the karaoke his peers perform just down the street. This song is not Chinese hip-hop, but an Arabic call to prayer.

The freshly scrubbed father appears out of nowhere and turns west with the other old men, facing the very distant city of Mecca. As the last notes of the song disappear, the eldest son enters the mosque to lead hundreds of men in the third prayer of the day.

CHINESE AND MUSLIM

From all appearances, the Wong family looks like millions of other families in China. But peel back the Chinese appearance and you find the same Muslim devotion expressed in other parts of the world.

More than 22 million Muslims live in China. The religion came to this large country more than a thousand years ago through Mongolia, Arabia, Persia and Turkey along the famous Silk Road and spice route. Amazingly, Islam is a recognized religion by the Chinese communist government.

Most Chinese practice Islam in a more relaxed manner than adherents in the Middle East. The Koran is their holy book, but most cannot read the Arabic it is written in. And in several mosques, men and women are allowed to pray together in the same prayer hall.

Despite the lax approach to a usually rigid religion, there is a strong cultural tie to Islam. Christian researchers say this bond is the main barrier keeping Chinese Muslims from coming to Christ. Many bear traditional Muslim names such as Mohammed, Fatima and Mousa. Young people marry only within the Muslim community, keeping the family ties to the religion strong. Even the communist government's approach helps strengthen the bond. No one wants to betray his or her religion or minority group.

EARNING A LIVING

According to Chinese Muslim culture, true religion is left mainly to the old men and women of the community.

Normally, adults in their 40s, 50s and 60s spend their time praying and following the other rigors of Islam. They learn the Koran at special adult night schools. Most were unable to study Islam as youngsters. Now, children learn the ways of Islam in a six-week course during their summer break from school.

Wong smiles as his son-in-law speaks of being young and his responsibilities. He remembers the years he worked in a factory to provide for his children. Now, he spends his time working on eternity. Five times a day he shuffles from his home to pray in the mosque with the other old men, all in hopes of making up for lost time and pleasing Allah.

At home, he pours over books about Islam in the library of his eldest son, Mohammed*. The 42-year-old son is an imam at the local mosque. He studied Islam at a university in the Middle East. All he has known are the ways of Islam, and he wants to help others know the way to Allah.

FORMER MISSIONARY

Mohammed served as a Muslim missionary in Southeast Asia for several years before settling back home with his parents. He now spends his days translating Arabic books into Chinese. Very few speak Arabic, and those who can are highly revered. He is working on his sixth book.

"My father first took me to prayers when I was 10 years old," Mohammed says. "My father taught me about Islam as his father taught him and my grandfather's father taught him.

"We are Chinese, but we are Muslim first," the imam says, reaching into his father's desk to pull out a dusty, old book. The rice-paper pages crack and pop ever so slightly as he finds the spot he is looking for.

"Here, this is the Koran handed down from generation to generation in my family," he says proudly. "It is handwritten and more than 500 years old. See? We have been and will always be Muslim."

There is no Christian neighbor to voice the grace of God through Jesus Christ. No nearby church. No evangelist who regularly passes through.

Thousands of miles away, however, Christians are praying for God's protection of Scripture translation efforts and "Jesus" film production into local languages. They are praying that God will draw these people to himself through miracles, his Word and believers -- and that God will burden and equip mature, Chinese-speaking Christians to plant churches to strengthen new believers among these Muslims, challenging them to serve as missionaries to their own people.

*Names are changed to protect the family.

EDITORS' NOTE: This story is one of six released by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board in support of this month's International Missions Emphasis, with the theme of "That All Peoples May Know Him: Seek God's Passion."