Jan 24, 2023 - World

One man's struggle to keep Islam alive in Taiwan

Mohammed Ma stands in front of a halal butcher shop in Taipei, Taiwan.

Mohammed Ma stands in front of a halal butcher shop in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan. 12. Photo: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian/Axios

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Fewer and fewer Chinese Muslims in Taiwan practice the religion of their ancestors. The grandson of a famous Chinese Muslim general is trying to keep the faith alive.

The big picture: Chinese Muslim communities in Taiwan are small and dispersed, which can make it difficult to transmit their traditions across generations. But a recent wave of migrants from southeast Asia have infused new vitality into Islamic life in Taiwan.

What's happening: Mohammed Ma, a member of Taiwan's Hui Muslim community, travels around Taiwan educating Muslims about the basics of Islamic practice. He's also a self-taught halal butcher and provides fresh Taiwan-raised halal meat and halal certifications for the handful of halal butcher shops in Taipei.

  • Ma's maternal grandfather is Bai Chongxi, one of the 20th century's most famous Hui Muslims, who served as China's minister of national defense from 1946 to 1948 before fleeing with Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949. Bai is also revered among Hui Muslims for founding numerous Hui associations.
  • The resemblance between Ma and his grandfather is striking, and he seems to take his grandfather's legacy seriously. He serves as chairman of Taiwan's Hui Association, as well as a supervisor with the Association of Muslim Life Support Taipei.

What he's saying: When Hui Muslims came from China, "they dispersed around Taiwan rather than forming concentrated communities," Ma told Axios in an interview. Many intermarried with members of the majority Han ethnic group. Three or four generations later, many of their descendants don't know the basics of Islamic practice, Ma said.

  • So Ma holds classes teaching Muslims in Taiwan about what is "halal" (permitted) and "haram" (forbidden) in Islam.
  • He also serves as an informal social worker for Muslims here, including many migrants, when they face troubles at home or with the authorities.
  • "Most of what the Quran teaches is about relationships between people. ... So when Muslims here are having problems, they come find me and ask me to help," Ma said. "People call me their Muslim dad."

Background: Around 40,000 Hui Muslims fled China to Taiwan in 1949. Most were soldiers and generals from China's central and northwest regions, where Hui Muslims are concentrated.

  • The Hui are an ethnic group unique to China. They trace their ancestry back to Persian and Arab merchants and militias that arrived in China's northwest about a thousand years ago and intermarried with local Han Chinese women.
  • Several Hui Muslims feature prominently in Chinese history, including Zheng He, a 15th-century admiral who led huge fleets on expeditions around southeast Asia and India, sailing as far as the Horn of Africa and perhaps, some historians argue, even to California's coast.

But now, Ma said, there are now only about 20,000 people who identify as Hui in Taiwan.

  • "In Taiwan, the Hui population is too small to sustain a cultural group," Ma Haiyun (no relation to Mohammed; Ma is a common surname among Hui Muslims), a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland whose research focuses on Chinese Muslims, told Axios.
  • "The good thing for the Hui Muslims in Taiwan is that they have a tolerant political and cultural environment," Ma Haiyun said, adding that in China, by comparison, Hui communities are much larger but Islam is tightly controlled.

Where it stands: Immigration is breathing new life into Muslim communities in Taiwan.

  • The Taipei Grand Mosque, the country's most famous Muslim house of worship, was built under Bai's supervision to accommodate the influx of Hui Muslims from China. But now most regular participants in Friday prayers there are Indonesian, Malaysian and Pakistani.
  • Today there are 11 mosques in Taiwan, several of which were founded to support new immigrant communities.
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