This Is How a Chinese Prisoner Described Early Islamic Society

The earliest Chinese description of the Muslim world that has survived until today comes from around 761 CE, a century and a half after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received his first revelation. It was written by the chronicler Du You (735-812) in his Encyclopedic History of Institutions. He himself never visited the Muslim world, which was ruled by the Abbasid dynasty at the time, but much of his information came from a close relative who did: Du Huan. Du Huan was a Chinese soldier who was captured by the Muslims at the Battle of Talas in 751 and taken prisoner to Kufa. Kufa, a thriving Islamic city in southern Iraq, had been built by the great caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (r) about a century earlier, and was the capital of the ‘Abbāsid Empire in Du Huan’s time (Baghdad hadn’t been built yet). Du Huan was held as a prisoner-of-war in Kufa for ten years, after which he returned to China and described life in early Muslim society to Du You.

History

Du You begins his passage on the Muslim world with a brief summary of early Islamic history. He mentions Prophet Muhammad (s), Abu Bakr (r), and ‘Uthman (r). His information is surprisingly detailed and accurate – even the name he uses to describe the tribe of Prophet Muhammad, “Dashi”, may be a corruption of “Quraysh”:

“The country is west of Persia. Others say before this a Persian Arab [Prophet Muhammad (s)] as if with divine aid obtained a sword and killed people. Because he summoned some of the Arabs to join him, eleven men came. Following the order of joining, they encouraged the first one to be appointed king. After this, many gradually joined him, and subsequently they destroyed Persia and defeated Byzantium and the city of India. All they encountered had no way of defeating them. Their troops numbered 420,000. Their nation has existed for 34 years [i.e. starting from the hijrah in 622]. Before this, when the first king [Prophet Muhammad (s)] died, a successor was appointed as head, and the present king is the third successor [i.e. the caliph ‘Uthman]. The king belongs to the tribe of the Dashi [i.e. the Arabs].”

In the rest of his account, Du You shares the observations of Du Huan. Fortunately for us, Du Huan seems to have been a very keen observer:
“The men of the land have large, long noses and are dark-skinned and heavily bearded, like Indians. The women are dignified and beautiful. Their writing system differs from that of the Persians. They raise camels, horses, donkeys, mules, sheep, and other animals. The soil has much sand and is not suitable for cultivation. They do not have the five grains of rice, millet, beans, wheat and barnyard millet, but only eat the meat of camels, horses, and other similar animals. It was only when they had defeated Persia and Byzantium that they obtained rice and baked goods. They worship the god of Heaven.”

Religion

Even though he was a prisoner-of-war, Du Huan seems to have enjoyed a lot of freedom to explore and observe Kufa, judging from the detailed descriptions he left. He commented on the religious practice of the Muslims as well, including references to salah and the niqab:

“[The land of the] Dashi [i.e. the Arabs] is also called Ajuluo [Akula (i.e. Kufa, in modern-day Iraq)]. The king of Dashi is called Mu-men [i.e. Amir al-Mu’minin, a traditional title for Muslim leaders], and he has made this place his capital. The gentlemen and women of this place are tall and well-built. They wear fine and clean garments, and their manners are gentle and elegant. When women go outdoors, they must cover up their faces with veils. Five times a day all the people, whether humble or noble, pray to Heaven. They eat meat as a religious observance, and they consider killing [i.e. sacrificing] animals merit-worthy. They wear silver belts decorated with silver knives. They prohibit wine and music. When they quarrel, they do not come to blows.”

Du Huan also described the Great Mosque of Kufa, which could accommodate up to 60,000 people (according to Imam at-Tabari). He does not mention the name of the “king” who gave the sermon in this mosque, but is referring to the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (r. 754-775), who is known to have regularly delivered powerful sermons:

“There is also a prayer hall which holds tens of thousands. Every seven days [on Friday] the king attends the prayers, mounts a high seat [i.e. the mimbar] and expounds the religious law to the people, saying: ‘Men’s life is very hard; this is a way of Heaven that would not change. If you commit one of the following crimes – lewdness, kidnapping, robbery, mean actions, slander, self-gratification at the expense of others, cheating the poor and oppressing the humble – your sins are among the most heinous…’ A large territory came under the king’s rule, and the number of those who follow him is increasing incessantly. The law is lenient and funerals are frugal.”

Trade

Du Huan commented on the trade and commerce of Kufa as well. Kufa was known to be a thriving center of trade in the Abbasid Empire but not the only one. Interestingly, even though Du Huan might not have realized it at the time, his observation suggests that there were trade relations between the Chinese and Muslim civilizations from very early on, since the porcelain he found in Kufa could only have originated in China:
“Within the city walls, in the villages, all of the earth’s products are here. Nothing is lacking. It is the hub of the four quarters. Thousands of varieties of merchandise have been brought here in immense quantities and are sold at very low prices. Silk and embroideries, pearls and shells are piled up in the markets. Camels and horses, donkeys and mules jam the streets and alleys. Dwelling houses and other buildings are carved of stone-honey [earth bricks?] and resemble Chinese carriages. On each festival, the nobles are presented with glass work, porcelain, brass, bottles and jugs in enormous quantities.”

Modern-day historical sensitivities make it important for us to look at historical sources that confirm each other’s information. Thankfully, the descriptions of Du You and Du Huan have left the today’s Muslims with some evidence, coming from a very unexpected source (distant China, of all places), to prove that early Islamic society was just about as great as Muslims believe it was.

Sources
Hyunhee Park, Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 20-29.
Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, (Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2007), 360-362.

Written by Hassam Munir

Hassam Munir

Hassam Munir is a student and independent researcher of Islamic history based in Toronto, Canada. He enjoys looking into the past from fresh and diverse perspectives. He is the founder of the iHistory project, where he blogs regularly. To read more of Hassam's work on Islamic history, visit www.ihistory.co.