Despite being officially atheist, and historically most closely associated with Buddhism, China has a deep-rooted relationship with Islam, dating as far back as the 7th Century. At least 1.8% of the population, or roughly 24 million people, identify as Muslim, making China’s Muslim population roughly the size of Yemen’s and eight times more numerous than the United Kingdom’s. In recent months, China’s Uighur Muslims have garnered the most media attention as violence has intensified in the autonomous western region of Xinjiang. Although Xinjiang has been under Chinese communist rule since 1949, capital officials in Beijing have recently intensified its efforts to control the region and its religion, leading to clashes with the indigenous Uighurs, the region’s largest ethnic minority. But while violence from the conflict spilled briefly into Beijing in November 2013, the capital’s relationship with its own majority Muslim community, the Hui, remains peaceful. With Xinjiang currently a shaky region for foreign visitors because of security concerns, Beijing's Muslim quarter, Niu Jie, offers another way for travellers to explore Islam’s intertwined history with Chinese culture. Pictured here, the Niu Jie Mosque is the oldest and largest in Beijing, built in 996.
Wander around the Beijing quarter of Niu Jie, and you might feel as if you've been transported out of China – or, at least, to a perfectly blended Arabian version of China. Signs are in Arabic, restaurants sell halal versions of central Asian dishes (like the lamb encrusted with sesame, shown here) and many people wear traditional Hui Islamic clothing, including white caps for the men and headscarves for the women. Just down the street from Niu Jie Mosque is Tu Lu Fan Restaurant. Opened in 1985 by a Uighur owner, it was one of the first and, today, is one of the most popular restaurants serving Xinjiang cuisine in Beijing. While the Hui are Beijing’s predominate Muslim population, several Uighurs have opened shops and restaurants in Niu Jie, living side-by-side with Hui and Han Chinese.