For the Taipei Grand Mosque like for many others across the world, the day of Friday is not a normal day. Unlike on other weekdays, the Mosque, which has the capacity of around 1000 people, is generally overcrowded on a Friday. So much so that one can see numerous people praying outside the Mosque as well. This is roughly an indicator of the growing number of Muslims in Taipei. After the Friday Prayer, they (men and women) go to a hall besides the main prayer room to enjoy different kinds of foods. There are a variety of food items available that include Taiwanese food and Indonesian food. There are also food items available from different countries like Thailand, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The point to be noted is that all of them are Halal, the food acceptable as per Quran, which is the biggest concern for Muslims in Taiwan.
One is constantly reminded of the Holy month of Ramadan, if living among the Muslims in Taipei. The Iftar (breaking of fast) time in the month of Ramadan is no less than a grand wedding ceremony. One is welcomed by a variety of food and drinks served by a number of enthusiastic waiters. Though many Muslim countries arrange group breakfast in the mosque but the scene in Taipei is very different from them. Arrangements, punctuality and generosity of Taiwanese Muslims just like other fellow Taiwanese make it very much special and unique of its kind.
Officially Taiwan has only 60,000 Muslim population, which constitutes only 0.2 % of the total population of Taiwan but many Muslims from countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and countries from Africa and the Middle East are part of the workforce which was estimated up to 254,000 in 2015. Interestingly, the number of local Muslims is less than those who came here to work or to study. There are about 7 mosques in Taiwan but it also has many other places where people can perform daily prayers.
However, the local Muslims suffer identity and religious crisis due to historical reasons as well as because of them being a minority here. The new generation has less chance to acquire Islamic education and Islamic culture. There is no Islamic school across Taiwan and mosques offer only weekly classes which have limited presence.
Dr. Ibrahim Chao (Hsi-lin Chao), Advisor to the Chinese Muslims Associations (CMA); one of the leading representative bodies of Muslims in Taiwan; thinks Islamic education is very important for all Muslims, especially for youngsters.
“Though our education system is perfect but as soon as students become 9 years old, they spent most of the time at school and parents have less time to educate about basic things about Islam,” said Chao, who completed his PhD in Shariah (Islamic Law) from the Umm al-Qura University in Mecca and also serves as Imam of Taipei Grand Mosque.
There are families who know that they or their ancestors were Muslims but now they don’t know how to practice their faith. “Sometimes not eating pork become identity of Muslim,” says Salih Ali (Yu Jia Ming), who edits bimonthly magazine Islam in China. Ali’s grandfather migrated from Shandong province of China in 1949 and he is from fourth generation living in the Iceland.
“Parents earlier didn’t pay more attention about religious affairs. We don’t have Islamic schools and whole education depends on only Sunday classes in the mosque. Even some people gave up Islam and they only know that they don’t eat pork and their father was Muslim,” Salih, who is researching about Muslim minorities in Taiwan and Chinese Muslim immigrants’ issues around the world at National Chengchi University, Taipei, explains.
The Chinese language is based on signs and symbols and most of the time it is not possible to transliterate a particular word. Perhaps it is the reason that many Taiwanese Muslims don’t know even basic terminologies which are as popular and important among the Muslims across the world.
On a personal note, I felt it hard to explain to my local Muslim friends the actual meaning of Eid. Since last few years, some universities have started a degree course in Arabic literate and culture.
Many Taiwanese carry two names, one in Chinese and another is English because sometimes it is really hard to transliterate Chinese names in English but Muslims sometimes have three names- In Chinese, English and Arabic.
Most of the Taiwanese Muslims belong to Hanafi school of thought but people from other schools are welcomed and adjust easily; unlike in many other Muslim countries in South-East Asia and other parts of the world. Taipei Grand Mosque is not only a mosque but a center place of Muslims in Taiwan. It is largest and oldest mosque in the Iceland. The international cultural diversity of Muslims can be seen here every time.
About 35 percent of the total population of Taiwan is Buddhist, followed by Taoism 33 percent and Christianity 3.9 percent.
Like many western countries, traditional Muslim culture is rarely seen here. Most of the local Muslims don’t have the beard or didn’t have genetically. The full veil burqa is rarely seen but Muslim women can be seen wearing the scarf.
Though many religions are practiced in Taiwan but unlike many Asian countries, religious conflict is rarely seen in this Iceland. Two years ago, Taiwan was listed as world’s second most religiously diverse country after Singapore; by the Washington, D.C. based prestigious PEW Research Center.
Apart from some limited pamphlets and books available in the mosque, for local Taiwanese people, there are very limited resources to know about Islam. Due to the current scenario of the world and manipulation by the media agencies time and again, some have even started seeing Islam in a bad light. Some of them are so overtaken by the religious chaos going on in the world that as soon as they meet a new person and come to know that he or she is a Muslim, they question him or her about the infamous ISIS organization.
Maggie Maa, an undergraduate student in Taipei, feels proud of being different in a society Muslims are quite less in number but she thinks sometimes, it is very challenging.
“I feel very different from the people around me and I am proud of having these differences but most Muslim children have gone through a phase when they were embarrassed about their identity, because they had to dress and eat differently. Being singled out could be very hard for a young child,” says Maa, who pursues, an undergraduate degree from Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei.
Maa’s parents migrated in 1980 from Myanmar. She is also known as Mǎhàoyuàn and Farida. “Sometimes it is very inconvenient to our way of living. It is also a challenge to face the discrimination based on our religion. Wearing hijab outside definitely attracts attention, we get weird stares and people would ask stereotypical questions about Muslims being terrorists and about ISIS,” she explains.
Many believe that it is because Muslims in Taiwan are very few and for local people there are less chance to know Islam and Muslims. They usually know Islam and Muslims through the media. Compare to other international languages, there is less literature in Chinese language and most of them are translated from Arabic and English.
For Muslim travelers and students from foreign countries, the toughest job is to locate a place which has Halal meal. Most of the local restaurants serve pork and apart from pork, it is common here to cook food using pork oil or other animal oil. Though organizations like CMA are trying to spread information about Halal restaurants in Taipei and other cities through various means but the numbers of such restaurants in each city are very less. Most of the time, after Friday prayer or sometimes on Sunday also, Mosque committees arrange Halal food in many places. Some places provide it for free as well. An Indonesian students’ organization came with a new idea. They publish a ‘Halal Card’ in the Chinese language which states that what kind of food the bearer of the card/Muslim can eat. Recently, the Mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je promised to increase the number of Halal restaurants in the city.
Role of the Government
Religious freedom is one of the key features guaranteed in the constitution of Taiwan and the relation of Muslims and the government is good. Usually, Muslims don’t have any complain against the government. Ex-Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou used to receive the Hajj caravan of pilgrimage returning from Mecca every year since 2008. On the day of Eid-ul-Fitr, Taipei Mayor visits the Taipei Grand Mosque.
While addressing Regional Islamic Dawah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific in Taipei, President Ma said Islam is like an old friend and his government is working tirelessly to safeguard the rights of Muslims.
It is said that Islam was first introduced to Taiwan in the 7th century by Muslim traders. In the 17th century, a large number of Hui Muslims migrated from mainland China. Hui is an ethnic group, mostly Muslim, in the mainland China.
According to Dr. Ibrahim Chao (an article at a Hong Kong based Islamic site), Islam first came to Taiwan from mainland China during the last period of Ming Dynasty. Ming rulers sent the army to drive out Portuguese who were ruling on the Iceland at that point of time. Because of it, many Muslim soldiers brought their families and later settled down here.
Till early years of the 20th century, Taiwanese Muslims’ connection with the mainland was very strong and there was a custom of sending Imam from the mainland to Taiwan but during the Japanese rule, this connection was restricted. After the 2nd World War, when the Japanese left China and nationalists Kuomintang led by Cheng-Kai Shek were forced to leave mainland then about 20,000 Muslims came to Taiwan with Kuomintang. In 1980s, many Muslims from Myanmar and Thailand in search of the better life came to Taiwan and later became its citizens.