Chinese Muslims in Malaysia: Past and Present

Chinese Muslims in Malaysia: Past and Present

By: Siti Hajar Alwi

Image Source: International Horizons

Indonesian religious leader and Islamic scholar Hamka (1908–1981) wrote in 1961: “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He”1 History has it that the arrival of the earliest Chinese Muslims in present day Malaysia can be traced as far back as the 15th century, attributed to the explorations of Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. According to “Ming Shi” [明史] or the History of Ming, the historical records reveal that Admiral Zheng He might have visited Malacca at least five times as well as to the states of Terengganu, Pahang and Kelantan throughout his seven voyages to the Western Oceans (1405-1433).

Admiral Zheng He’s vast fleet arrived on the shores of Malacca in 1405. Aside from establishing the diplomatic ties within the courts of the Sultanate of Malacca with the Ming Dynasty, his presence brought upon the influx of Chinese Muslims in Malacca. In order to consolidate the relations, the Sultan sent his envoy to go along Admiral Zheng He to China. Official visits to China were made in the subsequent years by the Sultans of Malacca; Parameswara, Iskandar Shah and Muhammad Shah respectively.2

The relations between the Ming Dynasty with the Sultanate of Malacca were further strengthened when the Ming Dynasty Emperor offered Sultan Mansur Shah his daughter, Princess Hang Li Po’s hand in marriage. The princess brought an entourage comprising of 500 officials and servants that later embraced Islam, eventually remaining there, settling at “Bukit Cina” (Chinese Hill). Relations involving the Ming Dynasty and the Sultanate of Malacca continued until 1511, when the Portuguese ousted the Sultanate.2 In present days, “Bukit Cina” (Chinese Hill) has now become a Chinese cemetery. Whilst recent studies indicate that there are no Ming records to substantiate the existence of Princess Hang Li Po, there are gravestones that date back to the Ming Dynasty. 2

Several of the Chinese Muslim mosques constructed at that time soon became Zheng He temples; for the most part it is to commemorate the admiral. Even so, till today, a number of the mosques in Malacca such as the Masjid Kampung Hulu (Kampung Hulu Mosque) and Masjid Tengkera (Tranquerah Mosque) have managed to retain certain characteristics from the Chinese architectural designs, represented in the embellishments as well as the pagoda-like structure, adding further to the tangible evidence of Chinese Muslims influence. 2

The most recent discovery uncovered that from the 12th till the 14th century, the district of Kuala Berang (Fo-Lo-An), in the state of Terengganu, is one of the earliest Chinese settlements. In addition, the “Batu Bersurat Terengganu” (Inscribed Stone Slab of Terengganu) was said to have inscription forms that are similar to ancient Chinese writings. There are “Orang Yunnan” (Yunnan people) that were Muslims before their migration from China. In the book published by the Al-Yunani Family, there is a significant coverage of the genealogy of the 7 Chinese Muslims of Hui ancestry from Guangdong Province that settled in Terengganu in the early 20th century. Elsewhere in Malaysia, there are a few families of Chinese Muslims comprising of Hui Chinese Muslims, i.e. the Koay Clan in Penang and the Tianjing Hui Hui in Sabah, in which their forefathers may have arrived at an earlier time or together with Admiral Zheng He. 1, 3, 7

A prominent Chinese Muslim figure acknowledged throughout Malaysia, Southeast Asia and the Chinese Muslim communities is Haji Ibrahim Tien Ying Ma (1900-1982) born in a traditional Muslim family in Beijing, China. He came to Malaya (present day, Malaysia) in 1948 as China’s consul to the state of Perak. As one of the founders of the Malaysia Islamic Welfare Organization (PERKIM), he introduced PERKIM to the Chinese community and founded the Noor-El-Islam (The light of Islam), a monthly magazine printed by PERKIM in Chinese. His son, Dato’ Haji Mustapha Ma Qi is among the eminent Malaysian Chinese Muslim and holds the position as the current president of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association [MACMA]. 4, 5, 6

In general, the Chinese Muslims of Malaysia can be categorized into two categories, in which the majority encompasses of converts and the minority are the ones whose ancestors came directly from China. The converts’ category can be further divided into two categories, specifically those that intermarry with other Muslims whilst the other category consists of converts that embraced Islam out of their own accord. 4

According to the report from Sin Chew Daily dated on 19th November 2001, the population of Chinese Muslims throughout Malaysia was 57,227, approximately 1% from the overall total of 5.69million Chinese population in Malaysia, comparatively to the 1991 census that had 17,117 which was 0.4% from the 4.60 million surveyed. The statistics, however do not divulge nor differentiate the figures or percentages of the Chinese Muslims that are born as Muslims or are converts. 4


  1. Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, History and Development by Rosey Wang Ma
  2. Oversea Chinese Muslims, Yusuf Liu Baojun
  3. The writings on the state of Terengganu from the history of China and the early settlements of the Chinese community in Terengganu; Alcoh Wong Yahao Chinese Historian Researcher. Held by the Malaysian History Association, Terengganu Branch.
  4. The Chinese in Malaysia (South-East Asian Social Science Monographs) , Oxford University Press Lee Kam Hing and Tan Chee-Beng ISBN 983 56 0056 2
  5. – Malaysia Islamic Welfare Organization (PERKIM)
  6. Dept. of Statistics: “Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2000″, Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2001
  7. Kuala Berang’s Glorious Past, Alias Mohamed, Heritage Culture, News Straits Times

About the Author: Siti Hajar Alwi is a Malaysian blogger who blogs at A Voice in the Clouds.