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A century-old Ottoman legacy in China

A century-old Ottoman legacy in China



As it turned out, Wang was deeply influenced by the unofficial Ottoman envoy as well as by the efforts of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who was doing so much to propel modern education forward. After Imam Wang made his first hajj in 1906, accompanied by one of his students, Ma Debao, he went from Mecca to İstanbul. Here, he was warmly met by Sultan Abdülhamid II. While in İstanbul, Wang spent time investigating Ottoman educational methods as well as various points of sensitivity on the topic of Islam and education. He took notice of some of the differences he had seen, and on his return to China, Imam Wang mentioned in his conversations and religious sermons what he had seen of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan and Islam practiced by the Turks.

An idea forms: a university in Peking 

Sultan Abdülhamid II did not send this important Chinese Muslim leader home empty handed. In fact, reasoning that there were not many Islamic masterpieces present in China at the time, the sultan sent Imam Wang back with more than 1,000 books, asking him to share these works with other Chinese scholars when he returned. Along these lines, too, the sultan told Imam Wang when he was visiting İstanbul of his desire of seeing an Ottoman university opened in Peking. Wang, himself a strong supporter of modern education, told the sultan he would do what he could to shore up support for this plan in China.

Only one year passed after Wang’s visit to İstanbul before two Ottoman teachers were sent to Peking on the orders of the sultan. The two teachers found Wang, and, on the orders of the sultan, asked him for support. Imam Wang then took “Muallim” (master or teacher) Ali Rıza Efendi and Muallim Bursalı Hafız Hasan Efendi with him to the Niujie Mosque. Here, he told people of the plans held by those Turkish teachers, who had come from 10,000 kilometers away to open a school in China. It should be noted that at that time the Niujie Mosque was an important meeting point for Muslims. The Chinese Muslims turned over the gardens of this mosque to the Turkish teachers. At the same location, an empty building underwent repairs, and two more lesson halls were also built.

After a year of work, Peking Hamidiye University finally opened, amidst tears and prayers, in 1908. The presence of this new university had an immediate and enlivening effect on Ottoman-Chinese relations. In a sense, it managed to bring these two societies closer together. Using the opportunities available to him, what Sultan Abdülhamid II had essentially achieved was to -- despite the opposition of the West -- bring Chinese Muslims closer to both İstanbul and the Caliphate.

As Yang HaiHaipeng, head of the Chinese Muslim History and Culture Department, sees it, the opening of Hamidiye University under the conditions in place at the time was a very important event.

Historian HaiHaipeng notes that it is due to the sensitivities of the Chinese Muslims that the school has been able to stay standing despite the passage of 101 years since its opening. He says: “When in 1907 the two Turkish teachers arrived from İstanbul and met with Imam Haoren, construction began on what was to be called the ‘Training Institute for Islamic Teachers.’ And today, this university, referred to in Turkish sources as Hamidiye University, still stands on a piece of land behind the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, with one main building and three lesson halls.”

When the Turkish teachers sent by the sultan left China at the end of 1908 -- for reasons that are still unclear -- the university was taken over by local Muslims. After awhile, due to a lack of professors, the university began to be used as a primary school. Then, after the Maoist revolution of 1949, Arabic and religious education were brought to an end at the school, and instead only Chinese was taught. Later, a lack of funds led to the complete closure of the school. In recent years, the mosque community decided to see one of the lesson halls of the former university used for religious lessons for the youth. Despite the passing of many years, the school still stands in good condition. Some of the Ottoman motifs have been erased, but the architecture is still clearly Islamic in style. One of the lesson halls has even been turned into a museum that shows the history of the Niujie Mosque.

The occasion of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 saw the restoration of the 1,000-year-old Niujie Mosque and the Hamidiye University buildings still standing in its gardens in the Xuanwu district of Beijing. There are an estimated 200,000 Muslims who live in Beijing.

On bayrams and Friday prayers, it is nearly impossible to find space amongst the crowds at the 6,000-square-meter Niujie Mosque. Those who want to pray but cannot find space in the mosque itself crowd into the empty lesson halls of the Hamidiye University buildings.

Though the name of Sultan Abdülhamid II is no longer read out loud at Friday sermons at the Niujie Mosque, those who know the real story behind the history of the Hamidiye University have a hard time holding back their tears. They see the Ottoman structure in the garden of the Niujie Mosque as a stamp from the Ottoman times.

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