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Zheng He, the Muslim who became China’s greatest Admiral, Explorer and Diplomat

Oct 03, 2018

Zheng He, China’s greatest explorer. When people think of great explorers they think of the usual names, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Christopher Columbus, etc. but not many know of Zheng He, the Muslim who became China’s greatest Admiral, explorer and diplomat.

In China, he is well-known although not always recognised or glorified. Zheng was born in 1371 in the southern China region of Henan to a Muslim Chinese ethnic family and named Ma He. In Chinese culture, the family name is said first followed by the given name. Ma in China is known as the short form for Mahomed, indicating Zheng’s Muslim heritage.

At a young age, his town was raided by the Ming Dynasty’s army. He was captured and transported to the capital Nanjing where he served in the imperial household. Despite the oppressive and difficult conditions he was in, Zheng befriended one of the prices, Xhu Di and rose to the highest positions in government. He was given the honorific title Zheng and was known as Zheng He.

In 1405 when Emperor Xu Di decided to send out a giant fleet of ships to explore and trade with the rest of the world, he chose Zheng to lead to an expedition. This expedition was massive. IN all, almost thirty thousand sailors were in each voyage with Zheng He commanding all of them. Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He led seven expeditions that sailed to present-day Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya and many other countries.

It is probable that during one of his journeys Zheng He was even able to go to Makkah to complete the Hajj. Zheng was not the only Muslim on these expeditions. Many of his advisors were also Chinese Muslims, such as Ma Huan, a translator who spoke Arabic and was able to converse with the Muslim peoples they encountered on their journeys.
He wrote an account of his journeys titled the Ying-yai Sheng-lan which is an important source today for understanding 15th-century societies around the Indian Ocean.

The ships Zheng commanded were up to 400 feet long, many times the size of Columbus’ ships that sailed across the Atlantic. Zheng would sail back to China with exotic goods such as ivory, camels, gold and even a giraffe from Africa.

The expedition sent one message to the world – China is an economic and political superpower. Economics and politics were not the only effects of this giant fleet that was commanded by Zheng, He and his Muslim advisors regularly promoted Islam wherever they travelled. In the Indonesian islands of Java, Sumatra, Borneo and others, Zheng found small communities of Muslims already there.

Islam had started to spread in South East Asia a few hundred years before through trade from Arabia and India. Zheng actively supported the continued growth of Islam in these areas. He established Chinese-Muslim communities in Palembang and along Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. These communities preached Islam to the local people and were instrumental to the spread of Islam in the region.

The fleet built masajid and provided other social services the local Muslim community would need. Even after the death of Zheng in 1433, other Chinese-Muslims continued his work in South East Asia spreading Islam.

Chinese-Muslim traders in South East Asia were encouraged to intermarry and assimilate with the local people on the islands and the Malay Peninsula increasing the number of Muslims in South East Asia as well strengthening and diversifying the growing Muslim community.

As an admiral, diplomat, soldier and trader, Zheng He is a giant of Chinese and Muslim history and is seen as one of the greatest figures in the spread of Islam in South East Asia. Unfortunately, after his death, the Chinese government changed its philosophy to a more Confucian one which did not support such expeditions like Zheng He’s. As a result, his accomplishments and contributions were mostly forgotten and overlooked for centuries in China. His legacy in South East Asia, however, is quite different. Numerous mosques in the area are named after him to commemorate his contributions.

Islam spread to South East Asia through many forms including trade, travelling preachers and immigration. Admiral Zheng He was also a major part of its spread in that region. Today Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population of any nation in the world and much of that could be attributed to the activities of Zheng He in the region.

Annisa Essack

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