Muslims have been living in Taiwan for almost 400 years, yet most Taiwanese will tell you they've never met a fellow citizen who follows Islam. Currently, foreign Muslims living and working or studying in Taiwan outnumber native-born Muslims by at least two to one, there being a mere 60,000 of the latter, out of a total population of just over 23 million. When Han Chinese began settling along Taiwan's western coast in the late 16th century, among them were descendants of Arab and Persian merchants who'd settled generations earlier in Fujian (the Chinese province closest to Taiwan and the ancestral home of many Taiwanese), or families who traced their origin to Yunnan and Sichuan, both provinces with substantial Muslim populations.
Before 1700, two coastal settlements dominated non-aboriginal life in Taiwan, and both were home to Islamic communities. One was Tainan, the administrative capital. The other was Lugang, a town now popular with tourists because it has preserved a great deal of its preindustrial character.
Lugang's mosque and Muslim cemetery are long gone and burqas have never been a part of local culture, yet some of the town's oldest families are of Muslim origin. One of the town's landmarks is Ding Mansion. Built in the 1880s, the mansion was commissioned by a clan of scholar-businessmen of Muslim origin. However, visitors will not notice any Islamic symbols inside the building.
Many of Lugang's Muslims were already assimilating into mainstream Han society before they reached Taiwan. There, isolated from the large Muslim communities on the Chinese mainland, they gradually lost their traditions. Yet it's said a few households still possess Korans they can’t read but recognize as sacred. Also, some families wash those who’ve just died in the Islamic manner. They then wrap their bodies in plain white shrouds, rather than the expensive clothing decreed by Han Chinese custom. When making offerings to their ancestors, they exclude pork. Worshipers at Xincuo Changan Temple, a small folk shrine a few kilometers north of the downtown, also make a point of not including pig products when making food offerings to their deities, because they know their place of worship stands on the site of the old mosque.
Few Muslims are prominent in Taiwanese society. One exception is Liu Wen-hsiung, a three-term lawmaker who served in the country's parliament until 2008. He also ran for the mayorship of Keelung (population 374,000), the city where he was born in 1954. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, local media asked Liu to give his views on Islam and acts of political violence.
The most vibrant Muslim community in Taiwan is in Zhongli City, Taoyuan County. Most of the 2,000 Muslims there are the descendants of KMT guerrillas who continued fighting the Chinese Communists in southwest China for years after Chiang Kai-shek's retreat to Taiwan. They were evacuated to Taiwan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A small number are converts, formerly Buddhist or Taoist Taiwanese who adopted Islam after marrying Muslims. The community's house of worship is called Longgang Mosque, pictured above.
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