In a series of programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslim pilgrims from around the world as they prepare to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage.
The ancient Chinese city of Xi’an is home to the famous terracotta army and was at the very centre of Chinese civilisation during the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907.
It is also home to about 60,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims and boasts 1,300 years of Islamic history.
Proud of their Islamic heritage and their country’s traditions, the Muslims of Xi’an have merged their own ancient Chinese culture with Islam, remaining faithful to the central tenets of their religion.
Forty-six-year-old Ma Yi Ping is well-known within Xi’an’s Muslim community.
One of the ten imams at the city’s Great Mosque, he also owns a small shop selling Islamic calligraphy in the city’s Muslim quarter and acts as a religious teacher for those about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.
“I was born into a devout Muslim family and I’m the only child. I started studying Quran since I was young. I was told that I should devote myself to Islam as well as [to] the Muslim people and contribute to the peace of our society, to our country,” Ma says.
“When I was a kid my father sent me to an imam’s place to learn the Quran. At that time it was forbidden for children to study in the mosque because of the political pressure brought by the ‘Gang of Four’. All religions were affected badly.”
China’s Communist party closed all of the country’s mosques in 1959 and during the 1966 Cultural Revolution, more than 29,000 mosques were destroyed.
Ma was 16 years old when the mosques re-opened and he became an imam.
“As an imam, it’s my lifetime responsibility to promote Islam,” he says.
Ma first went on Hajj in 1994 and has been again several times since.
Unlike in Singapore and Malaysia, there are no elaborate preparations that the Chinese Muslims undertake. Ma helps to guide his pilgrims and teaches them some special prayers to perform while in Mecca.
“I want to help the Chinese Muslims as they are very pious. The only problem they face is that they are not familiar with all the religious activities [that take place] during the Hajj, since they are not done locally.”
Jia Wang Yi and his wife are two of the soon-to-be pilgrims Ma is helping. Both in their sixties, they have been saving for five years for their pilgrimage.
“This trip is very important to both of us. We have done lots of preparation work with the instructions from the imam and my son.
“I have been very conscious of my health, working very hard to study the Hajj rituals, preparing our clothing and medicine. We have prepared thoroughly,” Jia says.
Their son, Jia Ren Ping, was hoping to go with them but work commitments mean he will not be able to make it this time around.
“Both my grandparents and parents desired to participate in the Hajj. But due to various reasons, my grandparents were unable to do so. They faced financial problems and lived during a war-torn period,” Jia Ren Ping explains.
“Thus, my parents have this strong desire to go to Hajj, firstly to accomplish the will of Allah, secondly to fulfill the wishes of our ancestors.”
The Jias will be part of a group of 251 pilgrims leaving Xi’an for the Hajj. As the community is so closely-knit, almost everyone knows the others going from their neighbourhood.
Unlike in some other countries, the Chinese pilgrims do not receive any special government subsidies to help cover the cost of performing Hajj. The less well off often save for years to be able to afford it.
For Xi’an’s wealthier Muslims, like Jia Hong, who owns a successful fried rice restaurant in the heart of the Muslim quarter, performing Hajj is a matter of coordination and timing.
He will be going on Hajj for the first time, but his wife, who has just given birth to their daughter, will be unable to accompany him.
“Everything with my family has been taken care of and I am not concerned for my own safety. Going to the Hajj is the obligation of every Muslim. I leave everything in Allah’s hands. The Hajj is going to reinforce my faith, not compromise it,” Hong says.
On the day of departure, the Xi’an central train station is full of those saying goodbye to their friends and relations. Each pilgrim has a send-off party of about 30 to 70 people.
Managing the thousands-strong crowd is one of the biggest challenges facing the city’s authorities.
Many of those there, including Jia Hong, have never before left the country.
As his family and friends wave him off, he says: “What I’m feeling now is beyond words. I just want to get there as soon as possible and fulfill my obligation.”
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