Building bridges of faith in China


Inspired by the teachings of Islam from a young age, Mariah Mah has dedicated her life to boosting standards of living, nutrition and education for Chinese Muslims, spreading silaturrahim in the process. By Maryam Yusof.

It is a little-known fact that millions of Muslims have called China home over the past 1,400 years. Islam was first introduced peacefully to China in 616–617 during the Tang dynasty. The first Muslims in China were traders and soldiers who later integrated into society.

Despite the suppression of religion during the Cultural Revolution and other periods in China’s history, 23 million Muslims live across the vast country today, with the largest populations in the western provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Many of them live in poverty in rural villages.

Mariah Mah, a retired Singaporean educator in her 60s, has been working tirelessly in the past 18 years to improve the lives of Muslims in China. Named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world in 2009, Mariah dedicates her life to humanitarian work.

A Muslim by birth, Mariah comes from a lineage of Chinese Muslims whose ancestors were Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group and minority race in China. Her father, a trader, was born in Shanghai and migrated to Singapore in the early 1940s. Despite the long migration, he maintained ties with his relatives in China; Mariah herself has retained this bond till today.

Because their father was a devout Muslim and had been taught the Qur’an since the age of seven, Mariah and her siblings were raised in a religious environment. Her avid interest in Islam as a religion for humanity was reawakened after her pre-university education. She decided to pursue a degree in Islamic studies at the University of Malaya on a scholarship awarded by the Singapore government. After graduating with a second upper class honours degree, she became a teacher and continued in the profession for 30 years.

While attending university, Mariah learnt Arabic, Islamic history, the hadiths, the Qur’an, and Islamic philosophy and law. Amazed at the great legacy that Islam had given the world at a time when Europe was still in the Dark Ages, she decided to spend her life learning and teaching Islam to as many people as possible. She remains dedicated to her goal today, which has inspired the multiple humanitarian projects that she carries out in China.

What is Qurban?Upon receiving such a command in his dream, Prophet Ibrahim prepared to offer his son Ismail to God. But this was only God’s test; the angels replaced Ismail with a sacrificial animal.To commemorate Prophet Ibrahim’s great act of devotion to God, today, for those who can afford to, Muslims all over the world sacrifice goats, sheep, cows and camels on the first three days of Eid ul-Adha. This falls from the 10th to the 12th of Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. The meat is then distributed equally in thirds: to the poor and hungry; to relatives and friends; and to the self and the family.

A Helping Hand

Mariah’s foray into humanitarian work began on her first visit to China in the early 1990s, when the Chinese government began opening up more regions to tourism. While the rest of China was undergoing increasing development, she noticed that the living standards of many Muslims were not improving accordingly.

‘Muslims were living in abject poverty as farmers in dry, arid, mountainous regions where the only source of water was from the rain and, if fortunate, water from the well,’ she recalls. ‘I then decided together with my brother that we should help our poor Muslim brothers. We started by giving them zakat and sheep for Qurban. The Muslims there were so grateful as they hardly could afford to eat meat.’

Since then, Mariah and her brother, Jaafar, have officially set up two government-registered, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in China: Zhang Jiachuan Charity Services in Gansu Province, and Xiji Charity Services in Ningxia Province. Through these NGOs, Mariah has sponsored the education of hundreds of poor undergraduates; funded wages of madrasah teachers; set up masjids, orphanages, preschools and reservoirs; paid for medical expenses for poor and ill villagers; and distributed zakat, iftar meals and Qurban meat to villages across China.

Although the two NGOs support many projects, Mariah places the greatest priority on education. ‘It’s only with education that we can hope to break through the vicious circle of poverty,’ she affirms.

Society’s future role models – insha’Allah!
Society’s future role models – insha’Allah!

Financial constraints, however, mean that many capable Muslim students in China are not able to continue with their education, despite qualifying for university placement. To alleviate this problem, Xiji Charity Services funds about half the cost of a tertiary education for 200 children of poor farmers at a time, amounting to US$325 to US$410 per student per year. Sadly, although many have achieved success and benefitted from the programme, limited funding has meant that other applicants have been turned away. Still, the scholarships have encouraged many poor students to strive for a tertiary education that would otherwise be closed to them.

Besides the scholarships, Mariah shows her dedication to improving education standards of Muslims in China by sponsoring the salaries of madrasah teachers. She has also set up five preschools in poor villages as well as a literacy education centre where poor children and women are offered free education in Qur’an reading and Arabic, and a basic school curriculum in Chinese up to Primary 4. For its part, Zhang Jiachuan Charity covers the education of 800 poor students while conducting activities such as distributing zakat and carrying out Qurban and water projects.

Mariah points to the annual Qurban project as the one that she is most proud of. ‘We revived the fifth pillar of Islam – the spirit of sacrifice to Allah as exemplified by Nabi Ibrahim – in the locals. Now many Muslims have started giving their Qurbani sheep or cows to the poor!’

Five Pillars of Islam 1. The proclaiming of faith with the Shahadah
2. The five daily prayers
3. Fasting during Ramadhan
4. Giving alms to the poor
5. The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

A Glimpse Beyond

Like other charities, Zhang Jiachuan Charity Services and Xiji Charity Services rely on donations to carry out their activities. In order to raise more money for their charities, Mariah and Jaafar decided in 1994 to use their expertise in the region to source local tour partners that would organise ‘China Muslim’ tours for people interested in visiting China’s Muslim-populated regions.

That idea spawned Silaturrahim Tours, a charity-oriented, non-profit tour agency that provides niche services to Muslims who would like to tour China on holiday and network with Muslims in China. Unlike most tour agencies, Mariah ensures that every last bit of profit from the operations is put into the charities. ‘Since my brother has his own business and I was a professional teacher, we did not have to depend on the proceeds of tours for our living. So whatever profits we earn we donate to help the underprivileged Muslims in China,’ she explains, adding, ‘That was why we called it “charity-oriented tours”.’

The tours are conducted by experienced English-speaking guides across Beijing, Xi’an, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, the Silk Road, Xinjiang, Guilin, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and can be customised upon request. The most popular is a 10-day journey across Beijing, Xi’an, Linxia and Lanzhou, home to a tour stop favourite, the ‘best Muslim preschool in the world’. Students here learn three languages: Arabic, English and Chinese. Within two years, some will even become hafiz, meaning they have memorised the Qur’an in its entirety.

The company also does Qurban and Aqiqah tours every year, which take travellers to villages where donors sacrifice sheep and cows to feed poor Chinese villagers. Kamariah Yusoff, a participant on the Qurban tour in 2010, says it opened her eyes to village life in China. ‘I could get first-hand experience to get to know more of the local community, its people, practices, culture and challenges – especially the Chinese Muslim community.’

Although Mariah has done extensive work over the past 18 years, she does worry about the future, noting that there is still much to be done. ‘We are always afraid that our efforts will be in vain if whatever we built is not properly used or taken proper care of,’ she says. ‘We have to instil a sense of taqwa and cleanliness in the villagers so that they will be honest, reliable and responsible for all the projects under their care.’

Despite her age, Mariah has no plans to slow down and continues to work 18 hours a day. She has hopes that the charities will grow and that she’ll be able to support more Muslim undergraduates who will attain iman (belief) and taqwa (God-consciousness), thus breaking the poverty cycle. ‘In the future, if these scholars can get into the government administration, I am confident that they will make excellent officials for their country. I hope that our Muslim students will be role models for the rest of the society, insha’Allah!’

Learn more about Mariah’s tours to China at


This article originally appeared in the November 2012 Happy New You Issue of Aquila Style magazine. You can read the entire issue free of charge on your iPad or iPhone via the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone via Google Play

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