The Origin of 回教

If you read any dated text in Japanese that refers to Islam, or, say, watch the movie Ghandi with Japanese subtitles, you may see the word Islam written with the characters 回教, or kaikyou (or in Chinese, huíjiào). Archaically this was also written 回回, in which case it was pronounced Uiui in Japanese and huíhuí in Chinese. Where did these characters come from and why were they used to refer to Islam?

Christian Europe’s first interraction with the Islam religion was with the Arab Middle East and with the first Caliphate that rapidly expanded to dominate the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia and directly challenge the waning influence of the kingdoms of post-Roman Europe. The Far East had a much slower and gradual introduction to the religion and the Muslim people. The first reference of the characters identified by scholars is during the Northern Song Dynasty in the 10th to 12th centuries, when the characters 回回 were used to refer to the religion of the Uyghers (the name of the people was written as 回鶻、or 回紇). For centuries, the words were used almost interchangeably because the Uyghurs were the only Muslim people known to the Chinese, but as Islam spread, the characters 回回 were expanded to broadly include more people than just the Uyghurs, and during the Ming Dynasty, the characters 回回 were converted into 回教.

Through the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese people who converted to Islam and who lived in China were called 回民, and the Turks of Central Asia were called 回部. Today, characters 回族 refer to the Hui people, a minority ethnic group in China of people who appear Chinese in external appearance but who follow the Muslim faith. The word 回部 refers not to the Turks of Central Asia but the Uyghurs. Exactly when the words came to Japan, or when they arrived in Japan and were understood, is not understood, at least not in any resource that I can find in my online research.

In the mid-20th century, the words were slowly understood as being inaccurate and possibly politically incorrect. Japan now almost universally uses the word イスラム教 or イスラーム, while the Chinese use the words 伊斯蘭教 (Yīsīlánjiào). However, Vietnam, which converted to a Roman letter alphabet in the 19th century, still keeps the old word for Islam with the word Hồi giáo, adopted from the original characters.

9 thoughts on “The Origin of 回教”

  1. Interesting post! Did not know the origin, although I did know the word and use it more often than イスラム to mean Islam.

    I find that in conversation the term doesn’t immediately click with most Japanese, as it’s probably way far down on the mental “kanji henkan” Rolodex for those syllables.
    I even tried to pun on the muslim kneeling prayer style as スガる回教 (with the ideal ‘dajare’ follow-up being “fuyu geshiki”) and learned quickly what bombing a joke in Japanese feels like.

    p.s.: ‘Gandhi’

  2. The one important detail I know that I think should be included is that although the word Hui came to refer to Islam due to that religion’s association with the Uyghur in the 12th century or so, Chinese contact with the Uyghur, as well as those Chinese names for them, date back to the 8th century or so, before they even converted from Buddhism to Islam.

    Interestingly, it seems that some ancestors of the modern Hui were originally Jewish, like the famous Jewish community of Kaifeng, but who unlike the Kaifeng community – which gradually abandoned their religion in favor of mainstream Chinese religion – converted to Islam, which is much closer to Judaism.

  3. One other very interesting note is the Dungan people (, a group of Chinese-speaking Muslims found in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet Republics, who are basically just a branch of the Hui people that live outside of China. They are very likely the only group in the world whose primary language is a variety of Mandarin, but who write using an alphabetic script – Cyrillic – instead of Chinese.

  4. The correct terminology for a follower of the (likely apocryphal) child-rapist first referred to in Arabic coinage from about 695 CE as “mohammad” is:

    -don’t break any “blasphemy” laws there, Curzon!

  5. PS: I should say that I wish Curzon the best in his new home, and will be interested to read how his feelings about Dubai evolve over the duration of his stay.

    With your knowledge of Japanese culture and mastery of the Japanese language, Curzon should take the opportunity to promote Zen Buddhism over there. I’m sure it would go over quite well! Or perhaps you could erect a model Shinto shrine on the roof of your building – you’d become a magnet for all manner of Japanophiles!

  6. Hi Curzon,

    Nice informative post. If possible can you please add pronunciation for each kanji used in post. It will be really appreciated.

  7. Sorry Rocky, although in this case, all the kanji that aren’t phonetically written are Chinese, and I’m no authority on how they are pronounced those.

    Roy, that’s basically true, but today’s “Uyghur” (维吾尔族) is a relatively modern and “universalist” word. Historically the kingdoms (and peoples) of Mongolia, Siberia and Xinjiang in Chinese included such diverse titles as 狄曆、敕勒、烏護、韋紇、回紇、回鶻、畏兀兒等. If you read this history in English you’ll see references to Uyghur, Karluk, Qarluqs, and Basmyl. The words 回鶻 and 回紇 were, as I understand from my research, the first of those “Uyghur” kingdoms encountered by the Northern Song government who were Muslim — after they were previously Buddhist. Today, academics seem to clump all these people today as “Uyghurs,” which is somewhat revisionist, just as the reference to a pre-Ghengis “Mongol” ethnicity is also inaccurate. But the 回鶻 and 回紇 were the Muslim-convert Uyghurs, while the rest were Buddhist Uyghurs, at least initially.

    Of course, much of my research is based on my half-baked reading Chinese ability of Chinese wikipedia articles, switching to English or Japanese where available, so you may be able to correct me on some of that, but I think the above statement is basically correct.

    catoneinutica: Well… First, the practice of Zen Buddhism is protected by law, but preaching it is prohibited. Second, I’m Protestant and the Lady Curzon and her family are Catholic, so while I may be a closet Shinto fundamentlist in certain regards, the “Japanese=Buddhist/Shinto” doesn’t apply in our case.

  8. I’m not sure what you mean when you say the word Uyghur is a modern word. If you mean the modern Chinese phonetic word, then yes that seems to be the case, but the word “Uyghur” in their own language seems to easily date to the 8th century. “回鶻” “回紇”“烏護”“烏紇” and “韋紇” were all transliterations used in antiquity, but they are all obviously transliterations of “Uyhgur” or something similar. The definition of Uyghur has expanded over time, but if you start with the citizenry of the Uyghur Kaganate in the 7th-8th century and the diaspora of their descendants following its collapse it remains fairly consistent until you get closer to the modern period. However, according to this article written by a Uyhgur (, the modern 3-hanzi name originated in the Yuan period, when the Uyghur held a high position in the Mongol court, and also says that in the Qing period, present day Xinjiang was called 回疆 (Huijiang) in Chinese.

    The country of 回鹘 is actually the Uyhgur Khaganate that existed in the 8th and 9th centuries, at a time well before any of the Uyhgur converted to Islam: that started in the 10th century, after the collapse of their kingdom, and after most of them migrated to the west and southwest. During the Khaganate the Uyghur were first shamanistic, then Manichean, then some of them were Nestorian Christians (late 8th century), or Zoroastrian, most of them became Tibetan Buddhist after moving into present day Xinjiang, and then they finally converted to Islam. Although they started to convert to Islam in the 10th century, there were still Buddhist, Manichean and Nestorian Uyghur into the 15th century.

    So, the Chinese were using names for the Uyghur including the character 回 centuries before they even converted en-mass to Islam, so it is mildly odd that the religion was SO strongly associated with them as to have been named after them.

    BTW, I can now understand a pretty good amount of Chinese, but a subject like this full of transliterations and translations of foreign names is a bitch and a half.

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