The Arab route to China

Radwan al-Sayed
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During his recent visit to the UAE, the Chinese president signed 13 agreements and memorandums of understanding. Although, the number agreements signed is in itself large, the more important thing was the president’s keenness to personally visit the country for forging strategic Sino-Arab relations to create friendly ties, a developmental approach and usher in a new thinking for the future.

This is the Arab route to China. I haven’t come up with this phrase but it’s actually by Toby Huff, the author of the book ‘The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West’. According to history, trade and cultural exchange on the Silk Route between China and the Arab world was rich and dangerous. There are two things which many historians have noticed and noted.


The Maritime Silk Route

Chinese officials visited the Caliphate’s seat only twice in the 4th century of the Hijri calendar. Communication was through trade missions over the course of 15 centuries and up until the 16th century AD.

But how was this possible? This is where the second point is, and it’s the Arab route which Huff noted. According to the book ‘The Eritrean Sea’ (The Red Sea) for an anonymous writer who was a sailor and which is from the 2nd century AD, Arab sailors and traders from the Arabian Peninsula shores always went to China through the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and then the China Sea. This route was taken to circumvent different countries blocking the land route.

The Arab-Chinese naval and inland peaceful route maintained its vitality until the 16th century when it was disrupted in sea and later on land by Portuguese, Spanish, British and French fleets.

Radwan al-Sayed

Thus, they were the pioneers of the ‘Sea Silk Route,’ they then became the pioneers of inland Silk Route after the emergence of Islam and the expansion of its horizons as countries, civilizations, trades and interests till China borders. There were no longer any land obstacles.

Although the Chinese official missions were few on China’s side, it was not so from the Arab side. The world before the 16th century had no description of China and its territories and its palaces other than the descriptions made by Arab geographers and Arab travelers.

The Arab-Chinese naval and inland peaceful route maintained its vitality until the 16th century when it was disrupted in sea and later on land by Portuguese, Spanish, British and French fleets. It was the Europeans who exited the partnership of the three civilizations then completely disrupted it.

It did not occur to Arab and Chinese traders to use arms on their sea or land trade routes. The Portuguese were the first to do so for the purpose of monopolizing trade with India and China and then for the purpose of colonization. Until the 17th century, Arabic was the first language for trade on the sea and inland Silk Route, followed by the Persian and Turkish languages.

The Kantian approach

Since the 16th century, we (Arabs) have had no free way of communication with India and China. The only way has been the European way and finally the American one. The only way to progress was by engaging in war. This war began with competition between European powers, then turned into distribution in the colonial times and beyond. We and the Chinese fell victims on the naval Silk Road then on the inland Silk Road as their significance for mutual interest and communication decreased then eventually disappeared.

As the US threatens China and Europe with trade war, China is offering Arabs, Africans and Asians with another approach which the whole world had almost forgotten: exchanges at all levels: trade, technology, culture and communication.

A German professor told me: “What China is offering you Arabs is the Kantian peace approach! German philosopher Kant had a vision entitled perpetual peace. (In his book published in 1795,) he imagined states without armies, with a peace charter between them for free and comprehensive exchanges”. He added: “The immense Chinese advancement project was not built and did not succeed in its surroundings and in the world thanks to war but thanks to exchange without conditions. China has not even resorted to force to try and restore the Chinese regions and islands which others seized despite its ability to do so!”

Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is offering a bilateral and optional charter of developmental exchange, without discrimination. Despite its interest in exporting goods, China encourages and contributes to technological and agricultural development wherever it goes. The Europeans and Americans are not pleased with this approach which they view as Chinese seizure!

An Arab route has been built to China based on strategic interests at all levels. The UAE and Kuwait feature prominently on this road and will be followed by other Arab countries.

It is said: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” And now three things are happening simultaneously: Chinese knowledge, Chinese development and close proximity now that the world became one global village!

This article is also available in Arabic.


Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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