Zheng He: The Muslim Legend
It’s probably your first time hearing about that name “Zheng He”; and you would assume he is a non-Muslim. Read on to find out about this great Muslim legend!
Zheng He’s Childhood
Born in 1371 in the city of Jinning, in the Yunnan Province, Zheng He was originally named “Ma He”, which stands for the Muslim name “Muhammad”. He was born in a Muslim family where his great-great-great-grandfather, Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, was a Persian governor under the Mongolian Emperor.
Ma He’s father and grandfather were titled as “hajjis” since they were honored to make pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an indication as to the piety of Ma He’s family and also his upbringing.
Following his great-great-grandfather, Ma He’s father stayed loyal to the Mongolian dynasty even though the Ming dynasty was slowly conquering parts of China, one after another. Despite the temptation to give up and join the Ming Dynasty, Ma He’s father did not let go of what he believed in until he got killed by the Ming army.
However, the Ming army did not just kill the father, but they also kidnapped the 10-year-old son, Ma He.
After Ma He was captured, he was made into a ‘eunuch’, where his external genital area was surgically removed in order to use him as a harem attendant for the household of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. Though this might sound very cruel to many people, it was pretty normal at that time in the Chinese culture to do so in order to protect the Emperor’s women.
Zheng He’s life in the Empire:
Unlike Chinese people at that time, Ma He was 7 Chinese feet tall (around 6’6”), with a very powerful voice. He was good at fighting and planning military tactics, which led him to become one of the prince’s very close confidants.
As a Muslim fighter in the series attacks of the Yongle Emperor, Ma He exceeded all expectations and impressed the Prince to the extent that the Prince trusted him with commanding the army when he was fighting his nephew for the throne. After the Prince’s army succeeded in conquering the Ming Capital and taking over the throne, Ma He was awarded the honorific name “Zheng He”.
As the new Yongle Emperor, the Prince faced some problems regarding his legitimacy. Since he fought over the throne and was suspected of killing his nephew for it, he was left unsupported by Confucian scholars and only supported by his eunuchs. From this point, Zheng He’s real legend started. In order to show off the Prince’s capabilities, Zheng He was assigned to lead the best fleet that China ever set sail to.
Zheng He and the Treasure Fleet:
Initiating the best development move in China, Zheng He got appointed to lead the massive fleet of 317 junks, crewed by over 27,000 men in 1405. Believe it or not, Zheng He was still 35 when he was appointed to be the fleet leader. He set a record by achieving the highest rank ever for a eunuch in the Chinese history.
Zheng He divided his journey of the Treasure fleet into seven voyages; each voyage explored different parts of the world. The first voyage started from Vietnam, where the ship sailed to Indonesia and stopped at different places such as Malacca, Samudera (Sumatra), and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. After that, the ship passed by Sri Lanka, then went to Calicut, which was one of the world’s major trading depots back then. The Treasure fleet took the chance and started exchanging Chinese gifts with the local rulers.
On the way back from the first voyage, the Treasure fleet faced pirates, which put the ship in danger. However, the presence of Zheng He was not for nothing; he was able to command the crew and killed 5,000 pirates thus rescuing the fleet from danger. This voyage alone was able to raise China’s prestige in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
Zheng He did not stop at the first voyage only. In 1407, he lead the second (1407-1409) and third (1409-1411) voyages and went as far as Calicut, where he returned with hold of full of fresh tribute.
Unlike the first three voyages, the fourth voyage was remarkably unique, since Zheng He led the ship all the way to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa stopping at Hormuz, Aden , Muscat, Mogadishu and Malindi. This voyage was able to expose Zheng He to the Muslim culture from which Islam emerged. The fourth voyage brought many exotic goods and creatures such as the giraffe, which was a mythical symbol in China.
The fifth and sixth voyages followed the same routes around Arabia and East Africa, which helped to raise the Chinese prestige higher and higher in those places.
Even though the Yongle emperor, under who Zheng He serviced, died, the last voyage was not declined. On June 29, 1429, the seventh and last voyage of the Treasure fleet was again led by the great Zheng He, by which time he was already 61 years old. This voyage was the greatest and longest voyage of all seven voyages where it visited 17 different ports between Champa and Kenya.
Zheng He’s death: The world’s loss
On the way back to China from the seventh voyage, Zheng He died. He was buried at sea according to the Muslim burial.
After Zheng He’s death, people tried to bury any stories related to the Treasure fleet or to Zheng He himself; however, this was not successful. Zheng He’s legendary story survived and stayed alive after many decades.
Zheng He, the Muslim admiral, leader, fighter and legend was able to leave his mark on the world.[divider]
Image of Zheng He: Source
An Egyptian by origin and Palestinian by heart. Soumaia is an Actuarial Science undergraduate who’s known as a bookworm and a blogging maniac. She dreams of changing the world into a better place with Islam rising up high.