From the time Islam was introduced into China to the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.), the Chinese Muslims' religious education had always been conducted in individual families by way of oral instruction by the elder generation. However, this method of education was restricted to a small range, lacking in organization and system, whose educational and social effects were not enough to meet the actual needs of the development of Islam in China. As time went on, Muslims in China adopted the Chinese language and gave up their mother tongue, leading to the loss of their ability to read scriptures in Arabic or Persian. However, no Chinese versions of Islamic scriptures had appeared yet. As a result, family education did not work efficiently any longer. Islam was faced with decline and Muslims became indifferent to their faith and religious life. Furthermore, rationalistic Confucian philosophy prevailed in the late period of the Ming Dynasty. Islam was in serious crises to exist and develop in China.
In this situation, the men of insight among the Hui Muslims began to explore ways to revitalize Islam, calling for developing Islamic education. Based on its development in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Huis had already shaped their national economic structure with agriculture as the core and commerce and animal husbandry as sideline industries. They were self- sufficient economically and lived a stable life. This made it possible for the development of Mosque education. The initiator of Mosque Education was Hu Dengzhou who lived in Weicheng, a town in Xianyang, Shaanxi Province in the period of Jia Jing (1522-1566 A.D.) and Wan Li (1573-1620 A.D.) of the Ming Dynasty. Weicheng is located to the west of Shaaxi where the Huis were concentrated. The Huis' economy here was comparatively developed, and they were in a better geographical position. At first Hu Dengzhou recruited students and taught them by himself in his family. Afterwards Lanzhou Ma, his second-generation student, moved the class to a mosque, marking the beginning of Mosque Education in China. Since Hu Dengzhou initiated Mosque Education, it began to rise throughout those places where Huis were concentrated, such as Shangdong, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei, Yunnan and Guangxi.
The purpose of Mosque Education was to find out and carry forward the righteousness of Islam and foster qualified Islamic personnel with orthodox thoughts of Sunni. This allowed Islamic education to be taught in an organized and systematic method instead of in individual families.
As Mosque Education developed, a comparatively complete educational system and a unified teaching method were gradually worked out. In its initial period, Mosque Education was not classified into higher or primary learning. It operated just as a private school did. It was conducted in mosques and Muslims invited an Imam to teach Islamic scriptures and religious knowledge to foster Islamic professionals. As it became more and more popular, and required by actual needs. Mosque Education developed towards specialization with the separation of higher learning from primary learning, and was classified into three levels: college, secondary school and primary school. College level was specialized to educate new Imam. The students at this level were called Khalifah or Mania. They were taught Arabic, Persian, Islamic Laws, doctrine, Qur'anic annotation and literature in a systematic way. Colleges were set up in large or medium-size mosques. The teachers of college were specially invited Imams, who were respectfully called Jingshi (master of scriptures), Mingjing (one who masters scriptures), Akhund (Imam), or Usta (sir). Secondary school level was a transitional link of Mosque Education. Generally secondary school level did not exist independently; it was either attached to primary school as its higher class or to college as its elementary class. Primary school level was the initial period of Mosque Education where Muslims could acquire basic Islamic knowledge. The main task of primary school was to teach Arabic letters, al-Kalimah al Tayibah (Testimony), Du'as used in daily prayers, and also teach how to perform and receive ablution, prayer and fast, and allow students to learn and recite Khatam (selected verses from the Holy Qur'an). There were no textbooks for primary school level, and it was taught by way of oral teaching. Of all the three levels of Mosque Education, the primary level was the most popular. In some places such as Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, the primary Mosque Education was taken as compulsory. It was a duty of every parent to send their school-age children to primary school to receive basic Islamic education. The popularization of the primary level of Mosque Education was of great importance to the spread and development of Islam in China. In the past several hundred years, it was one of the major reasons why the Huis and other Muslim peoples could adhere to their Islamic faith.
In the early period of Mosque Education, it was compulsory for the students to transcribe the textbooks and the scriptures that the teachers used. It not only guaranteed Mosque Education to move forward smoothly, but also promoted the development of the Huis' Islamic calligraphy art, which developed into a unique branch of traditional calligraphic art in China.
Mosque Education was conducted in the unique language ofjingtang Yu (Yu means language. Mosque Education is called Jingtang Education in Chinese, so the language it uses is called Jingtang Yu). Jingtang Yu is a special expression that organizes Chinese, Arabic and Persian words and phrases in Chinese grammar. It is a special language with unique characteristics that was created by the Chinese Islamic scholars in specific historical and cultural circumstances to develop Islam in China, which is still in use in Mosque Education today.
The rise of Mosque Education gave the Huis and other Muslim peoples a systematic Islamic educational system and made Islam stride forwards towards a systemized and theorized religion. It was also the first popularization of Islamic scriptures, doctrine and thoughts, marking the beginning of the profound combination and extensive exchange of Sino-Arab cultures. Mosque Education brought up a great number of capable persons who devoted themselves into Islamic cause and education, fostered many well-known Islamic scholars, and put an end to the history that Islam was passed onto the next generation only by the elder generation's oral instruction. It initiated the movement of translating and writing scriptures in Chinese, and changed the situation that the Muslims in China were short of Chinese versions of Islamic scriptures and the true spirit of Islam could not be rightly interpreted. It brought the mosque's educational function into play in addition to its religious function. Mosque Education also helped to strengthen the contacts and exchanges among Jiao Fangs, especially among the Islamic intellectuals, and enhanced the Islamic consciousness of other Muslims and improved their religious conduct.
The main centers of Mosque Education were Shaanxi, Shandong and Yunnan. Nanjing was one of the centers of Mosque Education as well, and it is here that the movement of translating and writing scriptures in Chinese was initiated.