Muhammad Cheng Ho Mosque (shown on top left), in Palembang, the Capital City of the Indonesian province of South Sumatra looks like a Chinese temple from outside and has fooled most local residents and foreign tourists since it was built between 2006 and 2008. The mosque is named after the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), who introduced Islam into the area. The Admiral had visited the Palembang area four times between 1405 and 1433 CE. The mosque is built on 5,000 square meters and is similar in outlook to Muhammad Cheng Ho Mosque in Surabaya in Java province which was built in 2002.
The Palembang mosque is a two-storey structure with two minarets which mimic Chinese pagoda, painted in red and jade green. It was opened in August 2008 for daily prayers. Men pray on the first floor while ladies perform their religious ritual on the second floor. The mosqu, in addition to daily prayers, it hosts both religious and social activities and has become a tourist attraction for the visitors from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and even Russia.
Zheng He, born with name Ma and raised as Muslim, started to study the teachings of Islam at an early age. Both Zheng He’s father and grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so were quite familiar with distant lands. Under the influence of his father and grandfather, the young Zheng He developed a consuming curiosity about the outside world. Zheng He’s father’s direct character and altruistic nature also made a lasting impression on the boy. Zheng He was captured by Ming Dynasty forces during their military cleansing of the remnants of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in Yunnan, around 1381. He was taken to Nanjing, where he was castrated and entered into imperial service. He was then sent to Beiping (present-day Beijing) to serve in the palace of Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, fourth son of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
After Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor (1403-1424), he promoted Zheng He. In 1404, Zhu Di changed Zheng He’s surname from Ma to Zheng as an imperial honor and in recognition of Zheng He’s extraordinary military abilities and loyal service, the emperor chose him from among his most trusted advisors as the ideal commander for the great voyages westward.
Zheng He is China’s most famous maritime explorer. His extraordinary ability and vision found brilliant expression in the great achievements of his life, including maritime exploration, foreign diplomacy, and military affairs.
There are estimated to be 5-6 million Chinese ethnic population in Indonesia (total population over 220 million), who were treated harshly under the pro-American General Suharto (died 2008) military dictatorship (from 1967 to 1998).