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Chinese Muslim Mystics

Know Thy Hui Neighbor (2)

From the series Know Thy Hui Neighbor

Worshippers burn incense at a Jahriyya mosque.
The distinctive men’s cap has six points representing the six beliefs of Islam,
and one central point representing oneness of (or with) God.

This is part two of the series “Know Thy Hui Neighbor” based on the the Know Thy Hui Neighbor (KTHN) training. This course trains local and overseas Christians to share Christ’s love with the Hui.

It’s a beautifully rhythmic creed: “万物非主 唯有真主” (Wàn wù fēi zhǔ, wéi yǒu Zhēn Zhǔ). What does it mean? It is, of course, the first phrase of the Islamic statement of faith, the Shahada. In English, we render it as: “There is no god but Allah.” This is the most basic expression of tawhid, the doctrine of monotheism. But look carefully at each character in the Chinese: “Ten thousand things, there is no lord, only the True Lord.” Creeds like this are not intended as simple statements of fact. They are written to be repeated, meditated upon, interpreted, and internalized. They are vehicles of mystical experience.

Sufism—often called Islamic mysticism—takes its name from the coarse woolen garments of ascetic self-denial. What does tawhid mean to Sufis? Saying God is one is only the beginning. True realization of the unity of God is intimately linked to experiencing unity with God.

Sufi movements transformed the entire Muslim world from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries, entering China in the mid-1600s.1 Their charismatic leaders attracted converts with eloquent sermons, magical wonders, and “remembrances” of God (Arabic. dhikr)—chanting exercises that resemble the rhythmic repetitions of Amitabha Buddhism.2 Sufi teachers traveled, building networks of influence that extended much further than the disconnected local congregations of the Gedimu (see part 1).

Like most movements, Sufism did not remain unified long but formed organized, sometimes rivaling, orders. In China, Sufi orders have a distinctly local shape called menhuan (门宦).3 The name probably comes from “great family” and, unsurprisingly, leadership is hereditary. Menhuan gained appeal as they combined Chinese and Islamic forms—blending religious practices, family-centered social and economic structures, family lineages claiming prophetic descent, and reverence for saints.

Every Sufi order has gongbei (拱北), which are the tombs of their saints (老人家laorenjia or 神人shenren). The most important saints are the menhuan’s founding father (道祖 daozu), followed by his heirs and relatives. Power and blessing (Arabic baraka, or charisma) emanate from the founder through his successors, their tombs, and anything that touches them. Worshippers visit the tombs to gain this baraka.

A woman of the Jahriyya Sufi Order touches a cloth draped over a saint’s tomb.

When I asked around for personal stories about Hui Sufis, I kept hearing two names: Ma Laichi (马来迟) and Ma Hualong (马化龙). Why nothing more recent? Why doesn’t anyone tell me a story about a contemporary, a  Sufi friend? Always, it was the same answer: “Because with Sufism, it’s all about the founder.”

Ma Laichi founded China’s first Sufi order, the Khufiyya (虎夫耶). He was the firstborn son of a wealthy but aging father who named him Laichi because he “arrived too late.” He was born just after a fire destroyed the entire family fortune. Unable to support his long-awaited son, Ma Laichi’s father sent him to live in a Koranic school. He served thirty years as an ahong (imam, Muslim cleric) before embarking on the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca. After many years away, perhaps studying Sufi Islam in Yemen, Bukhara4, or India (records vary), he returned home laden with books and a burden to reform Islam in his homeland.5 He won many converts, both among Muslims and non-Muslim Chinese, along with considerable wealth, influence, and legal clout. He set up China’s first menhuan at his Huasi (华寺) mosque in Gansu, which now hosts his tomb and is central to China’s Khufiyya movement.

Ma Laichi’s birth and life made him a legend, but Ma Hualong is remembered for his death. One of KTHN’s ethnographic researchers told me how he discovered a story that brought his Sufi friends closer to Jesus.

My training has taught me that God has already put redemptive analogies that point to Christ in each and every culture. When I’m doing field research, I listen to stories and think, “Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? How do people perceive salvation in this culture?” Among the Jahriyya Hui I met in Ningxia, I kept hearing about a local hero named Ma Hualong, the fifth successive leader of the Jahriyya. He had a leading role in the Tongzhi Uprisings around modern day Wuzhong. They said his death in 1871 at the hands of the Qing saved seventy thousand Hui lives. I was intrigued, so I asked some friends where I could learn more. They said that the “best book” on Ma Hualong was called “心灵史” (Xinling Shi, History of the Soul). The book was banned, but so cherished by local Sufi Hui, that every village had secretly kept a copy so that everyone could internalize the story. When I finally got to read the book I couldn’t believe my eyes: “Heavens above, there’s substitutionary atonement in here!”

Ma Hualong’s surrender to the Qing and execution at Jinjipu (金积堡)6 in January 1871 is undisputed. The way his family, officials, and a thousand or so of his followers died and how many were saved by this heroic sacrifice is less certain. So I will tell you how the Jahriyya remember him—the version from the “best book.”

The original concepts of salvation, of substitutionary atonement, which became the pillar of the monotheistic worldview, finally appeared in the ninth year of the Tongzhi Rebellion. On the eve of the annihilation of the Jahriyya, Grand Master Ma Hualong [said…]

“Abraham made his son Ishmael an atoning sacrifice (qurban). In order to help my people, I am offerring up my body as an atoning sacrifice (qurban).”

The author continues:

This is a small matter in Chinese history. But in the history of faith, religion, soul, and sacredness, it is an extraordinary matter, especially in China, where faith has been replaced by the ethics of Confucius and Mencius…7

When Christians speak of Jesus as the great mediator, Sufis understand. They desire blessing, power, and union with God, and they know they need help to get there. Jesus mediates all these and more. To those who have traveled long distances to visit tombs of long-dead “holy men” and their sons, the news of God sending his son to us sounds good. To those who revere a great man who gave his life to save 70,000 people, the man who died as a ransom for the world sounds, well . . . divine.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 3, 2022 to include a paragraph that was inadvertently omitted when first published.


  1. Lipman, Jonathan N., Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China. University of Washington Press, 1997, p. 59.
  2. Lipman, p. 62.
  3. The four largest Sufi Orders are the Khufiyya (虎夫耶, Hǔfūyé, 9% of Hui people), Jahriyya (哲赫忍耶, Zhéhèrěnyé, 5%), Qadiriyya (嘎的林耶, Gādelínyé, 2%) and Kubriyya (库布忍耶, Kùbùrěnyé, <1%). Other smaller orders exist separately, as well as suborders within these main four.
  4. Bukhara is in modern Uzbekistan.
  5. Lipman, p. 66.
  6. Jinjipu, a township in what is now Wuzhong City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, was Ma Hualong’s headquarters.
  7. 心灵史. (Xinling Shi, History of the Soul). 花城出版社, 1991, p. 180–181.
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Image credits: Courtesy of the author.
Julie Ma

Julie Ma

Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio

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