This is part seven of the series “Know Thy Hui Neighbor” based on the Know Thy Hui Neighbor (KTHN) training. This course is to train local and overseas Christians to share Christ’s love with the Hui.
So, you have entered your Hui friend’s world, learned their history, listened to their struggles, and spoken of the cross. You’ve invited them to receive the gift of eternal salvation through Jesus the Messiah. But something is in the way.
“I have to marry a Hui man,” says Fatima.
“I would become a Christian if only I could still have a Muslim funeral. I just cannot cope with the prospect of a Christian cremation,” says Xiao Ma.
This is where the rubber hits the road for Hui seekers. This is where our Hui friends find themselves staring at a vast chasm between being interested in Jesus and committing themselves to him.
Rituals for All of Life
Islam is not only a system of beliefs; it is a complete way of life. Set behaviors guide everything from prayer and worship to the way Muslims eat, dress, greet each other, marry, raise children, and end their lives. These set behaviors are what we call customs, rituals, or rites. Rituals marking transitions to a new stage of life are called rites of passage.
When you are invited to celebrate a birth, circumcision, or marriage with your Hui friends or accompany them at the funeral of a loved one, what should you expect? Well, like so many other Hui customs, it varies. You can supplement your preparation with videos1 and books,2 but your best source is likely to be the friend who invited you. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Weddings in Hui villages are presided over by an ahong (imam, Muslim cleric), emphasizing Qur’an recitation, especially Nikah (尼卡哈, níkǎhā).3
In big cities, Hui weddings might be much the same as Han ones—minus the pork and firecrackers. Modesty and fashion can become confusing competitors for Hui brides. Revealing gowns in Western-style white or Chinese red (or pink to blend the two) are paired with either a hijab, Western-style veil, or uncovered, elaborately styled hair.
You’ll likely find a lot of similarities with your own culture in the wedding itself. It’s the time before and after that will challenge you: the matchmaking, courtship, adjustment to married life, and attitudes to divorce.
Hui marry young, often before 20 years of age. Courtship is short, and parents are heavily involved. The wedding is a time for the bride and groom to demonstrate submission to their elders, following their advice on everything from who to marry to what to wear on the day.4
Marriage is a social and religious obligation. To marry is to obey God’s command and imitate the prophet, Mohammed. The unmarried are seen as a burden to parents and cursed by God. Marriage is thecoming-of-age rite. There’s no debutante ball or prom, no twenty-first birthday party, and no other way to show your parents you are “not a kid anymore.”
Unsurprisingly, domestic disputes, abuse, and divorce are common. Failed marriages are seen as unfortunate but nevertheless fulfilling social and religious duty. Therefore, being divorced is somehow preferable to never having married.
To truly love Hui seekers and believers, we must move beyond restrictions on who they can marry and arguing the merits of singleness toward helping them find godly partners. Matchmaking is the family’s duty and should be, by extension, a duty of the church family. Marriage counseling is another treasure Christians can offer, but it must be offered sensitively, perhaps packaged as an educational course, to reduce stigma.
Babies and Children
Pregnant women are not expected to attend weddings or funerals. The reasons range from spiritual vulnerability to avoiding extreme emotions which may cause harm.
Hui speak of “having happiness” (有喜, yǒuxǐ) rather than “being pregnant” (怀孕, huáiyùn). Babies should not be praised or called cute (可爱, kě’ài) for fear the spirits (jinn, 镇尼, zhèn’ní) will notice and cause harm. Instead, say the baby “gives me a heartache” (literally “looks so distressed,” 长得这么心疼, zhǎng dé zhème xīnténg).
An ahong gives the baby a scriptural name in the days after birth.5 Popular choices include Miriam, Mary, Ayesha, and Fatima for girls; Moses, David, Solomon, Jacob, and Isa (Jesus) for boys—all fascinating conversation starters. A Chinese name (aka student name, 学名, xuémíng, or official name, 官名, guān míng) may be given at birth or around five years of age before the child starts school. Boys are usually circumcised between five and nine years of age.
Rites of passage for Hui children are far less likely to act as barriers to the gospel compared to rituals of later life.
Hui Funerals and Burials
The funeral might be the most overtly Islamic event of a Hui person’s life. Hui do not say a person has “died” (死了, sǐle). The power to give and take life belongs to God alone, and death is merely death of the body while the soul lives on. They prefer “gone” (没了, mo’le), “finished” (完了, wánle), and loanwords from Chinese Buddhism such as “returned to God” (归真, guīzhēn) and “impermanent” (无常, wúcháng). They speak of the body not as a dead person (死人, sǐrén) or a corpse (尸体, shītǐ) but as a body for burial (埋体, mái tǐ).
When someone is nearing death, an ahong reads words of confession to them called tǎo bái (讨白, or 忏悔词, chànhuǐ cí). Forgiveness (口唤, kǒu huàn) is sought and offered verbally while still alive and also comes in the form of monetary gifts distributed at the funeral. Every attendee receives a small amount of money. Accepting it honors the deceased and means holding no grudges against them.
Of the long list of essentials, including scripture readings, body preparation, travel to the gravesite, and distinct gender roles, the one non-negotiable all Hui insist on is burial and not cremation.6 When Muslims think of fire, they think of hellfire. They find the cremations of their Han neighbors abhorrent. What’s more, because they see Christianity as a religion of the Han, they assume cremation is mandatory for Christians.
Barriers begin to break down when we simply inform our Hui friends that in the Bible, and in much of the world today, it is burial, not cremation, which is normative for Christians.
A very real and practical concern among seekers is that only Muslims are allowed to buy burial plots in China. So, it seems reasonable that finalizing one’s own gravesite purchase could be an important step on the journey to faith in Christ.
Redeeming Rites of Passage
Rites of passage are supposed to be passed through—they serve as gateways to the next stage of life. Yet too many of our Hui friends see them as closed doors, barriers to entering new life in Christ.
Meanwhile, too many Christians, especially Protestants, neglect or downplay the value of rituals in life and faith. Getting to know Hui friends challenges us, as Christians, to set aside our own cultural preferences and thoughtfully reflect on rituals in the light of biblical norms. Then, we begin to see God breaking down, redeeming, and using what once was a barrier as a bridge to himself.
- For example, see these videos of a wedding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2vNqxEU0xo and a funeral https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuaLMTMKW4w&t=48s.
- Wedding customs, attire, and symbolism seen in Xi’an in the 1990s is described in detail in: Maris Boyd Gillette, Between Mecca and Beijing: Modernization and Consumption among Urban Chinese Muslims (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000), chapter 7.
- Nikah (Arabic) can refer to the marriage contract, or to sexual intercourse, but usually denotes the ceremony of having a cleric read the Qur’anic verses known as nikah. Hui view it as the most essential part of the wedding ceremony. Erie, Matthew S., China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 227–8.
The Nikah ceremony is also called yìzhābù (义扎布), a transliteration of Arabic i’jab “make a contract. Gillette, p. 198.
- Matchmaking is common, but strictly arranged marriages are not. Hui courtship is modernizing, especially in large cities where couples are freer to choose their own partners. Marriages based on religious and family background are decreasing while personal preference has a growing role.
- The scriptural name is believed to be a Hui person’s real name. It is this, and not their Chinese name, that God uses when calling his people to paradise.
- When burial in the earth is not possible, water burials are acceptable, but the location of most Hui precludes such a choice.
Image courtesy of 30 Days of Prayer for Muslims.
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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