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Islam in China

A few years back I was talking with a Chinese scholar friend of mine about Islam in China. In what has to be one of the clearest examples of pragmatic religiosity I’ve encountered, he told me, “Islam has no future here because Han Chinese will never give up eating pork.”

He may be right about that, but Islam remains strong among some of China’s ethnic minorities, particularly the Hui and Uighur. In fact, it is estimated that there are upwards of 21 million Muslims in China today.

This being the month of Ramadan, I thought it would be a good time to highlight some recent pieces about Islam in China. 

 In a New Yorker piece titled “Harmony and Martyrdom Among China’s Hui Muslims,“ Alice Su tells the fascinating story of a Hui uprising in Yunnan Province during the Qing Dynasty:

The history of the Hui in Yunnan is one of seasons of prosperity punctuated by violence. The province wasn’t part of China until the thirteenth century, when Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar al-Bukhari, a Central Asian Muslim who served the imperial court, brought it into the fold. According to Ahmed, an imam at one of Kunming’s mosques, many Hui still revere Sayyid Ajjal, because he demonstrated that Islam could coexist with Chinese philosophy. “Chinese tradition teaches the dao of man, and Islam teaches the dao of heaven—the two are complementary,” Ahmed said. Sayyid Ajjal built Confucian academies alongside mosques and Buddhist temples, infusing foreign religion and culture with domestic ideals of harmony and hierarchy. “This is why Hui can mix with Han, but Uighurs can’t,” Ahmed continued, referring to China’s other significant Muslim minority. “We have Islam with Chinese characteristics.” Nevertheless, relations between the Hui and the Han have not always been peaceful. In the nineteenth century, during the Qing dynasty, tensions between the two groups erupted over how Yunnan’s mineral resources were being apportioned. Qing officials ordered a xi Hui—a washing away of the Hui—slaughtering at least four thousand people in the course of three days in 1856. That massacre sparked a sixteen-year rebellion, which ended with another massacre, this time of at least ten thousand Hui.

The writer also goes on to tell the story of a Han magazine editor who, comments by my friend notwithstanding, converted to Islam:

Huang and his wife came to Islam from atheist Han Chinese families. They both had Hui friends who roused their curiosity, prompting them to learn about the religion for themselves. For Huang, spiritual hunger was directly linked to intellectual control, and filling one meant breaking out of the other. The purpose of his magazine, he said, was to awaken his compatriots in spirit and mind. “There is an emptiness in Chinese society,” Huang told me over a dinner of spicy fish hotpot. Authoritarianism made people tools of the system, he said, without god or purpose in life. “Chinese people have been taught slavishness for thousands of years: follow tradition and don’t question authority,” he said. “Then the Cultural Revolution destroyed tradition. What we have now is authority but no questions, because people don’t remember how to ask them.” Just as asking questions had led him to faith, he wanted faith to make people start asking questions. “Han are an ethnicity with no real belief system, just superstitions and worshipping with no idea what or why,” he said. “But most Hui have no idea what Islam means, either.”

While reports of persecution and restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang are common, what is less well known is the relative freedom that Hui Muslims in Ningxia experience. The New York Times explains:

But here in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a relatively recent administrative construct that is the official heartland of China’s Hui Muslim community, that kind of strife is almost nonexistent, as are the limitations on religion that critics say are fueling Uighur discontent.

Throughout Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province, new filigreed mosques soar over even the smallest villages, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Quran at religious schools, and muezzin summon the faithful via loudspeakers — a marked contrast to mosques in Xinjiang, where the local authorities often forbid amplified calls to prayer.

In Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca,” there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang.

How long this higher level of tolerance continues is unclear, however, as highlighted in an article at China Change titled “Is China Moving to Restrict Religious Freedom for the Hui Muslims?

In addition to the video of the 5-year-old reciting the Qur’an, two other events in particular have caught the attention of many observers:

  1. Unspecified allegations of ‘Arabization,’ in rather hysterical language, were made against Xinjiang, as well as the Hui autonomous region of Ningxia (宁夏回族自治区) and Linxia, Gansu (甘肃临夏回族自治州), during a high profile religious conference held in April 2016. 
  2. Rumours surrounding the sudden dismissal of Wang Zhengwei (王正伟) in April as the Chair of State Ethnic Affairs Commission contain allegations of his unspecified involvement in new mosque building projects, promoting Arabic language education, and in regulating the preparation of Halal food. Wang is of Hui ethnic heritage.

And earlier this year the BBC published a fascinating story about a women-only mosque in Kaifeng, Henan Province and a woman iman:

Most fascinating though, are the women-only mosques, and even more surprising is that they have female prayer leaders – women imams.

The main women's mosque is close to the central men's mosque, across an alley lined with food stalls with steaming tureens and white-capped bakers making the local spiced bread.

The prayer leader here is Guo Jingfang, who was trained by her father, an imam at the men's mosque.

She took me through Kaifeng's winding alleys, stopping on the way to hold animated chats with neighbours and to pick up an order from the local cake maker, until finally we came to the ornamental gate of what looked like a little Confucian temple. Inside was a tiny flagged courtyard with a tiled roof festooned with vines and yellow flowers.

If you are interested in learning more about the Muslim Hui and Uighur populations in China, the following are excellent resources.


Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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