An ahong officiates a Qurban (sacrifice) ceremony at a Hui home, with two men of the household assisting.
This is part five 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.
This month, our Hui neighbors observe Ramadan—the Muslim month of fasting. At the next new moon, they will celebrate Eid al-Fitr—the Fast-breaking Feast known in China as kaizhai jie (开斋节). In recent years, the government has restricted fasting in sensitive regions.1 Yet even for Hui who do not fast, it’s a special time of increased spiritual awareness.
Today, let’s look at four annual festivals and how they might lead to gospel opportunities.
The Two Eids
Eid is Arabic for “feast” or “festival.” Hui Muslims celebrate Greater Eid (大尔德, da erde) and Lesser Eid (小尔德, xiao erde), but which is which varies by region. The Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Alha) is the most significant festival for many Muslim peoples but, for many Hui, it comes second-place to the Fast-breaking Feast (Eid al-Fitr).
The Feast after the Fast
Eid al-Fitr or Fast-breaking Festival (开斋节 , kaizhai jie) is, unsurprisingly, the Hui calendar’s2 most important date. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate the end of a month of fasting? The pious perform full ablutions (ritual bathing) in the morning, pray at the mosque, pay their respects at family tombs, and visit family and friends to feast. Traditional deep-fried dough is essential, especially 炸油香 (zha youxiang) and 馓子(sanzi). Hui living away from home should return in time to celebrate with family.
Every year at this time, photographers feast on the spectacular scenes of Xining’s streets filled with men and prayer mats. This is because, since the days of Ma Bufang’s unification campaign, prayers in Xining on this day are only allowed at the main mosque, no matter which school of Islam an individual might follow.
The Feast of the Sacrifice
Seventy days after Fast-breaking3 is a feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram that God provided instead of his son.4 In addition to imitating Abraham, some Old School Hui believe the animal provides effective substitutionary atonement: one sheep pays for the sins of one family for one year.
The festival has many names: Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Qurban (尔德·古尔邦, erde gu’erbang), Qurban Festival (also spelled Korban or Corban; 尔邦节, gu’erbang Jie), 宰牲节 (zaisheng jie), and 献祭节 (xianji jie)—all mean “Feast of Sacrifice.” Another name, 忠孝节 (zhongxiao jie) conveys the filial piety of Muslims to Abraham, the “father of the faith,” and of Abraham to his God, as well as the willing obedience of Abraham’s son.
On the morning of the sacrifice, Hui perform full ablutions before praying at the mosque. Then they ritually slaughter an adult ram, bull, or camel, and cook and eat the meat together. They might stay at the mosque or return home to await the visiting ahong (imam, cleric) to perform the sacrifice in a private ceremony. Portions of meat are saved as gifts for friends, relatives, and the poor.
Qurban Festival is bloody.5 It’s bloody like the cross. The Wahhabi-inspired New Schools teach that this gruesome ritual imitating Abraham earns merit in the sight of God. Sufi Hui believe the sacrificial lamb promises the possibility of atonement, forgiveness for sin and entry to heaven. What an opportunity to speak of the infinite merit and assurance we have through the Lamb of God!
Other Hui Festivals
The Prophet’s Birthday
Gedimu and Sufi Hui remember Mohammed’s birth on 圣纪节 (shengji jie). 6 After full ablutions and prayers, they enjoy communal meals at the mosques and hear sermons on the life of their prophet. They bring offerings of grain, oil, meat, and money. Some Hui also observe another similar festival commemorating the prophetess Fatima.
Remembering the Dead
Sufis have a fourth kind of celebration known as Ermaili (尔麦里) or Nietie (乜贴), from Arabic amal, meaning “good deeds.”
Small Ermaili (小型尔麦里) which function to earn merit for deceased relatives, are observed in private homes with an ahong invited to officiate. Large Ermaili (大型尔麦里) are huge community events at the tombs of Sufi saints, where devotees petition the saints to grant them entry to paradise, and to experience oneness with God. Both large and small Ermaili involve sharing ceremonial foods, burning incense, and lengthy chanting sessions.
Annual Observances as Gospel Prompts
Most Hui avoid Chinese holidays.7 Some seize the chance to earn extra money while their Han competitors are closed for business. Others use their Spring, Mid-Autumn, and Dragon Boat Festival vacation time to visit their families, but explicitly refrain from celebrating. Non-Chinese Christians have connected with Hui during Chinese holidays by telling them, “I don’t celebrate this festival either.”
So, what do we celebrate? Whose birthday is holy? Whose sacrifice is effective? When do we fast? How do we honor our dead? If you are like me, you may have spent years in church without giving much thought to dates and ceremonies. My evangelical faith says, “Rituals cannot save us.” But I’ve learned through experience that rituals can greatly enrich us. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes demand our complete participation. They deepen our appreciation of the justice, mercy, power, mystery, and transcendence of God.
When we live cross-culturally, do we treat annual festivals as cultural exchanges, or as collective remembrances of our shared history, humanity, and hope? Christians and Muslims both claim Abraham as our father, a model of faith, and evidence that the Lord will provide. Both claim the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, as our Lord. Both teach that Jesus of Nazareth was born of the virgin Mary, ascended to heaven, and will come again. When we celebrate with our Hui friends, let us not treat remembrances of either our God or theirs as quaint cultural relics, but as points of connection to God and his gospel. These are powerful gospel prompts.
Preparing to Share
How do we prepare to join our Hui friends’ celebrations and bring the gospel to them? A later post will list some “dos and don’ts” for Hui ministry, but for now, here is a basic guideline for approaching festivals.
Beforehand, reacquaint yourself with the Bible passages that relate to the festival. For Qurban Festival, read Abraham’s story and how Jesus and his followers interpreted it. During Ramadan, explore your own Christian tradition’s relationship with fasting and consider deepening your experience of this thoroughly Biblical discipline. Before a saint or prophet’s birthday, avoid criticizing the man or woman being commemorated, but instead meditate on the supremacy of the incarnated Christ. Ready-made tracts and tools may help, but these are best studied and left at home.
During the observance, focus on observing. Be respectful to your host, earn the favor of their family, and be the kind of guest they wish to invite again. Such times are not necessarily the best for challenging elders, criticizing customs, or disturbing the peace. But of course, be open to the Spirit’s leading and always be ready to give an answer for the hope that you have in Christ.
Afterwards, whether that afternoon or in the weeks to come, keep the conversation going. When the group is small and the setting relaxed, share the truth of God’s word. Start from the kernels of truth in their own cultural customs. Point out the biblical symbols you noticed and draw out their meaning. Talk about true fasting, true sacrifice, and the one truly Holy man.
Click here for more on the Muslim month of fasting and China-focused Ramadan prayer guides.
- See for example: “Chinese officials restrict number of Uyghurs observing Ramadan,” Radio Free Asia, April 1, 2022. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/ramadan-restrictions-04012022173039.html. Accessed April 7, 2022.
- Muslims follow a lunar calendar. For the ninth month, Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day. The Fast-breaking Feast begins after official sighting of the waxing new moon marking the first day of the tenth month. Therefore, the timing can vary in accordance with the moon’s visibility from the viewpoint of the relevant official.
- The Feast of Sacrifice is observed on the tenth day of the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar.
- Sura 37:100–112 in the Quran c.f. Genesis 22:1–18 in the Bible.
- The people in this video appear to be Uighur, but their Qurban rituals are almost identical to Hui ceremonies I have attended. Warning: video may be disturbing to some viewers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w89mmfMz_g
- Mohammed’s birthday is traditionally observed on the 12th day of the 3rd month of the Muslim calendar by Hui of the Old Schools. The Wahhabi-inspired New Schools forbid observing Mohammed’s birthday or any other festival that may be construed as veneration of a human being.
- A notable exception is the Yunnan Hui community where Hui set off firecrackers and decorate their doorways with red banners at Spring Festival, just as their Han neighbors do.
All images courtesy of the author.
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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