Islam with Chinese
characteristics By Pallavi
YINCHUAN, China - The muezzin
sounds the evening call to prayer. White skullcaps
glint in the fading brightness of the setting sun
as the faithful make their way into the mosque.
The shush of whispered "salam alaikums"
fills the hall. Outside, the mosque's minarets
stretch up into the sky; a single crescent moon
decorates the top of the green dome.
unremarkable scene were it not for the fact that
this mosque is tucked away in the landlocked
interior of officially atheist and traditionally
Buddhist China. When the imam preaches, he
speaks Mandarin. Under the
skullcaps and behind the veils of the men and
women gathered, there are Chinese faces
concentrated in prayer.
Reliable data are
difficult to obtain, but China's estimated 20
million to 30 million Muslims may in fact be the
second-largest religious community in the country,
after the 100 million or so Buddhists. Islam in
China is moreover in the process of a strong
revival, spurred on by increasing trade links with
the Middle East that have ended the centuries-long
isolation of Chinese Muslims from the wider
Orthodoxy among Chinese
Muslims is on the rise as ever larger numbers go
on hajj and youngsters return from their
studies abroad in Muslim countries. Nonetheless,
Chinese Islam retains characteristics that set it
apart. The communist revolution with its emphasis
on gender equality has left its mark here. Mao
Zedong famously said that "women hold up half the
sky", a lesson China's Muslims seem to have
imbibed well. Female imams such as Nu Ahong and
exclusively female mosques such as Nu Si play a
unique role in the Middle Kingdom.
in China has a long tradition stretching back more
than 1,200 years. The largest community among the
Chinese Muslim groups is the Hui. Numbering about
10 million, the Hui are descendents of Middle
Eastern traders and their converts who first
traveled to China along the silk route during the
Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906). Centuries of isolation
meant that they blended in with the largely
Confucian and Buddhist Han Chinese who make up
more than 90% of the modern nation's population.
The Hui speak Mandarin and look like Han.
The primary way of telling the two communities
apart has traditionally been the absence of pork,
a meat that is the primary staple for Han, from
the diet of Hui Muslims. The Hui are also not to
be confused with the other large Muslim minority
group in China, the Uighurs, who are of Turkic
ethnicity and live mostly in the western
autonomous region of Xinjiang.
autonomous region, a northern region flanked by
the Gobi Desert, is home to 1.8 million Hui
Muslims, or 35% of the autonomous region's total
population. Ningxia has some 700 officially
licensed imams and more than 3,000 mosques.
According to Ma Xiao, vice president of the
Islamic Association of Ningxia, there are
currently more than 5,000 manla, or young
Islamic disciples, studying Arabic and Islamic
doctrine part-time in the autonomous region.
Certain restrictions continue to apply on
Islam, as on all religions, in China. For example,
proselytizing is strictly forbidden and children
below the age of 18 are not permitted to receive
religious instruction at all. Moreover, all imams
must be licensed by a government-approved body and
accept the superiority of the state over any
religious authority. Nonetheless, as a visit to
virtually any part of Ningxia will reveal, the Hui
embrace their faith with enthusiasm.
recent years, Ningxia has benefited from donations
worth millions of US dollars from the Saudi
Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank, which has
enabled a facelift for The Islamic College in the
regional capital Yinchuan, as well as the
establishment of several Arabic-language schools.
Interest in Arabic is booming so much so
that even the Ningxia Economic Institute has begun
to offer three-to-four-year-long Arabic courses.
Ningxia University also opened an Arabic-language
department last year.
At the Xi Guan
Mosque in Yinchuan, more than 300 students have
begun to study Arabic since the mosque started
offering a free language course two years ago. A
third of these are women. Aged mostly between 30
and 70, they say the chance to study Arabic brings
them closer to their religion.
were too busy just making a living. Now that we
are richer, we have more time to focus on the
spiritual, and by learning Arabic I can read the
Koran in the original. As a Muslim this is my
duty," said Song Xiulan, a 40-year-old housewife.
A hundred miles east of Yinchuan in the
small town of Ling Wu, 50 other women, their heads
covered with scarves, sit in a room reciting
verses in Arabic from the Koran. They are being
taught by Yang Yuhong, one of two female imams at
the Tai Zi Mosque. Yang received her title from
the Islamic Association four years ago. She is one
of about 200 certified female imams in the
Yang says she does not
see anything un-Islamic about the concept of
female imams: "There are many things that are
easier for women to talk about with other women.
And everyone, man or woman, has a duty to study
and understand the religion."
But this new
tradition of female imams in China is less
revolutionary than it first appears. While the
women are granted the title of imam, they are
still not allowed to lead men in prayers. Their
role is more that of a teacher, and their students
are exclusively female. "The women imams are
respected people whom the community looks up to,
but of course they do not have the same religious
powers as men. Men and women are equal but their
roles are different," said Ma from the Islamic
Ling Wu's Tai Zi Mosque has
been rebuilt four times in the past 20 years.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), most
places of worship were demolished, and Tai Zi
suffered the same fate. Since the 1980s, however,
a religious renaissance accompanied by increasing
prosperity has led to the local Muslims donating
enough money for four major expansions of the
Ma Zian, the mosque's head imam,
is now 80 years old. "I have seen everything: the
pre-revolution period, the communist accession and
the Cultural Revolution. I can tell you that at
last we are quite free to practice our faith. It's
so much better for us now," he said.
as is often the case in China, the driving force
behind this Islamic revival is economic. "Other
provinces have ports and natural resources. In
Ningxia we have Muslims. This is our competitive
advantage," said Chen Zhigang, deputy director
general of the Investment Promotion Bureau of
To exploit this "competitive
advantage", the regional government organized for
the first time a massive Halal Food Exhibition
last month, through which it aimed to establish
connections between the food industries of Ningxia
and the Middle East. Chen said contracts to the
tune of 10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion) were
signed during the four-day-long exhibition. In
Ningxia, Islam and trade are blending in a
delicate mix to the benefit of both religious and
But while the Hui Muslims'
Arabic-language skills and cultural affinity with
the oil-rich Middle East are now being seen by the
authorities as a valuable economic resource, the
stronger sense of group identity among the Hui
fostered by these renewed linkages with the
Islamic world is leading to new challenges.
In the past the Hui were among the least
orthodox Muslims in the world. Many smoked and
drank, few grew beards, and Hui women rarely wore
veils. Increased contact with the Middle East,
however, has wrought changes. Thousands of Hui
students have returned from colleges in Arab
countries over the past few years and they have
brought with them stricter ideas of Islam. Mosques
in Ningxia have now begun to receive worshippers
five times a day, more Hui women have taken to
wearing headscarves, and skullcaps are in wide
There is a strong identification
among the Hui community today with the wider
problems of the Islamic world. "It's American
policy that has given all of us Muslims a bad
reputation," said Yang, Tai Zi Mosque's female
imam, quivering with indignation. "We are a
peace-loving religion, but look what they [the
Americans] have turned us into. Look what lies
they spread about us," she continued. The 50 women
surrounding her all nodded slowly in assent.
For many non-Muslim Chinese, this
identification of the Hui with communities outside
of China is problematic. "Earlier the Hui were
just like us except they didn't eat pork. Now they
think they are very special. They think of
themselves as foreigners," a Foreign Office
official in Ningxia complained.
are exempt from China's one-child policy, and
affirmative-action schemes reserve special seats
for them at universities and government
departments. In interior regions such as Ningxia
that have been left out of the economic boom of
China's coastal region, competition for jobs is
intense and resentment against the Hui's "special"
privileges is increasing.
between the two communities are often sparked by
minor incidents. In 2004, for example, large parts
of Henan province were placed under curfew after
fighting between Hui and Han left dozens dead. The
fighting began when a Hui man bumped into a Han
girl with his vehicle and refused to pay
"The main job of every
government official in Ningxia these days is to
keep the peace with the Hui," said the Foreign
For the Hui, greater
freedoms and contact with the wider world mean
they must undertake the difficult task of
negotiating among their increasingly complex
identities: at once Muslim, Hui and Chinese. For
the Han, the challenge is to foster Hui culture
without alienating the community from the rest of
Chinese society. The manner in which both sides
address these challenges will be key to the
maintenance of social stability in China in the
Pallavi Aiyar is
the China correspondent for The Hindu.