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    Greater China
     Sep 6, 2006
Islam with Chinese characteristics
By Pallavi Aiyar

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.

An 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 Islamic world.

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.

Islam 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.

Ningxia Hui 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.

In 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.

"Earlier we 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 autonomous region.

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 Association.

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 building.

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.

But 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 Ningxia.

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 secular life.

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 evidence.

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.

The Hui 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.

Confrontations 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 compensation.

"The main job of every government official in Ningxia these days is to keep the peace with the Hui," said the Foreign Office official.

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 coming years.

Pallavi Aiyar is the China correspondent for The Hindu.

(Copyright 2006 Pallavi Aiyar.)


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