Islam with Chinese characters

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Sep 6 12:41:08 UTC 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.


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