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Islam with Chinese characteristics begins to take hold - Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

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  • Zafar Khan
    Islam with Chinese characteristics begins to take hold February 26, 2005 Isolation from other Muslims has spawned a distinct kind of Islam in China, writes
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 26, 2005
      Islam with Chinese characteristics begins to take hold
      February 26, 2005

      Isolation from other Muslims has spawned a distinct
      kind of Islam in China, writes Hamish McDonald in
      Sangpo village.


      In a classroom barely heated by a little iron stove,
      Zhen Shuzhen bent over her desk, her head covered by a
      scarf, as she carefully copied a passage of Arabic
      from the blackboard into her exercise book.

      A student at a nearby textile college, 19-year-old Ms
      Zhen is spending her winter vacation studying the

      "At college we don't really have a clue about Islam,
      but being a Hui we should know about our religion,"
      she said.

      Along with about 20 other young women in this village
      in Central China, Ms Zhen represents a deepening
      interest in the theology of Islam among a Muslim
      community known as the Hui that has long been almost
      buried among China's ethnic Han majority, who mostly
      follow Buddhism or Daoism.

      Along with the dispatch of hundreds of young men and
      women each year to Islamic schools in the Middle East
      and Malaysia, and growing numbers of old people making
      the Haj to Mecca, it suggests a trend to orthodoxy and
      greater openness to influence by the purist schools of
      thought that influence Muslims elsewhere.

      Descended from Mid-Eastern traders and their converts
      who came to China around the time of the 14th century
      emperor, Kublai Khan, the 9 million Hui now speak
      Mandarin Chinese, look like Han Chinese, and follow
      most Han customs.

      Their long immersion in China and isolation from
      Muslim-majority countries has lent their practice of
      Islam a distinctive flavour. Centuries back, it was
      influenced by Confucianism with its veneration for
      ancestors and secular virtue, and Confucian terms were
      used to explain Islamic concepts.

      The last century and a half has seen the emergence of
      women-only mosques or "nusi" and female imams, unique
      in the Islamic world, where elsewhere women worship in
      the same mosque as the men, albeit in a separate
      curtained or partitioned space, and hear the same male

      Ms Zhen's teacher is Guo Dongping, 38, a female imam,
      or "ahong" in the Chinese title, who also uses the
      Koranic name Miriam. Trained for six years in Arabic
      and Persian, married to an ahong who runs a nearby
      male-only mosque, Ms Guo leads prayers and preaches a
      sermon every Friday.

      Like many Hui women here, Ms Guo stresses the
      convenience of women having their own place to pray,
      given the requirements of ritual ablutions beforehand,
      and the shyness of men teaching female students. "It's
      a kind of Islam with Chinese characteristics," Ms Guo

      Academic researchers like Shui Jingjun, a Hui
      sociologist and co-author of a history titled A Mosque
      of Their Own, tend to see an unspoken feminist agenda.
      "These women feel good and feel free at these
      mosques," she said. "They may be smaller than the male
      mosques but they are much better organised."

      Sangpo is a prosperous village of about 5000 people,
      mostly Hui, who run what may be the world's biggest
      centre for tanning sheepskins. This week, young Han
      men and women were hanging around, hoping to get jobs
      scraping and washing skins as its tanneries reopen
      after the Chinese New Year break. But its outlook is
      gradually changing.

      About 100 local people have made the Haj since China
      opened up in the last two decades. This year, 19 were
      among some 11,000 Chinese Muslims who went to Mecca,
      each paying around 40,000 yuan ($6150).

      Two of Sangpo's newest pilgrims, brothers Yang Wenfu,
      73, and Yang Wengui, 68, this week entertained about
      1000 villagers at a sit-down feast in a family
      sheepskin factory which evidenced a mix of Chinese
      culture and Muslim faith.

      So far, attempts to introduce purist or "Islamist"
      practices by followers of schools like the Salafi and
      Wahhabi had mostly failed among the Hui, says Ms Shui,
      the sociologist.

      But Ms Guo says young Hui women coming back from study
      abroad are now less interested in ritual, more
      interested in religious content, more likely to wear
      Arab-style headscarves than the traditional Hui white
      cap, and more likely to observe Ramadan.

      "Very often they become opposed to Western culture
      like the obsession with beauty of the body, or freedom
      of sex," she said. "Before they went overseas they
      didn't really know about it. Now they understand it is
      offensive to Islam."

      Many Hui express hostility to Western intervention in
      Iraq, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and the
      banning of headscarves in French schools. Ali Ai
      Zhuxi, a Sangpo mosque official, said terrorism was
      created by the actions of powers like the United

      "The Islamic countries are acting in self-defence," he
      said. In Zhengzhou, the Henan capital, one worshipper
      at a female mosque said she felt "a kind of
      satisfaction" when she saw the September 11 bombings
      on television.

      Though Han Chinese do marry into the prosperous Hui
      community and convert, Islam is not seeing the same
      wave of new believers joining churches and new
      quasi-Buddhist sects by the millions. Instead,
      religious belief among the existing faithful is

      "They become Muslim because they have more knowledge
      and understanding of it, not just because their
      parents are Muslim," Ms Guo said, about her young

      Ms Zhen, the young textile student, echoes this
      voluntary trend. "I don't go to the mosque or pray,"
      she said. "But I want to learn."

      More about Islam and Muslims in CHina at:

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