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