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Islam in China

Islam in China has been propagated over the past thirteen hundred years primarily among the people now known as “Hui,” but many of the issues confronting them are also relevant to the Turkic and Indo-European Muslims on China’s Inner Asian frontier. “Hui teaching” (Hui jiao) was the term once used in Chinese for Islam in general; it probably derives from an early Chinese rendering of the term for the modern Uighur people. According to the reasonably accurate 1990 national census of China, the total Muslim population is 17.6 million, including Hui (8,602,978), Uighur (7,24,431), Kazakh (1,111,718), Dongxiang (373,872), Kyrgyz (141,549), Salar (87,697); Tajik (33,538), Uzbek (14,502), Bonan (12,212), and Tatar (4,873). The Hui speak mainly Sino-Tibetan languages; Turkic-language speakers include the Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tatar; combined Turkic-Mongolian speakers include the Dongxiang, Salar, and Bonan, concentrated in Gansu’s mountainous Hexi corridor; and the Tajik speak a variety of Indo-Persian dialects. It is important to note, however, that the Chinese census registered people by nationality, not religious affiliation, so the actual number of Muslims is still unknown.

islam in china

Although the Hui have been labeled as the “Chinesespeaking Muslims” or “Chinese Muslims,” this is misleading, because by law all Muslims living in China are “Chinese” by citizenship, and many Hui speak only their local non-Chinese dialects; they include the Tibetan, Mongolian, Thai, and Hainan Muslims, who are also classified by the state as Hui. Yet most Hui are closer to the Han Chinese than the other Muslim nationalities in terms of demographic proximity and cultural accommodation, adapting many of their Islamic practices to Han ways of life, which became the source for many of the criticisms by later Muslim reformers. In the past this was not such a problem for the Turkish and Indo-European Muslim groups, who were traditionally more isolated from the Han and whose identities were not so threatened, though this has begun to change in the past forty years. As a result of state-sponsored nationality identification campaigns over the past thirty years, these groups have begun to think of themselves more as ethnic nationalities than just as “Muslims.” The Hui are unique among the fifty-five identified minority nationalities in China in that they are the only nationality for whom religion is the only unifying category of identity, even though many members of the Hui nationality may not practice Islam.

As the result of a succession of Islamic reform movements that swept across China over the past six centuries, one finds among the Muslims in China today a wide spectrum of Islamic belief. Archaeological discoveries of large collections of Islamic artifacts and epigraphy on the southeast coast suggest that the earliest Muslim communities in China were descended from Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongolian Muslim merchants, militia, and officials who settled first along China’s southeast coast in the seventh to tenth centuries; there followed larger migrations to the north from Central Asia under the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, gradually intermarrying with the local Chinese populations and raising their children as Muslims. Practicing Sunni, Hanafi Islam and residing in independent small communities clustered around a central mosque, these relatively isolated Islamic village and urban communities interacted via trading networks and recognition of membership in the wider Islamic ummah. Each was headed by an ahong (from Persian akhund) who was invited to teach on a more or less temporary basis.

Sufism began to make a substantial impact in China proper in the late seventeenth century, arriving mainly along the Central Asian trade routes with saintly shaykhs, both Chinese and foreign, who brought new teachings from the pilgrimage cities. These charismatic teachers and tradesmen established widespread networks and brotherhood associations, most prominently the Naqshbandiyah, Qadariyah, and Kubrawlyah. The hierarchical organization of these Sfifi networks helped to mobilize large numbers of Hui during economic and political crises in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, assisting widespread Muslim-led rebellions and resistance movements against late Ming and Qing imperial rule in Yunnan, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Xinjiang. The 1912 Nationalist revolution allowed further autonomy in regions of Muslim concentration in the northwest, and wide areas came under virtual control by Muslim warlords, leading to frequent intra-Muslim and MuslimHan conflicts until the eventual communist victory led to the reassertion of central control. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wahhabi-inspired reform movements known as the Yihewani (from Arabic ikhwan) rose to popularity under Nationalist and warlord sponsorship; they were noted for their critical stance toward traditionalist Islam as too acculturated to Chinese practices, and Sufism as too attached to saint and tomb veneration.

Many Muslims supported the earliest communist call for equity, autonomy, freedom of religion, and recognized nationality status, and were active in the early establishment of the People’s Republic, but they became disenchanted by growing critiques of religious practice during several radical periods in the PRC beginning in 1957. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Muslims became the focus for both antireligious and antiethnic nationalist critiques, leading to widespread persecutions, mosque-closings, and at least one massacre of one thousand Hui following a 1975 uprising in Yunnan province. Since Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms, Muslims have sought to take advantage of liberalized economic and religious policies while keeping a watchful eye on the ever-swinging pendulum of Chinese radical politics. There are now more mosques open in China than there were before 1949, and Muslims travel freely on the hajj to Mecca, as well as engaging in crossborder trade with coreligionists in Central Asia, in the Middle East, and increasingly in Southeast Asia.

Increasing Muslim political activism on a national scale and rapid state response indicates the growing importance Beijing places on Muslim-related issues. In 1986 Uighurs in Xinjiang marched through the streets of Urumqi protesting a wide range of issues, including the environmental degradation of the Zungharian plain, nuclear testing in the Taklamakan, increased Han immigration to Xinjiang, and ethnic insults at Xinjiang University. Muslims throughout China protested the publication of the Chinese book Sexual Customs in May 1989, and of a children’s book in October 1993 that portrayed Muslims-particularly their restriction against pork, which Mao once called “China’s greatest national treasure”-in derogatory fashion. In each case the government quickly responded, meeting most of the Muslim demands, condemning the publications, arresting the authors, and closing down the printing houses.

Islamic factional struggles continue to divide China’s Muslims internally, especially as increased travel to the Middle East prompts criticism of Muslim practice at home and exposes China’s Muslims to new, often politically radical Islamic ideals. In February 1994 four Naqshband-i Sufi leaders were sentenced to long-term imprisonment for their support of internal factional disputes in southern Ningxia Region, which led to at least sixty deaths on both sides and required intervention by the People’s Liberation Army. Throughout the summer and fall of 1993 bombs exploded in several towns in Xinjiang, indicating the growing demands of organizations pressing for an independent Turkestan. Beijing has responded with increased military presence, particularly in Kashgar and Urumqi, as well as diplomatic efforts in the Central Asian states and Turkey to discourage foreign support for separatist movements. At the same time cross-border trade between Xinjiang and Central Asia has grown tremendously, especially with the reopening in 1991 of the Eurasian Railroad linking Urumqi and Alma Ata with markets in China and eastern Europe. Overland travel between Xinjiang and Pa

kistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan has also increased dramatically with the relaxation of travel restrictions based on Deng Xiaoping’s prioritization of trade over security interests in the area. The government’s policy of seeking to buy support through stimulating the local economy seems to be working in 1994, as income levels in Xinjiang are often far higher than those across the border; however, increased Han migration to participate in the region’s lucrative oil and mining industries continues to exacerbate ethnic tension. Muslim areas in northern and central China continue to be left behind as China’s rapid economic growth expands unevenly, enriching the southern coastal areas far more than the interior.

While further restricting Islamic freedoms in the border regions, at the same time the state has become more keenly aware of the importance foreign Muslim governments place on China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities as a factor in China’s lucrative trade and military agreements. The establishment of full diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in 1991 and increasing military and technical trade with Middle Eastern Muslim states enhances the economic and political salience of China’s treatment of its Muslim minority. The increased transnationalism of China’s Muslims will be an important factor in their ethnic expression as well as in their accommodation to Chinese culture and state authority.


Bai Shouyi, ed. Huimin Qiyi (Hui Rebellions), 4 vols. Shanghai, 1953. Broomhall, Marshall. Islam in China: A Neglected Problem. New York, 1910.

Chen Dasheng, ed. Islamic Inscriptions in Quanzhou. Translated by Chen Enming. Yinchuan and Quanzhou, 1984.

Forbes, Andrew D. W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia. Cambridge, 1986.

Gladney, Dru C. Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Israeli, Raphael. With the assistance of Lyn Gorman. Islam in China: A Critical Bibliography. Westport, Conn., 1994

Leslie, Donald Daniel. Islam in Traditional China: A Short History to 1800. Canberra, 1986.

Lipman, Jonathan N. The Border World of Gansu, 1895-193S. Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, Stanford, 1981.

Ma Tong. Zhongguo Yisilan Jiaopai yu Menhuan Zhidu Shilue (A history of Muslim factions and the Menhuan system in China). Yinchuan, 1983.

Pillsbury, Barbara. Cohesion and Cleavage in a Chinese Muslim Minority. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, New York, 1973.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/islam-china/

  • writerPosted On: June 2, 2014
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