The Separation Between Mosque and State

by Alice Yu / October 21, 2016 / ChinaFile

Driving through the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province, in China’s northwest, minarets puncture the sky every few minutes. Many rise out of mosques that resemble Daoist temples, their details a blend of traditional Chinese and Islamic features: a bronze door knocker inscribed with the word “Allah” in Arabic, a crescent moon peeking above the pointed eaves of a tiled roof, and stone steles carved with hadith—a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed—in Chinese. This is the heartland of the Hui, a Chinese minority of about 10.5 million, distinguished from the majority Han ethnicity primarily by their Muslim identity.

China’s ruling Communist Party (C.C.P.) has long had a fraught relationship with religion, with harsh restrictions in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, where religious identity is seen as a conduit to separatism. C.C.P. General Secretary Xi Jinping’s heightened sensitivity toward civil society and outside ideological influences, combined with the recent rise of global terrorism, has intensified government suspicion toward Muslims. Meanwhile, mainstream Han society, especially on the Chinese web, has grown increasingly vitriolic toward Muslims. Han chauvinism and ethnocentric nationalism are common in online forums, occasionally including Islamophobic warnings that the mosque will soon overshadow the Party.

Yet Islam appears to be thriving among the Hui. Hui Muslims make up the majority of the approximately 14,000 Chinese pilgrims who go on hajj to Mecca each year. China has built a sprawling Hui “culture park” in Ningxia, enshrining Hui Islam’s status as an exemplary form of Chinese religion. The loudest critics of the Hui are not state officials but reformists from within the Hui community, often returnees from religious study in the Middle East. They deride Hui Islam as facile and compromised, both because of its melding with Confucian and Daoist practices and because they believe that many of its practitioners have succumbed to materialism and corruption.

Ironically, Hui Islam’s flourishing depends precisely on the characteristics which locals say are also essentially Chinese: apolitical patriotism, adaptability, and more concern for material survival than rigid doctrine. Amid rising tides of ethnocentric nationalism, the Hui are preserving Islam in China by performing a specifically Chinese form of the religion. Their relatively peaceful coexistence with the state and the Party differs from China’s estimated 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group who live mostly in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. (There are roughly 23 million Muslims in China.) As state-supported Han migration to Xinjiang increased over the last 10 years, tensions between Uighur and Han have exploded into violent ethnic clashes, as well as some Uighur militant attacks on civilians. The crackdown in response has spawned further violence and a stereotyping of Uighurs as separatists radicalized by foreign influence, in contrast to the Hui’s organic blend of Chinese and Islamic ways.

The Hui have manifested Islam with Chinese characteristics since the 7th century Tang Dynasty, when Arab and Central Asian traders immigrated, intermarried, and spread their religion along the ancient Silk Road. Their offspring eventually became a distinct ethnic minority, though most Hui are physically indistinguishable from Han Chinese. Throughout their history, some Hui actively tried to merge Islamic and Chinese culture. In the 18th century, for example, the Hui scholar Liu Zhi wrote the “Han Kitab,” a synthesis of Islam with Confucianism that identified Muhammad as a sage and linked Sharia law to Confucian rituals. He believed that the combined practice of the two would cultivate virtue and produce social harmony. Read more….

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