Islam in contemporary China: an overview
China is home to a large Muslim population. According to the Islamic Association of China, the country has over 25 million Muslims, 40,000 mosques and more than 50,000 Akhond, a Persian title for the Islamic clerics who serve the scattered communities all over the country. Every year, more than 10,000 Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca, while - over the past thirty years - nearly 12,000 Muslim students have completed their Islamic studies abroad, and another 100,000 have studied Islam in the madrasa (religious school) in China. All these figures show that Islam is not an insignificant issue for contemporary China’s political and social landscape.
After being banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Islam in China has undergone a revival since the reform and opening-up policy of the late 1970s. In just thirty years’ time, it has transformed from an underground religion into an Arabian-style religion that is officially recognized as one of the five religions in China (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism). Whether wearing their long robes, turbans, or hajibs, Muslims can be found all over China; from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai to the island of Hainan, from Inner Mongolia in the north to Yunnan in the south, from the western border of Tibet to the eastern coastal region. However, more than half of the Muslim population lives in Northwest China, particularly in the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, the vast region where 23,000 mosques serve various ethnic communities, including Uygur, Kazak, Kirghiz, Tajik, Uzbek, Tatar, Salar, Hui, Dongxiang, and Bao’an. Islam is also flourishing in the academic world: there are more that sixty Islamic periodicals, Muslim professors and scholars teach and research Islam in various universities or research institutions, and many conferences, workshops and forums on Islam are being held all over China, often sponsored and organized by Muslim elites.
The three pillars of the Islamic network in China
However, although China has more Muslims than any Arabian country, they are in fact still a vulnerable minority in Han-dominated China. While Muslims profit from governmental policies giving preferential treatment to ethnic minorities (‘affirmative action’) and officially enjoy freedom of religious practice, they are supervised carefully and restrictions remain in place over the activities of madrasas, religious ceremonies, religious organizations, etc. In order to maintain their Islamic tradition and to uphold their monotheistic identity, it is important for the widely dispersed Muslim enclaves to build a strong network in and outside of China. Three Islamic institutions form the backbone of this network.
Firstly, the mosque plays a central role in the Chinese Muslim community. Besides its religious function as a place for ritual praying, mosques in China also have social, economic, and cultural functions, such as administrative management, festival celebration, social mobilization, economic enterprises, cultural education, or even daily life affairs. Hence, the mosque is a stronghold that binds its local community, while stretching out its external relations with communities in other areas, in order to establish the umma (Muslim nation) in the context of an unreceptive environment.
Secondly, the maktab (grammar school, or primary level) and madrasa (Islamic college or high level) provides the Chinese Muslim community with education in Islamic knowledge, faith reinforcement, and passes Islamic tradition to the next generation. Most maktabs and madrasas in China are attached to the mosques, however, there are also quite a few madrasas set up independently and open to all Muslims in society. They are not only responsible for the maintenance of Islam and to cultivate young Muslims, but also to strengthen and revive Islamic consciousness of Muslims of all ages. Maktabs and madrasas often regenerate the vitality of the community that is in perpetual competition with a non-Muslim Chinese community over the limited economic resources, and has to survive in a context of social and cultural tension. Islamic education is like the soul of the community, binding all Muslims into a strong organization, regardless their social, economic, or political background.
Thirdly, the qubba (tomb of a Muslim scholar or elderly) forms the nexus of the Sufi community of Islamic Mysticism. More than one third of the Chinese Muslims are affiliated to one or another Sufi order. Many qubbas do not merely function as the burial places for the Sufi saints or Sufi leaders, but are places of pilgrimage for Sufi followers, turning them into a religious complex that combines the functions of a mosque, maktab and madrasa, and the tomb. The qubba thus plays a comprehensive role in the Sufi social network.
In conclusion, Chinese Muslims have strategically formed a religious, social, and cultural network that has made Islam in China an institutionalized entity binding the widely dispersed and ethnically diverse Muslim communities or enclaves into a considerably coherent, partly unified Muslim umma. Confronted with increasing Islamophobia in the wake of recent terrorist attacks around the world, these networks are crucial for the survival of a minority living in a country dominated by a culture of atheism and materialism.
Jianping WANG is Professor of Islamic Studies at Shanghai Normal University (firstname.lastname@example.org)