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Hui Muslims in China’s ‘Little Mecca’: Fusing Islamic and Han Practices

Article by Dr Catherine Owen and Syed Ahmad Ali Shah

March 14, 2019

Hui Muslims in China’s ‘Little Mecca’: Fusing Islamic and Han Practices

There has been much discussion in the global media of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in its far western province of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, much less is known about the Hui, China’s other major ethnic group that follows Islam, and which enjoys a considerably more peaceful relationship with Beijing. According to the 2010 census, Uighurs and Huis each constitute almost 0.8% of China’s overall population, but while the Uighurs are concentrated mainly in Xinjiang – in some southern areas constituting up to 90% of the population – the Hui are scattered across China. Unlike the Uighurs, who speak their own Turkic language, the Huis’ native language is Mandarin Chinese (with the occasional Persian or Arabic word thrown in). Nevertheless, while Huis are far more integrated into the dominant Han Chinese culture than Uighurs, centres of Hui culture can be found in China’s northwest regions, including in Xinjiang, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Province, the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province and Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province.

During a recent trip to Linxia, we had the opportunity to meet local Huis and observe their religious practices. We were particularly struck by the way in which their Islamic practices have fused and blended with practices associated with Buddhism and Taoism, two more of China’s five officially recognised religions, primarily associated with the dominant Han ethnicity. Perhaps this goes some way to accounting for the contrasting relationships between the two ethnoreligious Muslim groups and the Chinese government.

While the dominant form of Islam among Uighurs is Sufism, Hui Islam is split into four sects. The most popular sect is the Gedimu (Qadeemiya in Arabic), who constitute around 70% of Hui Muslims, and are the group in which religious syncretic practices are the most obvious. For instance, Gedimu Imams recite the Quran using a Sinfied Arabic dialect of Arabic, often without understanding the meaning of the text.

The second group, the Ikhwani, emerged during the 19th Century in Linxia; they criticize the Gedimu’s ritualistic approach and emphasise a return to original Quranic meanings. Hence, religious materials in Chinese are available in Ikhwani mosques. Indeed, the only mosques we found with Qurans in Chinese were in those belonging to Ikhwani.  During our visits to the various mosques, we found Qurans published in all corners of the Islamic world – Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – though notably none were published inside China.

Thirdly, many Hui follow two globally prevalent traditions of Sufism, also shared by Uighurs: Qadriya and Naqashbandiya. Within Naqashbandiya, two further sub-sects can be discerned – the Hufia and Jehriya, which are specific to Chinese Islam. As one of the birthplaces of Chinese Sufism, Linxia is the centre for both of these subgroups of Naqashbandiya. Finally, a tiny minority of Hui Muslims are Salafis, or Chinese Wahhabis, who follow a Saudi version of Islam.

Thought to descend from Persian and Arabian traders that came to China along the ancient Silk Road, Chinese-speaking Muslims are known as Dungans in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Over the centuries, Hui cultural practices have blended and fused with the dominant Han culture. In Hui cuisine, for instance, Han recipes such as egg and tomato, spicy cabbage and other dishes are readily available, the only difference being that restaurants are certified Halal, which provides a guarantee that pig fat is not used in the preparation of any dishes. The Hui signature dish, Lanzhou beef noodles (named after the provincial capital of Gansu province), can be eaten in Halal canteens across China and is not markedly different from other types of Chinese noodle soup. By contrast, Uighur restaurants serving its Central Asian cuisine such as the rice and lamb dish, ‘polo’, and round nan breads are extremely rare sight outside of Xinjiang.

Hui women generally, but not always, wear headscarves, with different sects wearing different types. Ikhwani women can be distinguished via the headscarf popular among Western Muslims; Gedimu women tend to wear a hat with a light cloth attached to the back and bottom. Hui men wear three types of round hat, although these are not distinguishable according to sect. Chatting to local Huis, everyone we met had their Chinese name and their informal Muslim name, introducing themselves by their Chinese name, but giving their Muslim name – usually Sinifications of Mariam, Aishah, Bilal or Ibrahim – when we asked them. Hence, Hui practices of Islam, though subtle, are evident if you scratch away the veneer of Han culture.

Thanks to the number of mosques and Sufi shrines in the city, Linxia has gained the moniker of ‘Little Mecca’ among Muslims in China. It is easy to see why – the city’s skyline is scattered with domes, minarets and cupolas, an astonishing sight in a predominantly atheist country. Hui Mosques and Sufi shrines are an interesting blend of Islamic symbolism and Han architecture. Ikhwani and Salafi mosques are usually built with domes and minarets, while Gedimu and Sufi mosques tend to follow the Chinese architecture. Usually just one story high, they have Chinese-style minarets that resemble pagodas: circular structures with the characteristic Chinese upturned eaves. Since it is difficult to distinguish between Buddhist temples and mosques, Gedimu and Sufis attach a crescent moon to the top of the building. The spatial design inside the mosques is broadly similar to mosques elsewhere, comprising a large area for worshippers to kneel, and a place at the front for the Imam to preach.

As the centre of Sufism in China, myriad Sufi shrines are scattered across Linxia and into the adjoining mountains. Known in Chinese as ‘gongbei’, a Sinification of the Persian term ‘gunbed’, the shines are graves belonging to great Sheikhs and Imams, many of whose lineage can be traced back to Muhammed. Indeed, legend has it that the 29th generation descendent of Muhammed, Khawja Abdullah, introduced Sufism to China at the end of the Qing and beginning of the Ming Dynasty, and is buried at a shrine in north Sichuan Province.

Unlike Uighur Sufism, Hui Qadriyan Sufis have incorporated Buddhist and Taoist practices into rituals at their shrines, and are hence particularly interesting from a religious syncretic perspective. For instance, worshipers and pilgrims burn papers and light incense at the entrance to the shrine, practices which are not mentioned anywhere in the Quran. Similarly, the Chinese characters indicating the name of the shrine are often written from right to left, following Arabic writing tradition, instead of left to right.

Debates among the anthropologists of Hui consider the question of whether the Hui are ‘Muslims in China’ or ‘Chinese Muslims’ – in other words, to what extent have they become embedded with the broader Han culture. The level of Chinese cultural practices exhibited by the Hui suggest to us that unlike the Uighurs the Hui are indeed Chinese Muslims. However, just a small scratch at the surface of Hui culture reveals a complex, vibrant and meaningful Islamic tradition.

Of course, the most important factor in the troubled relationship between Xinjiang’s Uighurs and the central government concerns the region’s dense Uighur population and consequent concerns regarding separatism. Scattered across China, the Hui have no pretensions towards separatism. Yet, another important reason why Hui Muslims have managed to exist more harmoniously within China’s atheist state is the way in which they have Sinified Islam. Our visit to Linxia revealed to us the numerous ways in which these two very different cultural worlds have fused together.

Catherine Owen is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter and a FPC Research Fellow; Syed Ahmad Ali Shah is completing his PhD on Pakistanis in China at Shaanxi Normal University, and is about to begin a book project on Hui Muslims in China.

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