MUSLIMS IN CHINA
Uighur Muslim outside
a mosque in Kashgar Chinese government figures from 2004 estimate 20 million adherents of Islam in China, but unofficial estimates suggest a much higher total. Most adherents of Islam are members of the Uygur and Hui nationality people. By one reckoning there are 25 million Muslims in China, with 8.5 million of them in Xinjiang. Muslims are the largest identifiable religious group in the country. They are found in small communities all over China but only in large numbers in the extreme west and northwest—the eastern extreme of the Muslim world.
There are around 30,000 mosques in China, with 23,000 of them in Xinjiang. The Great Mosque of Xian is one of the of the oldest and biggest in China. It is used by the 60,000 Muslims in Xian. There are more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia.
Islam is one of the officially sanctioned religions. Community-funded mosques, prayer rugs and even a few veiled women can been seen in the barren deserts and stony mountains of western China; the Silk Road cities such as Turfan, Kashgar and Khotan; and villages and towns in Ningxia Province and parts of Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia..
Muslim groups in China have traditionally not been very religious. Islam for them has been more of cultural badge than an ideology to live by. Although many Chinese Muslims don’t eat pork many drink alcohol and neglect their daily prayer duties. In some places in western China, Muslim women wear veils, not for religious reason, but to keep out the dust.
There are 10 different indigenous Muslim groups in China. Ninety-nine percent of the Muslims in China are Sunnis. The other 1 percent are Shiites. Many ordinary Chinese regard Islam as backward and oppressive.
Good Websites and Sources: Muslims in China Islam in China islaminchina.wordpress.com ; Claude Pickens Collection harvard.edu/libraries ; Islam Awareness islamawareness.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Asia Times atimes.com ; Links in this Website: XINJIANG Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG EARLY HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG LATER HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG AND CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG SEPARATISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG RIOTS IN 2009 Factsanddetails.com/China ; UIGHURS Factsanddetails.com/China ; HORSEMEN AND SMALL MINORITIES IN XINJIANG Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG, URUMQI Factsanddetails.com/China ; XINJIANG. KASHGAR Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN NORTHERN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSLIM MINORITIES IN NORTHERN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
History of Islam in China
Minaret in Turpan Islam was introduced to western China by missionaries traveling on the Silk Road and to the ports of Canton and Hangzhou by mariners traveling on trade routes around India and Southeast Asia. The first Muslim missionary to arrive in China purportedly was an uncle of Mohammed who arrived in Canton in A.D. 627. More likely the first Muslims showed up there sometime in the 8th century. Some Mongol generals during the Yuan dynasty were Moslems. The Great Mosque of Xian was built on A.D. 742.
Possibly millions of people were killed when the Chinese Imperial army cracked down on two Muslim rebellions in China in the 19th century: one in Yunnan from 1855 to 1873 and another in Xinjiang from 1862 to 1873. The revolts were brutally put down and the Chinese used them as an excuse to gain control over territory occupied by the Muslims.
Even though they were tormented along with many other groups during the Cultural Revolution, Muslims for the most part have been allowed to practice their religion and culture without interference from the Communist Chinese government. Even so many opportunities have been denied them. Very few Chinese Muslims, for example, have had the chance to go to Mecca. As of the late 1980s, out of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who lived in Inner Mongolia only one had been to Mecca, and he was sent by the government.
Muslim Festivals in China
Ma Jia Jun Army Corban is a Muslim festival celebrated in western China 70 Days after Ramadan by Islamic ethnic groups like the Uygurs and Hasake. Also known as the "Livestock Sacrificing Festival," it commemorates the day that Abraham had a dream in which God told him to kill his son as an offering. Just as Abraham was about ready to do this, God intervened and told him to sacrifice a sheep instead.
Muslims begin Corban by washing themselves and visiting their local mosque. Later a sheep is sacrificed by slitting its throat. The animal is then skinned and carved up and eaten. Whatever is left over is given to the poor. The Tajik, Hasake, Uzbek and Keerkezi people like to celebrate this holiday with horse racing, sheep snatching and wrestling.
The Hasake enjoy the "girl chasing game," in which a boy and a girl, both on horseback, enter a designated area, where the girl whips her horse and takes off with the boy in pursuit. Whatever jokes the boy makes and however mercilessly he teases her the girl must put up with it. On the way back, however, it is the girl's turn to chase the boy. If she catches him she is allowed to hit him with her whip and he can't hit back. If the girl likes the boy she will just pretend to hit the boy. But if she doesn't like him she can hit the boy as hard as she wants. Many Hasake marriages begin this way.
In the "sheep snatching game" a sheep is placed in a designated area. Men on horseback ride to the area and try to grab the sheep, fighting off one another, and carry the sheep to another specified place. After its over the sheep is cooked into "Eating Happiness Mutton" and consumed.
Restrictions on Islam in China
Ma Jia Jun Army There are a number of rules and restrictions regarding the practice of Islam in China. Many of them are directed at the Uighurs in Xinjiang--because some Uighurs and Uighur groups have espoused radical Islam and advocated independence for Xinjiang--not the Hui and other Muslim groups who have generally been more complaint with Beijing’s wishes.
In many places the Chinese have banned muezzins—the loudspeakers that call the faithful to prayer. Instead the call to prayer is performed the old fashion way by a man who shouts at the top of his lungs from the roof a mosque. Schools that train Muslim clerics are carefully monitored and students have to undergo thorough background checks before they are admitted. Longtime clerics have been forced to enroll in Chinese patriotic programs and undergo annual licencing procedures. Many are on Beijing’s payroll.
In some places Muslims are prohibited from fasting and gathering at mosques during Ramadan. There are also rules prohibiting students from entering Muslim schools if they are under 18 or have not completed their education at regular Chinese secondary schools. Public schools in some Muslim areas insist that students eat during Ramadan. If they don’t eat they are disciplined. In Kasghar, tea kettles have been seized from students out of concern the students might use them for ritual morning ablutions before Muslim prayers.
There are severe restrictions of making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Only a few are allowed to go. Many more want to go and resent the fact they can’t.
Muslim are only supposed to worship at mosques unless they have been sanctioned by the state-supported Chinese Islamic Association. In some places Friday prayers are limited to 30 minutes with sermons scripted by Beijing. Mullahs who say something the government doesn’t like risk getting thrown in jail for 10 years. Government employees are not allowed to enter mosques and clerics at the mosques are supposed to report those that do. If workers are caught going to mosques they risk losing their jobs.
In 1995, the Chinese Islamic Association decreed: "No scripture studies or Arabic classes are to be held without permission." Signs and banners hung outside mosques in Hotam, Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang read: “Completely aided by the Communist Party’s religious policy. Actively lead religion towards a just socialist society.” Polygamy was outlawed by the Communists shortly after they came to power in 1949.
Repression of Islam in China
Salar Muslim As part of Beijing's campaign against Muslim separatism and terrorism, young people are banned from mosques, foreign Muslims are banned from meeting local imams and mosques are routinely prohibited from issuing the call to prayer. Religious material has been seized and hundreds of mosques and Koranic schools have been shut down. Muslims have been arrested for preaching illegally and translating the Koran into local languages. Imam have been sent to re-education classes.
The Communist government closely monitors religious activity and worries that mosques and other houses of worship might become centers for anti-government agitation. Mosques are sometimes empty because Muslims fear being blacklisted for going there. Many mosque are infiltrated by informers. In response to repression a number of underground mosques have opened up. Many believe these are more likely to be breeding grounds for Islamic extremism than ordinary mosques.
Some Muslims complain that if they want to get ahead or land a good job they have to renounce their religion or at least not be so public about their religion.
See Chinese Crackdowns in Xinjiang, Xinjiang, Minorities
Repressions is less severe in Hui areas in Ningxia than Uighur areas in Xinjiang. The Muslim schools there are full of eager students; Ningxia University offers classes in Arabic; and kindergarten students take classes in Islam. Some of the schools there are financed by Arab countries in the Middle East that supply China with oil and gas.
In Qinghai and Gangsu, Hui Muslims go by Muslim names, eat at restaurants that refuse to sell alcohol or pork, openly express their fondness for Osama bin Laden and call the Chinese “godless people.” In some vilages most women cover their heads and most men wear Muslim-style skull caps, have beards and greet each other in Arabic. Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese Muslims at the University of Hawaii, told Reuters, “In places like Qinghai and Gansu, where Islam is less politicized, the government is more open and more relaxed. Particularly in very poor areas, there is a lot of flexibility.”
Curbs During Ramadan After the Riots in Xinjiang
Hui Prayers Dongguan mosque In September 2009, after the riots in Urumqi, local governments in Xinjiang imposed strict limits on religious practices during the traditional Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, according to the Web sites of four of those governments. The rules include prohibiting women from wearing veils and men from growing beards, as well as barring government officials from observing Ramadan. One town, Yingmaili, requires that local officials check up on mosques at least twice a week during Ramadan. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 8, 2009]
The local governments administer areas in the western part of Xinjiang that have large numbers of Muslim Uighurs. The limits on religious practices put in place by local governments appear to be part of the broader security crackdown. The areas affected by the new rules are near Kuqa, a town struck by multiple bombings. “ [Ibid]
The Web site of the town of Yingmaili lists nine rules put in place to maintain stability during Ramadan. They include barring teachers and students from observing Ramadan, prohibiting retired government officials from entering mosques and requiring men to shave off beards and women to doff veils. Mosques cannot let people from outside of town stay overnight and restaurants must maintain normal hours of business. Because of the sunrise-to-sunset fasting, many restaurants would normally close during daytime for Ramadan. “ [Ibid]
In nearby Xinhe County, the government has decreed that Communist Party members, civil servants and retired officials must not observe Ramadan, enter mosques or take part in any religious activities during the month. Worshipers cannot make pilgrimages to tombs, so as to avoid any group event that might harm social stability, according to the Xinhe government’s Web site. In addition, children and students cannot be forced to attend religious activities, and women cannot be forced to wear veils. “ [Ibid]
County rules also emphasize the need to maintain a strict watch over migrant workers and visitors from outside the county. Companies and families that have workers or visitors from outside the county are required to register the outsiders with the nearest police station and have them sign an agreement on maintaining social stability. Shayar County, which includes the town of Yingmaili, said on its Web site that migrants must register with the police, and that any missionary work by outsiders was banned. “ [Ibid]
Efforts by Beijing to Make Muslims Eat During Ramadan
a Hui in Yunnan In the aftermath of violent protests in 2011 by Uighurs, authorities have deepened their campaign against religious practices — particularly during Ramadan. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “At a teachers college in far northwestern China, students were irritated to find that their professors were escorting them to lunch last month — an odd occurrence since they were more than capable of finding the cafeteria themselves. There was an ulterior motive, students told travelers who recently visited the city of Kashgar: The college wanted to make sure that the students, most of them Muslims, were eating rather than fasting in daylight hours during the holy month of Ramadan. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2011]
“Then, something even stranger happened, the students said. When Ramadan ended late last month, launching the three-day Eid al-Fitr feast, all the restaurants and the cafeteria on campus were shut down. Students were barred from leaving the campus. On the next two days of the holiday, the cafeteria was open, but the students were locked in, unable to leave to celebrate with their families. "It was totally backwards," complained a 20-year-old Muslim student who was forced to skip the holiday.
For years, China has restricted observance of Ramadan for Communist Party members and government cadres. On one website for an agricultural bureau, for instance, employees were reminded "not to practice any religion, not to attend religious events and not to fast."
Residents of Xinjiang province say that Chinese policies regarding Ramadan have become steadily more draconian over the years. "It has been bad since 1993 and it is getting worse," said Tursun Ghupur, 33, who comes from Kashgar but has been living in Beijing. "Usually for ordinary people it is OK. You can pray and you can observe Ramadan. But if you go to school and have a job with the government, you can't be religious."
Political scientists say the government's strategy is likely to backfire. "Particularly with the government crackdown on religion in Xinjiang, this has made more people see religion as a form of resistance rather than personal piety," said Dru Gladney, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College specializing in Central Asia. "From the authorities' standpoint, it's really counterproductive."
At the very least, the restrictions on Ramadan undermine personal relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese. The Kashgar doctor related an incident involving his nephew, a student at a junior high school. During the holiday, the boy was given a piece of candy by his teacher, who is Han Chinese. "I'm doing well in school. The teacher likes me. She gave me candy," the boy told his father late that day. The father scoffed at the explanation. "She is only trying to tell if you're fasting for Ramadan."
Restaurants Forced to Stay Open During Ramadan
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In Kashgar the local Communist Party in Kasghar ordered restaurants to remain open during the day during Ramadan, even though chefs and most of their potential customers were fasting. Failure to keep their doors open made restaurants subject to fines of up to $780, the equivalent of several months' salary, so restaurateurs in the far northwestern Chinese city made token gestures to appear open, assigning one waiter to sit in the doorway and a chef to make a single dish that would be either eaten cold at night or discarded.
In Kashgar, across from the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, travelers described a bored teenage waiter in a Muslim skullcap sitting in the doorway of a darkened restaurant looking out onto the dusty sidewalk as if waiting for the customers he knew wouldn't come. Along the entire strip, restaurants were similarly unlit and empty, with none of the usual smells of roasting lamb wafting from the kitchens.
"They just offer what they can to avoid trouble," said a doctor in his late 20s, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of retaliation. He described the compromise at one of his favorite restaurants, where the chef made only rice pilaf. "The chefs can't even taste the food to make sure it is delicious."
The policy extended deeper into Xinjiang province than just Kashgar. In Aksu, 250 miles to the northeast, the municipal website warned that restaurant owners "who close without reason during the 'Ramadan period' will be severely dealt with according to the relevant regulations."
Crowd Fights Chinese Police at Mosque Demolition in Ningxia
In January 2012 a crowd of Muslims fought with police who demolished a mosque in China's northwest, a police employee and the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said. The violence erupted in Hexi, a town in the Ningxia region, after the mosque was declared an "illegal religious place" and about 1,000 officers arrived to demolish it. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, January 3, 2011]
The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said 50 people were injured and more than 100 detained after several hundred members of China's Muslim Hui minority tried to stop the demolition. It cited a villager as saying two people died, but said it could not confirm that.
AP reported an employee who answered the phone at the town police station confirmed that officers had fought with protesters and said about 80 people were detained but denied there were any deaths. Police demolished the mosque after the clash, said the employee, who refused to give her name. She said she did not know how many people were involved or why police demolished the mosque.
Tensions Between Tibetans and Hui Muslims
Muslim family with
Amdo Tibetan hats Tibetans and Muslims, mostly Muslim Huis, are arguably the most bitter enemies in China. They get along even worse than Tibetans and Chinese. Animosity between Tibetans and Muslims was a major contributor to the tensions that produced the riots in March 2008. Many of the shops and restaurants that were attacked in Lhasa were Muslim owned.
Tibetans and Huis have often lived in close proximity and they have a long history of fighting, competing, intermarrying and collaborating. Muslim have traditional done butchering and tanning for Tibetans who eat meat and wear furs but are restricted by Buddhism from killing animals. The Huis also have a reputation for seeking their fortune in remote places that Han Chinese would never go and serving as intermediaries for illiterate Tibetans in markets.
Animosity between Muslims and Tibetans in Qinghai dates back to the 1930s when the Muslim warlord Ma Bufeng tried to establish an Islamic enclave in Qinghai. Tibetans were pushed off their land. Some were killed, or forced to convert to Islam. After the Communist takeover tensions were repressed.
Clashes Between Tibetans and Muslims
Hui Tungan rifleman In recent years their have been dozens of clashes between Tibetans and Muslims in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces as well as in the Tibetan Autonomous region. Most of the incidents go unreported. Neither the Chinese or the Tibetans want the incidents publicized. The Chinese don’t want their claims of a “harmonious society” undermined and the Tibetans don’t want their international image tarnished.
In the mid 1990s, Tibetans in Lhasa began boycotting Muslim restaurants and calling Muslims cannibals after someone reportedly found a finger in a bowl of coup. Rumors also began spreading that Muslim cooks urinated in the food and added their bath water to it. Seemingly ridiculous or trivial concerns set off biter clashes.
In February 2008, an altercation involving thousands of people began after a Tibetan child complained of the high cost of balloons sold by a Muslim peddler. In 2003, a Tibetan and a Muslim died, with the Muslim being stabbed to death with a kebab skewer, and Chinese troops were called in, during a riot that began with a dispute over billiards game.
In the summer of 2007 Tibetans rioted in the town of Guojia in the Golog area of Qinghai Province after a dispute in a Muslim restaurant. The incident began when a Tibetan customer complained that was a tooth in her soup. The owner of the restaurant insisted it was just a piece of lamb bone. By that time a crowd of Tibetans had gathered. When someone screamed, “Let’s trash this restaurant” the crowd did exactly that—tables, chairs and a television were tossed and kitchen equipment was smashed with bricks—before the crowd moved onto other restaurants and did the same.
After that incident Tibetans refused to eat in Muslim restaurants and Muslim taxi drivers feared going into Tibetan parts of town. After the riots in Lhasa in March 2008 about 800 of the town’s 3,000 Muslims moved out. Of those that stayed, many men stopped wearing skullcaps, women wore hairnets rather than scarves and the religious-minded prayed at home because the nearest mosque had been burned down.
Twenty Tibetans were arrested in connection with the Guojia clash, including a senior monk fingered as the ringleader who was sentenced to death.
Reasons for Tensions Between Tibetans and Hui Muslims
a Sufi Hui A Tibetan doctor told the Los Angeles Times, “To be honest the Tibetans don’t have the business savvy of the Hui. The Tibetans have to sell their products to Hui. The Hui have to buy it from the Tibetans. I suppose because we are interdependent we resent each other.” It doesn’t help that the Huis often side with the Han Chinese in disputes involving Tibetans and support Chinese repression against Tibetans.
In some ways the Tibetans take their frustrations of being a minority on the Hui, another minority. London-based Tibetan scholar Andrew Fischer told the Los Angeles Times, “It is the dark side of Tibetan nationalism. It is as though the Tibetans are diverting their anger over their own situation towards another vulnerable minority.” A Muslim shopkeeper in Lhasa, said “they are used as a scapegoat for their grievances against the country.”
The increased mobility of people brought about by easing of travel restrictions have brought Muslim and Tibetans into contact with each more than ever before, creating more opportunities for tensions to rise compared to the Maoist era when travel restrictions kept them separated.
In Lhasa, many Muslims have bought Tibetan businesses and now own the majority of souvenir stands. Tensions over lost business opportunities are seen a major force behind the riots in 2008. A Tibetan businessman told the Los Angeles Times, You hear these stories about Muslims putting stuff in soup. But I think its all about business competition and economics.” Image Sources: Wiki Commons, Nolls http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Mongabey
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012