Henan may have been the birthplace of Buddhism, but as the ample number of 'Muslim restaurants' (8) in Luoyang and other cities in the province indicated, a substantial portion of the province's religious tapestry included Islam.
Muslims in China in fact constituted a substantial minority and numbered between twenty and thirty million, although accurate data was almost impossible to come by. While the country's religious revival was largely focused on 'indigenous' Chinese traditions like Buddhism and Confucianism, Islam too had begun to garner greater attention from the faithful.
The two main groups of Muslims in China were the Hui and Uighurs. The latter were a much persecuted lot of Turkic ethnicity. For Beijing Uighur Islam was intertwined with ethnic separatism in the western province of Xinjiang, where most of them lived and as a result the practise of religion in the region was tightly controlled.
Hui Muslims, on the other hand, enjoyed greater leeway. Numbering about ten million in total, the Hui were descendants of Middle Eastern traders and their converts who first travelled to China along the silk route during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906).
Centuries of isolation meant that they had blended in with the majority Confucian and Buddhist population. As a result, although officially classified as a distinct ethnic community, the Hui were physically indistinguishable from the Han. The primary way of telling the two communities apart was the absence of pork from the diet of Hui Muslims, a meat that for the Han was a primary staple.
I had always considered myself to be culturally Muslim in part, having come from a country that had benefited from centuries of Islamic rule. I had grown up in Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire, and had lived in Nizamuddin, in the shade of the emperor Humayun's tomb. The language I spoke was sweetened by the Urdu in it. In school I learnt to dance Kathak. At home we ate halwa and kheer as treats.
My first 'best friend' at age four was Sadia Moinuddin and sometimes on the weekend I would squeeze on to a scooter along with her and her father, brother and burkha-clad mother. We would ride into the clatter and warmth of Old Delhi and visit with her relatives in small drawing rooms dominated by large posters of Mecca.
Years later, a few weeks before I was to head to the London School of Economics, I sat in my mother's home in Nizamuddin chatting with Soren Schonberg, a Danish friend from Oxford who was visiting at the time. We found ourselves talking about the culture or people we believed to be the most alien or 'other' to us. Soren began first and to my surprise (this was before 9/11) he picked the Middle East, which to me was almost reassuringly familiar in the texture of its foods, the rhythm of its languages and the strong brown beauty of the faces of its peoples.
Soren went on to ask me for my pick. I paused in consideration for barely a moment before answering, The Chinese.'
Six years later, having lived in China for four of those, I decided to take a closer look at developments in Chinese Islam. It was to Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the northern province flanked by the Gobi desert, that I headed to find out more. Ningxia was one of the poorest areas in China. It was also home to 1.8 million Hui Muslims who comprised 35 percent of the province's total population.
On my first day in the province I drove in and around the provincial capital Yinchuan with Ma Xiao, Vice President of the Islamic Association of Ningxia, a jowly, bespectacled middle-aged man who sported a snazzily crocheted skull cap. We visited mosques, attended Koran classes, interviewed imams and met with some local government bigwigs.
The physical presence of Islam in the city was ubiquitous with the reaching minarets and crescent moons of mosques punctuating the skyline with constancy. As with Buddhist temples, mosques that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution were being restored and new mosques were going up as well.
Ma Xiao revealed the province to have some 700 officially licensed imams and more than 3000 mosques. And what about unlicensed ones, I asked? He shifted in his seat uncomfortably before replying, 'Yes, who knows how many of those there are.'
One indication of Ningxia's Hui Muslim population's renewed interest in Islam, Ma continued, was an explosion of youngsters studying Arabic. There were currently over 5000 Mania, or young Islamic disciples studying Arabic and Islamic doctrine part-time, in the province, he said. Even the Ningxia Economic Institute had begun to offer three to four year-long Arabic courses and Ningxia University had opened an Arabic language department.
The mosques we visited had also all begun to offer free Arabic classes for anyone who was interested. At Yinchuan's Xi Guan mosque, for example, over three hundred students had started to study the language since courses began in 2004. What was intriguing was that a full third of these language learners were women.
I sat in on one of the classes at the back of a room packed with women between the ages of thirty and seventy. Over the top of a sea of white headscarves the teacher was barely visible as she led the class in Arabic chants from the Koran.
Afterwards I talked to a few of the women. They seemed eager to chat and surrounded me in a crush. Some fingered my clothes. Others asked about Indian Muslims. Were they like Pakistanis? A 40-year-old housewife with heavily kohl-lined eyes, unusual in China, was the most vocal. 'Earlier we were too busy just making a living. Now that we are richer we have more time to focus on the spiritual,' she said, echoing a sentiment I had repeatedly heard at Buddhist temples. She continued, 'By learning Arabic I can read the Koran in the original, which is my duty as a Muslim.'
Added Ma Fen Zhen, who at seventy was the oldest student in the class, 'When I was a girl most of us women were illiterate. We knew nothing about the world. Taking these classes gives us so much knowledge about how to conduct ourselves as good Muslims and the right values with which to bring up our families'
This feminist twist to Islam in Ningxia was an example of the uniquely Chinese characteristics that set the practice of the religion amongst Hui apart from other Muslims. A hundred miles east of Ymchuan, in the small town of Ling Wu, I met Yang Yu Hong, one of two female imams at the Tai Zi mosque.
Young, pretty and feisty, Yang had received her tide of imam from the Islamic Association four years ago. She was one of approximately two hundred certified women imams or nu ahong in the province. Yang stoutly denied that there was anything un-Islamic about the concept of female imams. 'There are many things that are easier for women to talk about with other women. And everyone, man or woman, has a duty to study and understand the religion.'
But this tradition of nu ahong in China was less revolutionary than it first appeared. While the women were granted the title of imam they remained unqualified to lead men in prayers. Their role was more that of a teacher and their students were exclusively female.
Ma from the Islamic Association was distincdy derisive of the whole concept. 'Women imams?' he laughed dismissively when I asked him about the practice. The nu ahong are respected women whom the community looks up to but of course they do not have the same religious powers as men.'
'Men and women are equal,' insisted Yang Yu Hong a little anxiously, when I asked her whether she felt it unfair that male imams could lead females in prayer but not the other way round. 'It's just that our roles are different.'
It transpired that the support base for this Hui 'tradition' of female imams was stronger in the CCP with its communist ideology of gender equality than amongst the Hui themselves. As with the Buddhist temples the party was a constant, if invisible, presence in the mosques. Proselytizing remained strictly forbidden. Children below eighteen were not permitted to receive religious instruction at all. All imams had to be licensed by a government approved body and all mosques registered with the State.
But despite these continuing political controls, Islam in Ningxia was gaining in popularity and as was usually the case in China there was an economic rationale driving the phenomenon.
'Other provinces have ports and natural resources. In Ningxia we have Muslims,' said Chen Zhigang, the Han Deputy Director General of Ningxia's Investment Promotion Bureau in a matter-of fact way when I caught up with him towards the end of my three-day visit. 'Muslims are in fact our competitive advantage.'
To exploit this 'competitive advantage' the Ningxia government had organized for the first time a massive Halal Food Exhibition that coincided with my stay in the province. Chen said the aim of the exhibition was to help establish connections between the food industries of Ningxia and the Middle East. He claimed contracts of 10 billion yuan ($1.25 bn) were expected to be signed during the four-day-long event.
The exhibition was only one manifestation of a broader trend. As the oil-rich Middle East became an increasingly important trading partner for China, the country's Hui population with their Arabic language skills and cultural affinity to Islamic countries were coming to be seen by the authorities as a valuable economic resource.
One of Ningxia's largest exports to other parts of China was thus the Arabic interpreters much in demand in certain cities. An article in the People's Daily claimed there were over 2000 such interpreters from Ningxia in Yiwu alone. The average salary for these interpreters was 3000 yuan ($375) a month, equal to the annual income of most households in the poorer parts of Ningxia. (9) Job opportunities as much as piety thus went some way in explaining the huge new demand for Arabic language skills.
The links between commerce and religion were, however, neither simple nor one directional. One consequence of the increasing trade with the Middle East was the exposure of the hitherto cloistered Hui to more orthodox Islam as it was practised in Arab states. As a result a new conformity to scripture within the Hui community was emerging. In the past the Hui were amongst the least orthodox Muslims in the world. Many smoked and drank, few grew beards and Hui women rarely wore veils.
But ever since business imperatives ended their isolation and began to take them abroad, stricter ideas of Islam had crept into the Hui community. Mosques in Ningxia had thus started to receive worshippers five times a day and more Hui women had taken to wearing headscarves. Skull caps for men, once a rarity, were also in wide evidence. According to Ma over 8000 Muslims from China went on Haj to Mecca in 2005. In addition, hundreds of Hui students had begun to study in Muslim countries like Pakistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Luo Zhan, the head Imam of Xi Guan mosque, spoke of these new developments approvingly. 'After we began to interact with Muslims from other countries we realized what a big gap there was between their level of understanding about Islam and ours,' he said. Luo went on to explain that even a decade ago being Muslim for most Hui simply meant landing up at the mosque for big festivals like Eid. 'Most people did not take Islam as something fundamental to their everyday life. This is finally changing,' he concluded with satisfaction.
In several of the conversations I had with people at the mosques a strong identification with the wider problems of the Islamic world was evident. 'It's American policy that has given all of us Muslims a bad reputation,' said Yang, Tai Zi mosque's nu ahong, aquiver with indignation. 'We are a peace-loving religion,' she went on and the fifty-odd women in the classroom nodded in assent. 'Yet, look at what lies they spread about us,' Yang finished bitterly, to increasingly loud murmurs of support.
Economic considerations had persuaded the Chinese government to relax restrictions and even to actively support the development of connections between the Hui and the larger Islamic world. But this was a policy that could easily backfire. In the short three-day period I spent in Ningxia it became evident that the growth of orthodoxy amongst the Hui could cause serious tensions with the Han.
'Earlier the Hui were just like us except they didn't eat pork. Now they think they are very special. They think of themselves as foreigners,' one Han government official in Ningxia complained. Already, confrontations between the two communities were common enough, often sparked by minor incidents.
In 2004, for example, large parts of Henan province were placed under martial law after fighting between Hui and Han that spread to include thousands of people and left dozens dead. The fighting began when a Hui man bumped into a Han girl with his vehicle and refused to pay compensation. (10)
Latent tensions were further exacerbated by government policy which provided potentially restive minority communities like the Hui a variety of sops. For example, the Hui were exempt from China's one-child policy (unless they worked for the government, in which case the policy applied) and special quotas were reserved for them at universities and government departments.
(8) These were restaurants where all meat on offer was halal, and no pork was served.
(8) These were restaurants where all meat on offer was halal and no pork was served.
(9) Xinhua, "More People from China's Major Muslim Region Work with Arabic," People's Daily Online, 1 February 2006.
(10) Jehangir Pocha, "Ethnic Tensions Smolder in China," In These Times, 28 December 2004.
Copyright © Pallavi Aiyar 2008.