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Islam in China: Who are China’s Muslims?

Jul 17, 2017 By Elaine Pang , Comments (0)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Faith appears to be the birthright of Chinese minorities, of which Islam is no exception. The Huis and Uighurs are most readily associated with Islam, although others like Kazakhs, Dongxiangs and Kyrgyzs number among the Muslim communities as well. Like Christianity and Buddhism, Islam survived the religious persecution that characterized the Cultural Revolution, only showing signs of letting up in 1978.

Today, China is home to some 23 million Muslims. To the average member of Han majority, the religion conjures up fear and aversion following the endemic radicalism sweeping through central Asia – something the Chinese authorities have been quick to capitalize on given the recent spate of incidents attributed the largely Muslim Uighur minority.

Muslims in China
Photo: M M

How Islam came to the Middle Kingdom

Understandably, China and the Chinese race are not readily associated with Islam. So it might come as a surprise that a nation of pork-lovers could be home to around 23 million abstainers, although some sources put figures as high as 100 million. Islam in China dates back to the seventh century, just 16 years after Alopun brought Christianity to Chang An. 18 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed, a delegation led by Sa'ad Ibn Waaqas, his maternal uncle, was credited with bringing Islam to cosmopolitanism Tang China. Infiltrating the middle kingdom through maritime and inland silk routes, the imperial market for fine cloth and imported luxuries gave Islam a high-level foothold through trade and diplomatic exchanges. Simultaneously, the conquest of nomadic tribes between the Middle East and China also made default Muslims out of ethnic groups along the way, such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs ad Tajiks.

Who are the Muslims?

1) Hui
Virtually indistinguishable from the Han majority, the Hui are quietly the largest minority group that gives the religion one of its Chinese names – the religion of the Huis. While the Uighurs exist constantly under the media spotlight, the Huis appear to co-exist peacefully alongside the Han majority. Though direct descendants of the original Silk Route traders, Huis largely look like Han Chinese and speak the same language and dialects, with the odd Arabic word thrown in. Perhaps owing to their heritage of a long line of generals faithful to the imperial governments, Huis are perceived as complicit and non-seditious. Scattered throughout the mainland, the area in China with the largest concentration of Hui Muslims can be found in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. They have been viewed to be less genuine in their faith by authorities, although recent revival has seen more outward manifestations of faith like headscarves and increasing numbers performing the Haj.

2) Uighurs
The second largest Muslim community is most closely associated with the religion by the average Han Chinese. Distinctive in appearance – taller and olive-skinned – and speaking a Turkic-based language written in Arabic script, the Uighurs are concentrated in Xinjiang, conquered by China since the 1800s. Since then, the Uighurs chafe under heavy-handed treatment dealt to crush all hopes of sedition. As moderate Sunni Muslims practicing a form of Islam heavily influenced by Sufi brotherhoods, Buddhism, and East Asian ideologies, the majority simply desire greater autonomy. Unlike the Huis, the Uighurs face travel restrictions, ostensibly to curb the import of extremism.

The rest of the ten ethnic groups that are predominantly Muslim are the Kazakh, Kirgiz, Bao’an, Tatar, Salar, Dongxiang, Uzbek and Tajik.

The Chinese brand of Islam

Unlike Buddhism, China does not have its own version of Islam. However, the practice of Islam in China does have its own unique characteristics. Among the Huis, Islam is combined with Confucian ideals and older mosques feature elements of Chinese architecture. However, recent increased exposure to social media and opportunities for travel and overseas study have led to the developments of Middle Eastern-styled architecture in Muslim strongholds like Linxia.

Islam exists against a secular background in China, a contrast from countries in the Middle East. Religion is therefore not expected to be the focal point of one’s life. Observance of Ramadan is largely viewed as flexible, frowned upon in the civil service and in universities. In places like Beijing, the scorching summers and physical demands of certain professions like chefs are exempt from judgement when they do not fast. Forbearance is also exercised towards the consumption of alcohol or tobacco.

Female Imams

A deviation from Islam’s patriarchal leanings, China is home to a number of female Imams, mostly in Henan Province. They lead prayers in mosques built for women. This unusual phenomenon dating back to the 17th century was borne out of necessity, rather than doctrinal interpretation, as women stepped in to fill the leadership void in landlocked areas.

Recent incidences linked to Muslims in China

1) Urumqi riots – 2009

These began as a protest, which escalated into a series of violent clashes between the indigenous community and the Han Chinese over several days. Sparked off by riots in Shaoguan, Guangdong following rumors of two Han women being raped by six Uighur men – which eventually proved to be false – at least 197 died and 1,721 were injured. Post-riot police sweeps resulted in at least 43 unexplained disappearances of Uighur men, and a province-wide prohibition of the internet for almost a year.

2) Tiananmen Square Attack, Oct 2013

A car drove through security barriers in Tiananmen Square and burst into flames upon crashing onto a pedestrian bridge. Five deaths resulted, including three in the vehicle and 40 others were injured.

3) Kunming knife attacks, Mar 2014

A group of knife-wielding attackers outside Kunming train station killed 29 civilians and injured more than 140. Police killed four assailants and captured an injured female.

The Government and Han Chinese view of Islam

To the average Han Chinese on the street, minorities in general are viewed to be unfairly benefiting from policies including exemptions from the one-child policy and preferential admission to universities. To compound matters, Islam has become a religion closely associated with extremism overseas making it easy to link incidents associated with Uighurs with radicalism – something which the central government can use to its advantage even as foreign media remains unconvinced that the Tiananmen Square and Kunming knife incidents are signs of a Muslim separatist movement.

Such incidents do provide support for tighter control in Uighur areas. Following the attack and stabbing of state-appointed Imam, Jume Tahir, hijabs, niqabs, burkas, or clothing with the Islamic symbols are now banned on public buses, as are men with big beards.

In the practice of their religion, Muslims in China are limited to reading a state-approved Koran and worshiping in official mosques. Those under 18 are not also allowed to visit mosques. Other than that, differing degrees of freedom granted across different Islamic minorities make it appear that politics and race, rather than religion is the issue at hand. 

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Keywords: Muslims in China Islam in China

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