Islam with Chinese characteristics begins to take hold

Isolation from other Muslims has spawned a distinct kind of Islam in China, writes Hamish McDonald in Sangpo village.

In a classroom barely heated by a little iron stove, Zhen Shuzhen bent over her desk, her head covered by a scarf, as she carefully copied a passage of Arabic from the blackboard into her exercise book.

A student at a nearby textile college, 19-year-old Ms Zhen is spending her winter vacation studying the Koran.

"At college we don't really have a clue about Islam, but being a Hui we should know about our religion," she said.

Along with about 20 other young women in this village in Central China, Ms Zhen represents a deepening interest in the theology of Islam among a Muslim community known as the Hui that has long been almost buried among China's ethnic Han majority, who mostly follow Buddhism or Daoism.

Along with the dispatch of hundreds of young men and women each year to Islamic schools in the Middle East and Malaysia, and growing numbers of old people making the Haj to Mecca, it suggests a trend to orthodoxy and greater openness to influence by the purist schools of thought that influence Muslims elsewhere.

Descended from Mid-Eastern traders and their converts who came to China around the time of the 14th century emperor, Kublai Khan, the 9 million Hui now speak Mandarin Chinese, look like Han Chinese, and follow most Han customs.

Their long immersion in China and isolation from Muslim-majority countries has lent their practice of Islam a distinctive flavour. Centuries back, it was influenced by Confucianism with its veneration for ancestors and secular virtue, and Confucian terms were used to explain Islamic concepts.

The last century and a half has seen the emergence of women-only mosques or "nusi" and female imams, unique in the Islamic world, where elsewhere women worship in the same mosque as the men, albeit in a separate curtained or partitioned space, and hear the same male preacher.

Ms Zhen's teacher is Guo Dongping, 38, a female imam, or "ahong" in the Chinese title, who also uses the Koranic name Miriam. Trained for six years in Arabic and Persian, married to an ahong who runs a nearby male-only mosque, Ms Guo leads prayers and preaches a sermon every Friday.

Like many Hui women here, Ms Guo stresses the convenience of women having their own place to pray, given the requirements of ritual ablutions beforehand, and the shyness of men teaching female students. "It's a kind of Islam with Chinese characteristics," Ms Guo said.

Academic researchers like Shui Jingjun, a Hui sociologist and co-author of a history titled A Mosque of Their Own, tend to see an unspoken feminist agenda. "These women feel good and feel free at these mosques," she said. "They may be smaller than the male mosques but they are much better organised."

Sangpo is a prosperous village of about 5000 people, mostly Hui, who run what may be the world's biggest centre for tanning sheepskins. This week, young Han men and women were hanging around, hoping to get jobs scraping and washing skins as its tanneries reopen after the Chinese New Year break. But its outlook is gradually changing.

About 100 local people have made the Haj since China opened up in the last two decades. This year, 19 were among some 11,000 Chinese Muslims who went to Mecca, each paying around 40,000 yuan ($6150).

Two of Sangpo's newest pilgrims, brothers Yang Wenfu, 73, and Yang Wengui, 68, this week entertained about 1000 villagers at a sit-down feast in a family sheepskin factory which evidenced a mix of Chinese culture and Muslim faith.

So far, attempts to introduce purist or "Islamist" practices by followers of schools like the Salafi and Wahhabi had mostly failed among the Hui, says Ms Shui, the sociologist.

But Ms Guo says young Hui women coming back from study abroad are now less interested in ritual, more interested in religious content, more likely to wear Arab-style headscarves than the traditional Hui white cap, and more likely to observe Ramadan.

"Very often they become opposed to Western culture like the obsession with beauty of the body, or freedom of sex," she said. "Before they went overseas they didn't really know about it. Now they understand it is offensive to Islam."

Many Hui express hostility to Western intervention in Iraq, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and the banning of headscarves in French schools. Ali Ai Zhuxi, a Sangpo mosque official, said terrorism was created by the actions of powers like the United States.

"The Islamic countries are acting in self-defence," he said. In Zhengzhou, the Henan capital, one worshipper at a female mosque said she felt "a kind of satisfaction" when she saw the September 11 bombings on television.

Though Han Chinese do marry into the prosperous Hui community and convert, Islam is not seeing the same wave of new believers joining churches and new quasi-Buddhist sects by the millions. Instead, religious belief among the existing faithful is intensifying.

"They become Muslim because they have more knowledge and understanding of it, not just because their parents are Muslim," Ms Guo said, about her young students.

Ms Zhen, the young textile student, echoes this voluntary trend. "I don't go to the mosque or pray," she said. "But I want to learn."