en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 36, Number 4July/August 1985

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Muslims in China

An Introduction

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

In China today, the Islamic faith seems to be not only surviving, but gradually reviving:

•  Bin Lanzhou (Lanchow), on the banks of the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese civilization, a Muslim mosque and madrasa seminary stand side by side with Buddhist shrines in White Pagoda Park. And in the park each morning, hundreds of rhythmically twisting Chinese do their daily Tai Ji workout - daily gymnastics - just as devout young Muslim clerics begin a day of study and prayer.

•   At Xian (Sian), formerly Ch'ang-an, "City of Eternal Peace" and capital of 11 dynasties, the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China, is proudly displayed to visitors as part of China's national heritage - along with the life-size terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang-Ti.

•   At Turpan oasis, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, teenagers turn their Mao-style peaked caps back-to-front to pray - foreheads to the ground, facing Makkah (Mecca) - in a mosque resembling a Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty pavilion.

This unusual mixture of Islamic religious practice, ancient Chinese culture and modem Communist dedication may seem incongruous at first. But Islam, in fact, has been practiced in China since the seventh century when Arab traders, riding the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean, began to introduce the new faith in the coastal cities of China. In the next 200 years, Islam spread through the interior too as other Muslim traders traveled along the old Silk Road. Today, it is the religion of 10 of China's 55 minority nationalities: the Uighur, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Uzbek, Tatar and Sala, all Turkic peoples; Tungxiang and Paoan, of Mongol origins; the Iranian Tajit and the Chinese Hui.

Government statistics for these minorities add up to about 14 million people - but some unofficial outside tallies put the Muslim population of China much higher. And while figures of all religious minorities in China are somewhat questionable, since they are usually computed based on ethnic origin rather than religious affiliation, there is no doubt that there if a substantial Muslim population in the Peoples Republic. Muslims, furthermore, along with other minorities living in China, seem to have regained a certain measure of religious and secular freedoms. Since 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, mosques were often defaced, destroyed or closed, but today mosques have not only been reopened, but also renovated or rebuilt - partly at government expense - and copies of the Koran once destroyed by the rampaging Red Guards who spearheaded the revolution, have been reprinted and distributed, also with government help.

Last summer, for example, in the northwest provincial capital of Urumqi, three of the city's 20 mosques were being painstakingly restored and copies of the Koran - old and new - were on sale at a stall in one of its main squares. Lanzhou today boasts two new mosques, while China's oldest mosque - the Great Mosque in Xian - is currently undergoing major repairs, the first stage of which, renovation of the min-bar, will cost about $179,000.

Under China's current leadership, in fact, Islam appears to be undergoing a modest revival. Religious leaders report more worshipers now than before the Cultural Revolution, and a reawakening of interest in religion among the young.

Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin, for example, says 500 to 600 worshipers attend Friday prayers at Niu Jie, the largest of the 40 mosques that serve Beijing's (Peking) 180,000-strong Muslim community. "At festivals we get over 2,000," he adds, proudly showing visitors around his recently repainted mosque - its ceiling decorated with pictures of fruit and flowers, its pillars lacquered in red and gold, and its walls covered with a mixture of Arabic and Chinese motifs.

Elsewhere, there are similar reports. Throughout China's vast Xinjiang (Sinkiang) region, the muezzin's call to prayer echoes in such desert oases as Kashi (Kashgar), Aksu, Kuga (Kucha), Hami, Turpan and Hotan (Khoton). Mosques too are well filled in the cities of the Gansu Corridor, (Kansu), once vital links in the old Silk Road between China and the West, while, in the walled city of Xian, Chinese guides respectfully detain tourists at the main gate of the much-visited Great Mosque until the numerous faithful finish one of the five daily prayer sessions.

Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin also says that "more and more" people - over 1,000 in 1983 - are making the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah, despite normally severe restrictions on overseas travel for individual Chinese. He also reports a new influx of young men into the Islamic studies. At the Lanzhou madrasa, last summer, for example, all 20 places were filled, and at an Islamic college attached to Beijing's Dong Si mosque another 17 high school graduates were studying to be imams.

Muslims have also gained a measure of toleration from other religious practices. In areas where Muslims are a majority, the breeding of pigs by non-Muslims is forbidden in deference to Islamic beliefs. Muslim communities are allowed separate cemeteries; Muslim couples may have their marriage consecrated by an imam; and Muslim workers are permitted holidays during major religious festivals.

Recently, even the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party took up the cudgel on behalf of Muslims. Prompted by complaints from Muslim visitors, Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) urged the authorities to solve the problem of "getting a Muslim meal" in Beijing, where, it said, the 240 Muslim restaurants were no longer enough because "more non-Muslim residents are switching from a diet of pork to beef and mutton." The highlight, in fact, of a recent visit by one normally-chopstick-wielding Chinese to the Alpine-like Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), was a hand-eaten mutton meal shared with Muslim herdsmen.

As well as religious gains, Muslims have also won significant secular concessions from China's Communist rulers; they are, for example, playing an increasingly important role in regional and local administration. In the Xinjiang region, which covers 16 percent of the total land area of China, Muslims now hold a majority of government posts; four of the seven members of the regional government and 26 of the 37 members of the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Xinjiang are members of national minorities who mostly practice Islam. In the capital, Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin serves as a member of the Standing Committee of Beijing's Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference, and says "Muslims head all administrations in the street" where mosques are located.

Muslims, most of whom are farmers or herdsmen, seem to be prospering economically too since the Chinese government introduced more liberal agricultural policies and stepped up industrial investment in the under-developed - and relatively autonomous - outlying areas where they live. Capital investment by the central government in such autonomous regions - including the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region - has totaled about $9.2 billion since 1978, and in 1983, when agricultural production peaked in China, farmers in the autonomous regions produced 39.7 million tons of grain and 180 million head of livestock.

The result of this increased prosperity was clearly visible last summer at Turpan, where Muslim farmers said they earned far more than the average city dweller and the sight of motorcycles parked in the vine shaded courtyards of their walled, mud-brick homes wrung looks of envy from visitors from Beijing.

Culturally too, Muslims seem to have gained more freedom. Newspapers and books, television programs and films are being printed and produced in their own languages; the Xinjiang Daily, for example, is published in Uighur and Kazakh as well as in Chinese. Minority students are able to go to school in their mother tongue and are also allowed to take university entrance examinations in their own language. At the same time, the government is taking special pains to preserve and promote the colorful folk dances and songs of the Muslim minorities of Xinjiang.

Most of these already-practiced privileges were recently confirmed in the "Law of Regional Autonomy for Minority-Nationalities" adopted by the Sixth National People's Congress. The law stipulates that the administrative head of an autonomous region, prefecture or county -previously a member of the majority Han Chinese - should be picked from one of the nationalities exercising regional autonomy in the area.

The newly enacted legislation also, allows autonomous areas to develop their economies independently - within the framework of state plans, of course - and formulate their own laws according to the characteristics and needs of their locality. It also gives all minorities the freedom to use their own spoken and written languages, develop their own culture and education, and practice their own religion.

Such policies represent a dramatic reversal since the days of the "Great Leap Forward" and the Cultural Revolution, when, for example, the government attempted to dilute the Muslim population of Xinjiang by settling masses of Han Chinese there, and by replacing Muslim leaders.

This turnaround in policies probably reflects a more realistic attitude by China's government towards minorities who may make up no more than 10 percent of the population, but who occupy over 60 percent of the land of China - much of it strategically important and rich in natural resources. Predominantly Muslim Xinjiang, for example, borders the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan and is rich in minerals, including oil. While Yunnan on the southwest frontier, which has a substantial Muslim population, borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam and has some of China's largest timber reserves. For the government it may seem wiser to keep minorities there happily within the Chinese fold.

This, to be sure, may be a kind of tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim minorities, but it cannot be denied that the Chinese Muslims are benefiting; whatever the motives, the new political realism translates into official tolerance. Those who lived through the repressive days of the Cultural Revolution are understandably skeptical about the future. But for the moment, at least, Islam is very much alive among peoples who have managed to practice their faith, sometimes against great odds, since the seventh century.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the July/August 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1985 images.