Muslims in China
Relations between China and Arabia predate the emergence of Islam. Chinese traders and merchants regularly visited the trading fairs in Arabia to buy and sell goods and merchandise. According to Chinese sources, an Arab delegation visited the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou) in 651 CE. Muslim historians say that this delegation was sent by the Caliph Uthman and was led by Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW). Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas is said to have built a mosque in Guangzhou. The earliest Muslim communities in China descended from Arab, Persian, Central Asian and Mongolian Muslim traders and soldiers who had settled in China’s southeast coast between the 7th and 10th centuries.
The Chinese census registers people by nationality, and not by religious affiliation. Hence it is extremely difficult to estimate the actual population of Muslims in China. According to the 2010 Chinese census, the population of national minorities that profess Islam is around 23 million, or 1.6% of the population. Independent estimates put the population of Muslims in China between 50 and 100 million. This seems plausible in view of the fact that Muslims have been living in China for nearly a thousand years.
Ten of China’s 56 national minorities follow Islam. These include Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Salar, Bao’an (Bonan), Dongxiang, Uzbek, Tajik and Tatar. The numerically large Muslim minority groups are Hui (10.5 million), Uighur (10 million), Kazakh (1.2 million) and Kirghiz (0.2 million). The Hui, who comprise about half of China’s Muslim population, mostly live in the country’s northern and western provinces and have traditionally been farmers, shopkeepers and craftsmen. They are the descendants of Arab, Central Asian and Persian merchants who began arriving and settling in China since the 7th century. They married local Chinese women, which resulted in their gradual assimilation into Chinese society. They generally speak Mandarin or other non-Turkic dialects. An indication of the assimilation of Hui Muslims into mainstream Chinese society is provided by their “Sinified” names. Thus, Muhammad was transformed into Ma or Mu, Husayn into Hu, Sai’d into Sai, Shams into Zheng and Uthman into Cari. The Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tatar, on the other hand, speak Turkic languages while the Dongxiang, Salar and Bonan speak a mixture of Turkic and Mongolian languages. The Tajik speak Indo-Persian dialects. The Uighur language, one of the Turkic languages, is written in the Arabic script. The Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tatar share substantial cultural and folk traditions with the Muslims of Central Asia.
There is a substantial population of Muslims in Tibet, locally known as Kachee, which includes the Hui, Salar, Dongxiang and Bonan groups. The Muslims of Tibet, who have been living in the region since the 8th or 9th century, have descended from Muslim migrants from Central Asia, Ladakh and Kashmir.
By and large, Chinese Muslims have safeguarded their religious and cultural traditions and have retained their Islamic identity even in the face of China’s repressive policies and pressures of assimilation. There are thousands of mosques and madrasas across China and Islamic feasts are celebrated with enthusiasm. Like Muslims in general, Chinese Muslims consume halal meat and abstain from alcohol. A majority of Chinese Muslim women wear the headscarf.
The Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China were marked by repression of religious minorities. Thousands of mosques and madrasas were closed down, religious leaders were harassed or detained and Islam was demonized. The situation eased in the 1980s and the Muslims were allowed some measure of religious and cultural freedom.
The architecture of mosques and Sufi mausoleums in China generally incorporates the distinctive Chinese architectural features and styles, particularly the curved roofs.
Xinjiang, which was known as Chinese Turkestan in earlier times, is the westernmost Chinese city, bordered by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the past, the region was under the control of Tibetans, Uighurs, Arabs, Turks and Mongols at different points of time. It was conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Xinjiang was invaded and annexed by China in 1949. Xinjiang accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass and has the country’s largest deposits of oil, natural gas and coal. Xinjiang, officially known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is home to several Muslim minority groups, including the Uighur, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongols. The Uighurs, who are the original inhabitants of the region, are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang and account for more than 46% of the region’s population. An estimated 80% of Uighurs live in the southwestern part of Xinjiang, known as the Tarim Basin. Ethnic Han Chinese account for 39% of Xinjiang’s population.
Sufism began to have a substantial influence on Chinese Muslims from the 17th century. Most of the Sufis came from Central Asia and established wide networks of Sufi brotherhoods across the country. The Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya and Kubrawiya orders have been particularly influential in Xinjiang and other regions. Muhammad Yusuf, a Sufi of the Naqshbandiya order, came to Xinjiang in the 17th century. He played an important role in reinforcing Islamic consciousness in the region. His son and successor was Afaq Khoja, whose mausoleum, located about 5 km north-east from the centre of Kashghar City, is the most sacred Muslim shrine in Xinjiang. The Afaq Khoja Mausoleum contains the graves of 72 members of the family of Afaq Khoja. The mausoleum is an imposing piece of Central Asian architecture, decorated with blue glazed tiles and draped in colourful silks. Xinjiang’s sprawling landscape is dotted with thousands of mosques. According to government statistics, there are 24,000 mosques and 29,000 religious teachers and imams in Xinjiang.
Shortly after the annexation of Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities launched a calculated policy of settling large numbers of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Mr. Wang Lequan, the Communist Party secretary and absolute authority in Xinjiang for 15 years, introduced modernization in the region. He opened the region’s oil and gas fields to drilling, laid pipelines east to the Chinese heartland and west to Kazakhstan. Lured by rising employment opportunities, thousands of Han Chinese workers flocked to Xinjiang. During the 1990s, about two million Han migrated to the region. As a result of the planned migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, the proportion of Uighurs in the region’s population has shrunk from 90 per cent in 1949 to 46 per cent today. On the other hand, the population of Han Chinese increased from an estimated 5% in 1940 to 39% today. The Han Chinese now form the majority (more than 70 per cent) of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi’s population of 2.3 million. Xinjiang has been milked for its abundant oil reserves, but the benefits have not accrued to the region’s Muslim population in any significant measure. Xinjiang has undoubtedly developed, but large numbers of people, especially Uighurs, are still living in poverty.
The old city of Kashgar, located in Xinjiang, was a key entrepot on the Silk Road for nearly two thousand years. Islam was established in Kashghar in the 10th century under the Kara-Khanid Khanate. Kashghar’s old city has been described as the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia. There are more than 40 mosques in the city where worshippers gather for the daily prayers following the muezzin’s call. Hundreds of artisans carry on with their traditional crafts using centuries-old methods and techniques. Hawkers sell their wares, including fresh-baked bread, dried toads and prayer caps, on the streets.
Kashgar’s centuries-old landscape and architecture are set to disappear over the next few years. Chinese authorities fear that an earthquake could strike the city anytime, resulting in the destruction of old, fragile buildings and killing thousands of people. The authorities have decided to raze the city before the next calamity strikes. Large parts of the city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, have already been torn down. Nine hundred families have been moved from the old city. Over the next few years, nearly 85 per cent of the city will be demolished and many of its 13,000 families, mostly Uighur Muslims, will be shifted to other locations.
The old city, according to the reconstruction plan, will be replaced by a new one, consisting of midrise, quake-proof apartments and plazas. The authorities take care to emphasise that the traditional architecture of the old city will be replicated in the new plan. There are misgivings and resentment about the reconstruction project among the city’s 350,000 residents and environmentalists. “From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid. From the perspective of the locals, it is cruel,” says Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Centre, a nongovernmental group devoted to the preservation of historical buildings and heritage sites. There is a widespread apprehension that the reconstruction project is aimed at undermining Uighur culture itself.
Chinese authorities have sought to suppress and erase the religious and cultural identity of Muslims in Xinjiang. A Muslim couple is not allowed to have more than two children and those who violate the law have to pay a hefty fine. Children under the age of 18 are not allowed to attend mosques. In 2013, Muslim officials, students and teachers in Xinjiang were not allowed to keep the fast during Ramadan. The ban was enforced this year as well. Fasting was banned in all universities across the region. Those who refused to obey the orders risked being punished by officials. However, the ban on fasting turned out to be counter-productive. Many Muslims defied the ban and the attendance in mosques increased after the ban was announced.
The Uighurs, unlike the Hui Muslims, have scrupulously safeguarded their religious and ethnic identity. Most Uighur women cover their heads and alcohol is rarely served in Uighur-owned restaurants. There has been an evident revival and resurgence of Islamic identity among the Uighurs in recent years.
Mr Wang Lequan carried out a policy of de-ethnicization of Uighur Muslims. He substituted Mandarin for Uighur in primary schools, saying that minority languages were “out of step with the 21st century,” and banned or restricted Islamic symbols and practices, including the Islamic veil, beards and praying and fasting while on the job, among government workers.
During the past several decades China has carried out a policy of brutal repression and persecution of Uighur Muslims, as a result of which thousands of them have fled the country and taken refuge in Central Asia as well as in the US and Europe.
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, points out that 1.2 million workers migrated to Xinjiang from other parts of the country in 2008. “This indicates that there are abundant opportunities in Xinjiang, but why are these opportunities not for Uighurs,” he asks. Tohti emphasizes that unemployment remains the single biggest problem among Uighurs. Unemployment among Uighurs, according to him, is one of the highest in the world. Mr Tohti was arrested by the Chinese authorities in January 2014 and sentenced to life in prison on charges of fomenting separatism in September.
China has been accused by two US-based human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, of conducting a “crushing campaign of religious repression against Muslim Uighurs”. This campaign is ostensibly carried out in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism. The repressive measures of the government range from surveillance of imams and forced closure of mosques to the detention of thousands of people and executions. The curriculum of Islamic educational institutions is required to be approved by the authorities. Imams have to attend political education camps. Religious literature has to be screened and approved by the authorities before circulation. Uighurs cannot get passports to travel abroad. In the wake of 9/11, thousands of Uighur men were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of terrorism and religious extremism. East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the main religious and cultural organization of Uighurs in Xinjiang, has been declared a terrorist group by both China and the US. There have been frequent protests and demonstrations by Uighur Muslims against the repressive and discriminatory policies pursued by the Chinese authorities. According to Amnesty International, some 3,000 Uighurs have been arrested and 22 executed since the mid-1990s. There were deadly clashes between the Chinese police and Uighur youth in Xinjiang in June this year, which claimed 37 lives. Muslims
On 18 July, 2011, Xinjiang was rocked by turbulence and violence. While staging a protest against the Chinese authorities, a group of Uighur Muslims attacked a police station in Hotan and took some policemen hostages. The police opened fire on the protesters, which killed nearly 30 Uighurs. One police officer and two of the hostages were also killed during the violence. On 30 July violence broke out in Kashghar. There were two explosions and a hijacked car was driven into pedestrians on a crowded street in a predominantly Han Chinese area, which killed six people and injured 30. On 31 July a restaurant in Kashghar was set on fire and the owner and a waiter were killed. On 13 August China sent an elite military commando unit to Kashghar and Hotan to carry out an “anti-terrorist mission.”
Chinese authorities blamed the violence on Uighur separatism and on the group’s linkage to al-Qaeda, which is unfounded. The hallmarks of al-Qaeda operations, such as suicide bombings and attacks on civilian targets, are absent in the unrest in the region. The Uighurs, on the other hand, have been nursing a number of grievances. After the July 2009 Urumqi riots that left 200 people dead, many Uighur young men have been detained without trial. There has been uninterrupted, large-scale migration of mainly Han Chinese from the east into Xinjiang. The Uighurs complain that their jobs are being taken over by the Han, that in many cases their farmlands have been confiscated in the name of development, that they face discrimination in respect of jobs, and that young Uighur women have been prevented from wearing headscarves. In 2011 Chinese authorities launched Project Beauty to discourage Uighur women from wearing the headscarf. The project urged them to “show your pretty faces and let your beautiful hair fly in the wind.” However, the campaign for the assimilation of Uighur Muslims has backfired. An increasing number of Uighur women now wear the headscarf.
Unlike the Tibetans, the plight of Uighur Muslims in China has not received much of global attention and sympathy, probably because they are Muslims. Mr Ilham Tohti has said, “The Uighur people have been forgotten by the world, both by the West and by the Islamic world.”