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June 23, 2017

East Asian Culture and Islam – A Brief History


Within the field of Islam in East Asia, the major developments and most lasting influences between Islam and the indigenous peoples have taken place in China, where Muslims traders first settled in the early decades of the hijra. This early interest in China as a destiny for Muslim travelers is reflected in the famous hadith, “seek knowledge, even unto China.” Despite centuries of relative isolation from the rest of the Islamic world, the Muslims in most regions of China have managed to sustain a continuous knowledge of the Islamic sciences, Arabic, and Persian. Given extended periods of persecution combined with periods of intense government efforts to legislate adoption of Chinese cultural practices and norms, that Islam should have survived, let alone flourished, is an extraordinary historical phenomenon. Although some scholars have attributed the survival of Muslim communities in China to their ability to adopt Chinese cultural traditions, when asked themselves, Chinese Muslims usually attribute their survival to their strong faith and God’s protection.

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a period of extreme political violence and chaos when Muslims together with other minority groups were persecuted, Muslim communities throughout China actively sought to reclaim their religious identity and revive Islamic education.

Islam and East Asian Culture pic

In addition to repairing and rebuilding mosques returned to them after the revolution, Muslim communities have also pooled their resources to build new mosques and Islamic schools. These schools are filled with students of all ages, including the elderly, who after decades of government control are anxious to study Islam and Arabic. More recently a growing number of Chinese Muslims are pursing advanced Islamic studies at international Islamic centers of learning. Although there are now Muslims present in virtually every region of China, there have undoubtedly been many communities that were either completely destroyed during government military campaigns, or that simply assimilated to the point of dissolution. One interesting example of a community that came to the brink of complete assimilation, only to be revived for political reasons, was documented by an anthropologist in the early 1980s. In Quanzhou (known as Zaytun in the Arabic sources), a city located along China’s southeast coast, a large clan existed whose members had so assimilated to local customs as to be completely indistinguishable from the local Han Chinese. They took part in the full range of traditional religious practices, many of which had to do with  honoring one’s ancestors. They knew nothing of Islam, ate pork, and drank alcohol. There was one slight difference though: During the annual sacrifices made to one’s ancestors, when preparing food to offer ceremoniously to their ancestors, they would not include pork or alcohol. This tenuous connection to their ancestors (Muslim traders and officials who had first settled in this region in the early years of the hijra) was called upon in 1981 when this extended family sought government recognition as one of the officially recognized minority groups. As they had the genealogical records to prove their descent from Muslims, they were able to change their status from Han Chinese to Hui (Chinese Muslim).

Mosques and Calligraphy

Mosques and the calligraphy within them have also served as an interesting barometer of the waxing and waning of traditional Chinese influences on the development of indigenous Chinese Islamic traditions.

Although no mosques dating back to the pre-Mongol period have survived, it is assumed that mosques during this  period reflected the architecture of the immigrant Muslims who built them, as they were required to live in special districts separate from the general population. By the Ming period in the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, however, there was significant pressure for Muslims to outwardly conform to Chinese traditions. The Huajue mosque in Xian, which dates back to the Ming period and has survived down to the present, is an exquisite example of how Chinese Muslims were able to incorporate traditional Chinese motifs,  decorative arts, and temple architectural styles into the structureand decoration of mosques. In this mosque, as in most others in China, Arabic calligraphy is interspersed with carvings and paintings of traditional Chinese images of flowers, fruit, mythical animals, and Chinese calligraphy. The rooftops are protected by small animal figures along the ridges of roof tiles, and the minarets take the form of pagodas. In addition, the Arabic calligraphy is a highly stylized form that differs from region to region and reflects local calligraphic traditions that have evolved in relative isolation over centuries. However, in recent years, in part as a result from pressure from outside funding sources and the growing number of Chinese Muslims going overseas for the hajj and to study, many communities have torn down these traditional mosques and replaced them with ones believed to be more “authentic.” Over the past twenty years untold numbers of mosques dating back centuries have been destroyed. Nevertheless, in some parts of China in recent years, there has been a growing movement among Chinese Muslims to protect their unique architectural traditions.

Local Celebrations

As there are Muslims communities in every part of China with their own histories and local traditions it would be difficult to generalize about the ways in which Islamic practices have been influenced by other local Chinese traditions. However, by looking at local celebrations of _Id al-Fitr and the Maulid (birthday of the prophet Muhammad) one can gain some sense of the variety of ways in which these interactions have developed. For example, in Yunnan province in southwest China, Muslim communities spread throughout the region. Many are direct descendants of Sayyid _Ajall Shams al-Din, a Muslim from Bukhara, who served as an  official under the Mongol Yuan dynasty and settled in Yunnan at the end of the thirteenth century. Seven centuries later, during the annual celebrations of _Id al-Fitr, after communal prayers at the mosque, Muslims from different areas travel to the site of Sayyid _Ajall’s grave where special prayers are held.

First there are readings from the Qur_an, then the tomb is swept and cleaned (reminiscent of the traditional Chinese Qingming festival held once a year when Chinese go to the graves of their ancestors, sweep and clean the area and then make food offerings), and then the accomplishments of Sayyid _Ajall are retold. In conclusion, a special service is held to honor the hundreds of thousands of Muslims killed during the Qing dynasty, and the hundreds killed more recently in this area during the Cultural Revolution.

In another region of Yunnan, a group of Muslim villages spread out over a vast plain have developed there a way of celebrating the birthday of the Prophet, which allows them to  reassert their ties to one another. Every year the Mawlid is celebrated in the fall over a period of two months beginning with the end of the major harvests. Each village is assigned a weekend when it will host all the other villages in a Mawlid celebration. Although the dates clearly are not connected with the Islamic calendar, their tradition allows them to share their bounty with their neighboring Muslim communities and strengthen their networks.

Meanwhile, in northwest China, the decision of when to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday is influenced not by seasonal harvests, but rather by the desire to offer younger Muslims an alternative activity during the widely and elaborately celebrated Chinese New Year. In recent years local Muslim religious leaders in Xian have considered scheduling celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday to coincide with the festivities surrounding the Chinese New Year.

The Role of Women

Another example of how local histories and traditions within the diverse communities of Muslims in China have evolved  over the centuries can be seen in the roles of women in different communities. In central China there is a long tradition of active involvement by women in both Islamic education and religious leadership. Not only is there a long  history of women imams in this region, there is also a tradition of separate women’s mosques. In northwest China, however, women have tended not to play an active leadership role within Muslim communities, and usually they do not pray in the mosques with the men. According to Muslims in other parts of China, these attitudes in the northwest toward women are the result of the Muslims adopting local Chinese views, which are considered quite chauvinistic. In southwest China, however, women play an active role within Muslim communities and are also widely credited with insuring the survival of the Muslim population in the aftermath of a brutal massacre that took place in the 1870s. In most mosques men and women pray side by side with a half curtain dividing the prayer hall. Although over the centuries many Chinese Muslim women adopted the custom of footbinding, historically and down to the present, the Muslim community has not adopted the widespread practice of female infanticide. In conclusion, although maintaining their religious beliefs and practices over the centuries has been a continual challenge, Muslims in China have always been confident of their identities as both Muslims and Chinese. Although some Western scholars have presumed that these identities were somehow inherently antagonistic if not mutually exclusive, the survival of Islam in China belies these assumptions. Islamic and Chinese values have both proven to be sufficiently complementary and dynamic to allow for the flourishing of Islam in China.

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