“Religion here must adapt to survive.”
China has built a sprawling Hui “culture park” in Ningxia, enshrining Hui Islam’s status as an exemplary form of Chinese religion. The loudest critics of the Hui are not state officials but reformists from within the Hui community, often returnees from religious study in the Middle East. They deride Hui Islam as facile and compromised, both because of its melding with Confucian and Daoist practices and because they believe that many of its practitioners have succumbed to materialism and corruption.
Ironically, Hui Islam’s flourishing depends precisely on the characteristics which locals say are also essentially Chinese: apolitical patriotism, adaptability, and more concern for material survival than rigid doctrine. Amid rising tides of ethnocentric nationalism, the Hui are preserving Islam in China by performing a specifically Chinese form of the religion. Their relatively peaceful coexistence with the state and the Party differs from China’s estimated 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group who live mostly in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. (There are roughly 23 million Muslims in China.)
As state-supported Han migration to Xinjiang increased over the last 10 years, tensions between Uighur and Han have exploded into violent ethnic clashes, as well as some Uighur militant attacks on civilians. The crackdown in response has spawned further violence and a stereotyping of Uighurs as separatists radicalized by foreign influence, in contrast to the Hui’s organic blend of Chinese and Islamic ways.
The Hui have manifested Islam with Chinese characteristics since the 7th century Tang Dynasty, when Arab and Central Asian traders immigrated, intermarried, and spread their religion along the ancient Silk Road. Their offspring eventually became a distinct ethnic minority, though most Hui are physically indistinguishable from Han Chinese.
Throughout their history, some Hui actively tried to merge Islamic and Chinese culture. In the 18th century, for example, the Hui scholar Liu Zhi wrote the “Han Kitab,” a synthesis of Islam with Confucianism that identified Muhammad as a sage and linked Sharia law to Confucian rituals. He believed that the combined practice of the two would cultivate virtue and produce social harmony.
He took me to visit several shrines built on the graves of Sufi saints. An eight-sided tower—corresponding to the bagua, or “eight symbols,” system of ancient Daoist cosmology—rose over one grave, decorated with Arabic calligraphy and a yin-yang symbol. Incense burned before the holy man’s shrine, and Hassan told me that some worshippers would kowtow in front of it.
“Some people call this a distortion of Islam, but they don’t understand Chinese history,” Hassan said. “Religion here must adapt to survive.”
While China is an officially atheist state, the government allows for five official religions—Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Christianity, and Islam—as long as they are practiced at state-approved sites, stay free of foreign influence, and do not proselytize. At the Central Religious Work Conference, a state-convened national conference to discuss religions in China in April, Xi stressed that religious groups should “merge [their] doctrines with Chinese culture” while keeping religion out of politics, government affairs, and education. The state thus allows some space for religious practice, however circumscribed, and those who learn to compromise can function within it.
In 2010, Ma decided to work within the system. He dropped his private reform efforts and became an imam at Lanzhou’s Xinguan Mosque, a traditional mosque within Lanzhou’s Muslim quarter that adheres to orthodoxy of the Gedimu school, China’s oldest and most traditional form of Islam. He quickly rose in influence, leading some 3,000 Hui pilgrims from Gansu to Mecca in 2014, a process facilitated and approved by the semi-governmental Islamic Association of China. Encounters with the state had meanwhile softened Ma’s doctrinal views. “It’s hard enough just to exist as a Chinese Muslim,” Ma said. “The door is narrow. If someone walks through it, let us not say, ‘You’re not perfect, get out.’ We should take it slow.”
The disjuncture between religious devotion and the atheist Party doesn’t seem to bother most Hui leaders. “Chinese people are flexible. The disjuncture between religious devotion and the atheist Party doesn’t seem to bother most Hui leaders.
Some compromise is okay,” explained Ma Yinhua, the owner of Fengqiwu, a bookstore dedicated to minority studies in Lanzhou. “For now, ‘Love your country, love your religion’ is fine. ‘Love your Party’ might be a little much, but even Party members don’t necessarily love the Party.” Rhetorical mendacity is normal in China, he said. “Like our economic situation: it’s capitalism, but you can call it socialism. The state is lying to itself. So what if the people lie to the state? Everyone knows. It’s not a big deal.”
Compromise and corruption are complements to shallow faith, Imam Ma explained, and the reason why Hui Muslims are not a threat, however devout they may seem. “Religion has been marginalized in China. Everyone is focused on money. We are much more likely to go toward corruption and politicization than extremism,” Ma said, adding that he rarely goes to meetings with the national organization the Islamic Association of China anymore, because no one there wants to talk about theology. “The imams are just asking, ‘Is your iPhone 6 or 6S? What kind of car are you driving?’” Like most Chinese people, Hui are far more concerned with the material present than the afterlife, Ma said. “Nobody would give up their life for religious struggle or sacrifice.”
Back in Lanzhou, a Muslim who called himself Abdelhalim and whose family owns the successful halal lamb restaurant chain Zhonghua Shouzhua King showed me their recently opened private mosque, madrassa, and Islamic nursing home for the elderly. Authorities hadn’t obstructed the family opening any of these, he said. “The minority religious policies are good. The government is trying to preserve ethnic unity, not to disturb the minorities,” Abdelhalim said.
“Even when some sects are doing really bad things, the government doesn’t push them.” Sometimes religious figures resist government attempts to confiscate land by claiming property as part of the mosque’s endowment, for example, Abdelhalim said. Even though the mosque leaders might be lying, officials usually complied. The Islamic Association also often treated religious leaders to state-funded tours and trips to other provinces. When I asked whether that was corruption, Abdelhalim laughed. “Corruption is good for the government! Give us a visible enemy and we’ll all unite to fight for our religion and identity,” he said. “Give us an invisible enemy—lust, money, selfishness—and we’re defeated.”
In Linxia, Hassan agreed that in Hui Islam, as in contemporary Chinese society, outward appearances do not always reflect inner belief. “There are thousands of mosques in Linxia, but this is a bad thing,” he told me as we drove by towering Gedimu, Salafi, Yihewani, and Sufi structures, women in hijabs passing us on their motorcycles. The proliferation of mosques and shrines only reflected disunity and sectarianism, Hassan said. “People say this is religious extremism? I think it’s secularization.” He continued, “Only very secular people think that building more mosques is a true expression of faith.” Outsiders might think there is a clash between the minarets and Chinese flags of China’s Hui-populated areas, he noted, but that’s because they are only looking at the surface.