Chinese Muslims and Ramadan
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Xinjiang is a western province of China. It is a vast autonomous region home to the Uighur Muslims. The Uighurs are of Turkic extraction, and have had a history of grievances against the ethnic Han Chinese rule. On August 10, there were several bombings in Kuqa town, which the local government blamed on Muslim separatist groups, and to control the situation and related incidence of violence and unrest, the central government had to send security forces to the region. This level of violence wasn’t seen in years, and it was reported in the western media.
In light of the recent events, and as Ramadan started, local governments in Kuqa and nearby regions imposed various restrictions on the area Muslims. Edward Wong of the New York Times reported that the new rules bar women from doffing veils, men from having a beard and the government officials (including those retired), teachers and even students from entering mosques and observing Ramadan. The rules prohibit visitors to the town from entering or staying overnight in local mosques. The restaurants are ordered to keep normal business hours, and not to be closed during the day as used to be done in Ramadan.
The official website of Yingmaili town lists 9 restrictions to “maintain stability,” and one of which orders government officials to check up on mosques at least twice a week. And, there is no indication whether these restrictions will be removed after Ramadan. In Xinhe county, even the Communist Party members, in addition to those mentioned, are prohibited from participating in any religious practice or pilgrimage to tombs during Ramadan and being in contact with “any group event that might harm social stability.” Also, according to the county rules, children and students cannot be forced to attend religious service and other activities, while migrant workers and visitors are required to register with the police and must sign a document not to disturb “social stability.” Shayar County that includes Yingmaili bans any missionary work by outsiders. Some of these restrictions are similar to those implemented in Beijing right before the Olympics.
According to various sources, including Wikipedia, Islam came to China in 650-651 AD (less than 20 years after the death of Prophet Mohammed) with the arrival of a team of ‘companions’ sent by the third Caliph Uthman. That team, led by Sa`ad ibn Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet, saw the Tang dynasty Emperor Gaozong. He invited the Emperor to accept Islam, and the Emperor gave the permission to build a mosque in Canton.
This is the first mosque constructed in China, and has various names (Great Mosque of Canton, Huaisheng Mosque, Huai-Sheng Mosque, Huai-Shang Mosque, Huai-Shang Si Mosque, Guangta Si Mosque, Hwai Sun Su Mosque). It has since been reconstructed several times and is located on Guangta Road, Huai Sun Su Street, in the city now known as Guangzhou. The Niujie Mosque in Beijing is the largest, and was constructed in 996 AD, and it has, like the oldest one, also undergone 3-4 renovations since then, most recently in 1996. The Chinese want all mosques to have traditional Chinese architecture, though Qur’anic-Arabic calligraphy is allowed. It is believed that Waqqas died around 635 AD (no gravesite known), but the tomb of one of his companions, Thabith Ibn Qays, located in the suburbs of Hami (~600 kn east of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang) is a shrine (Geys’ Mazar) to many Chinese Muslims who visit it every June-July.
Estimates vary, but the government figures indicate a Muslim population of 20 million (~1.4% of the population), with 35,000 mosques, and more than 45,000 imams. According to the BBC, Chinese Muslim population ranges from 20 to 100 million, and this range may be due to difficulty in classification/identification largely because of heir cultural assimilation through the centuries (including intermarriages, taking up Chinese surnames: Mo, Mai, and Mu for Mohammed, Mustafa and Masoud; or Ha for Hassan, Hu for Hussain and Sa’I for Said, etc), not to mention the religious de-emphasis or suppression in communist rule. Chinese Muslims are also comprised of some 10 ethnic groups: the Hui in the heartland are often indistinguishable from the Chinese Han.
With the beginning of the Deng Xiaopeng regime in 1979, China began liberalizing its policies toward the minorities, and a 1997 document mentions some, e.g., no pig-breeding where Muslims are in a majority, marriages according to Islamic traditions, religious holidays to Muslim workers, separate cemeteries, travel for Hajj.
However, a 2000/2001 Human Rights report also lists various restrictions on Muslims and Islamic practices, e.g. government control of mosques, appointment of Imams, large gatherings of Uighur Muslims, recording the names of mosque attendees, and expulsion of school children if they attend mosques too often. This may have a historical relevance to the current restrictions on Muslims and Islamic practices, apart from the reaction to the violence in August.