Ten of China’s 55 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 (10.6 million), Uighur (10.1 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. Many of them 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 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. The region accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass and has the country’s largest deposits of oil, natural gas and coal. Xinjiang, now 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. Ethnic Han Chinese account for 39% of Xinjiang’s population.
Shortly after the annexation of Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities launched a calculated policy of settling large numbers of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Lured by rising employment opportunities, thousands of Han Chinese workers flocked to Xinjiang. 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. Wang Lequan, the Communist party secretary and absolute authority in Xinjiang for 15 years, carried out a policy of de-ethnicization of Uighur Muslims. He substituted Mandarin for Uighur in primary schools and banned or restricted Islamic symbols and practices, including the Islamic veil, beards and praying and fasting while on the job, among government workers.
The old city of Kashgar, located in Xinjiang, was a key entrepot on the Silk Road for nearly two thousand years. 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. Hundreds of artisans carry on with their traditional crafts using centuries-old methods and techniques. Kashgar’s centuries-old landscape and architecture are set to disappear over the next few years. Large parts of the city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, have already been torn down. 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.
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. Since 2014 Muslim officials, students and teachers in Xinjiang have not been allowed to keep the fast during Ramadan. The Uighurs 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. Unlike the Tibetans, the plight of Uighur Muslims in China has not received much of global attention and sympathy, probably because they are Muslims.
In the past few years, China has come under fire for its repressive policies towards its Muslim minorities, particularly the Uighur Muslims, who are concentrated in the autonomous Xinjiang region. In 2015 Turkey denounced China for its harsh treatment of Muslims. This has prompted Chinese authorities to find ways and means of mending its broken image in the Muslim world and to project an alternative, accommodative picture of Islam and Muslims in the country.
A convention centre in the Chinese city of Yinchuan has hosted, once in every two years, a China-Arab States Expo, which brings together Chinese and Arab businessmen together. China proposes to establish a Chinese university in Jordan. It also proposes to sponsor the translation of classical Chinese and Arabic texts and to promote the exchange of women’s delegations between China and Arab countries. Several universities in the country offer courses in Arabic. Nearly 3,000 Chinese students have enrolled for Arabic classes in Xingxia.
Hui Culture Park
The Hui Muslims comprise the largest of China’s 10 Muslim nationalities. Their population is estimated at 10.6 million, which accounts for 0.8% of China’s population of 1.357 billion. The Hui Muslims, who speak Mandarin Chinese, share close ethnic and linguistic ties with Han Chinese, who make up 91.51 per cent of the country’s total population.
Yinchuan, situated in the autonomous region of Ningxia, is some 600 miles west of Beijing. Chinese authorities are pouring billions of dollars into making Yinchuan a major “cultural tourism destination” for wealthy Muslim tourists from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Since 1958 Yinchuan has been governed by Hui Muslims. In May 2016 the Emirates, which operates direct flights between Dubai and Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, launched a direct non-stop flight from Dubai to Yinchuan. The national airlines of Jordan and Malaysia plan to operate direct flights between Amman and Kuala Lumpur and Yinchuan.
A massive Muslim theme park, known as Hui Culture Centre, which was opened to the public in 2005, is taking shape in Yinchuan. Street signs in the city now display transliterations of existing Chinese names in the Arabic script. The architectural design of the front gate of the theme park, which stands 125 feet tall, has been inspired by India’s most famous architectural monument, the Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Arabic calligraphy is engraved on the façade of the gate.
The focal point of Hui Culture Park is the Golden Palace. The Palace, which has onion-shaped domes and is flanked by four minarets, resembles a mosque. There is a halal restaurant inside the park.
An elaborate infrastructure is being built for a night-time pageant, named as “A Dream Back into Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.” The pageant includes a laser show with over 1oo cast members.