Islam: Islam in China

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Muslims within the present-day borders of the People's Republic of China, and indeed within the borders of late imperial China and its republican successor, can be divided broadly into two categories. First, there are the Chinese-speaking Muslims, known today as the Hui, who are distributed throughout the whole of the country. There are Hui mosques and communities in all provinces of China and in most towns and cities, including Beijing, but there are significant Hui concentrations in the northwest provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, the Ningxia Autonomous Region, and the southwest province of Yunnan. In both the northwest and the southwest it is possible to speak of clear and well-defined Muslim societies rather than minority communities in a wider non-Muslim society. In appearance and language there is very little to distinguish the Hui from the majority population of China, the Han, although they do retain some elements of Arabic and Persian vocabulary in their speech when communicating with fellow Muslims. In addition, many Hui, especially in rural areas, wear distinctive head coveringcaps for men and variations on the veil or scarf for womenas a symbol of their Islamic identity. Although these emblems of cultural and religious identity were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, they have been readopted since the 1980s with considerable pride.

There are also Muslims in Xinjiang in the far northwest of China, bordering the former Soviet Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Xinjiang is also known as Eastern Turkestan to the indigenous Turkic peoples, but this name is not popular with the Chinese authorities. Although Chinese is an important administrative and business language in this region, the bulk of the population are speakers of Turkic languages, of which by far the most important is Uighur, a language closely related to the Uzbek tongue. The Islam of Xinjiang is practiced separately from the Islam of the Chinese-speaking regions, and the Xinjiang Muslims have their own mosques and other religious organizations. This separation is made more complex by a tradition of anti-Chinese nationalism and political separatism that is intimately connected with Islam as practiced in Xinjiang, but this tradition is not shared by China's Hui Muslims.

This two-part division of Islam in China is not as precise as this brief account suggests. For example, there have been a number of Hui Muslim communities in Xinjiang for well over a century and a half as a result of the rebellions and political upheavals of the late nineteenth century.

Although the term Yisilanjiao (a Chinese transliteration for Islam ) is now in common use in China, in earlier times Islam was more commonly referred to as Huihu jiao or Huijiao, terms that did not restrict it to Chinese-speaking Muslims, or as Qingzhenjiao (the religion of purity and truth). This latter term persists in the names of mosques in China, which are almost all known as qingzhensi (temples of purity and truth).

The First Muslims in China

It is impossible to be precise about the year in which Islam first reached China. Contacts between China and the Middle East probably predate the beginning of the prophecy of Muammad in 610 ce by many centuries. As early as the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) Chinese imperial envoys had reached the Arab world, and the official chronicles of that time contain accounts of diplomatic and trade missions to Western Asia and particularly Persia. The Indian Ocean trade routes in use between the fourth and sixth centuries were dominated by Arabic- or Persian-speaking merchants, mainly from the Arabian or Persian Gulf, who made landfall in the ports of China's southern and southeastern coast.

The origin of these maritime traders is usually said to be Dashi in the Chinese histories; this term has been translated as "Arabia," although there is reason to think that it is in fact a much less precise term, which included the Persian-speaking world and probably the whole of the region that was eventually conquered by Arab armies in the name of Islam. The name Dashi may be connected with the word Tajik. In any case, there is clear documentary evidence of visiting groups of traders from the Middle East as early as the sixth century, and some Chinese scholars of Islam have dated the origin of Islam in China to that period.

The Tang dynasty (618907 ce) was the golden age of medieval China and the period during which China was without doubt the greatest empire in Asia. It was renowned for the efficiency of its civil service; for its sophisticated and multiethnic urban culture, especially in the capital Chang'an (present-day Xi'an); and for its poetry and the beginnings of a great tradition in both landscape painting and ceramics. The greatness of the Tang is often attributed to China's openness to foreign cultures, particularly to the developing Muslim cultures beyond its inner Asian frontiers, some of which were treated as military protectorates of the Chinese empire. The imperial family of the Tang dynasty was of mixed Chinese and Central Asian ancestry, and this link with what would eventually become part of the Islamic world had a profound influence on Tang culture.

Although Chang'an was a magnet for Muslim, as well as Buddhist and Manichaean, officials, traders, and spiritual leaders from Central Asia, the clearest evidence for a Muslim presence in China in this period comes from the southeastern coastal city of Quanzhou in what is now the province of Fujian. Traders from the Middle East had settled in the port city, and during the twentieth century historians and archaeologists uncovered a profusion of gravestones and stelae inscribed in Arabic and Persian. This important collection of inscriptions provides evidence of a thriving Muslim community that was already well established in the early part of the eighth century and that became highly developed by the end of the Southern Song dynasty in the thirteenth century, the last Chinese dynasty before the Mongol invasion.

The Arab Mosque in Quanzhou, which is the only one remaining from that period, was built in the eleventh century. It was constructed in the style favored in the Arab world of that time. On its walls are inscriptions in Arabic, including quotations from the Qurʾān and an account of the history of the mosque, its construction in 1009 to 1010, and its reconstruction in 1310 to 1311 by Amad bin Muammad Quds, who came originally from Shiraz in Persia. Stelae in other parts of Quanzhou record the construction of mosques that are no longer extant by Muslims from Yemen and Central Asia. The inscriptions on gravestones and tombs excavated in the city indicate clearly that the majority of Muslims in Quanzhou were of Persian origin, although most inscriptions are in Arabic rather than Persian. The descendants of some of these sojourners from the Middle East remained in Fujian, married local Han Chinese women, and are now classified as part of the Hui ethnic group. The province of Fujian remains one of the most outward looking in China, and the people of Fujian have a tradition of emigration to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and more recently Europe.

Muslims and the Mongol Conquests

It is clear that there was already a significant Muslim presence in China by the time of the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century. These conquests, which changed the political and social map of the whole of East, Central, and South Asia, also had the effect of increasing the Muslim population of China. Chinggis Khan (c. 11621227), who unified the Mongols and led them to their early military victories, ordered that when his armies captured such cities as Samarkand and Bukhara the craftsmen should be spared the otherwise wholesale slaughter. The craftsmen were conscripted into the service of the Mongols and at first were assigned to the building of defense works for sieges. They were later taken back to China, effectively as slaves, where they were required to build the new Mongol capital cities of Karakorum and Dadu (Beijing). Other Central Asians were pressed into service as soldiers, and over a period of many years, women and children were transported to China, as were some scholars and aristocrats.

It is not possible to say how many of these conscripts were Muslims because this was the period of the gradual Islamization of Central Asia, but the later growth of strong Muslim communities in northwestern China suggests that these forced migrants were the conduit for the transmission of the faith into China. The vast majority of migrants were men, and their intermarriage with Han Chinese, Tibetan, and other local women created the Chinese-speaking Hui ethnic group.

Consolidation During the Ming Dynasty

During the Ming dynasty (13681644), which is considered to be a period of high Chinese culture sandwiched between two "barbarian" dynasties, the Mongols and the Manchus, the Chinese-speaking Muslim population of China grew numerically and established itself as a permanent part of Chinese society, notably in the provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi, but also in Yunnan. Whereas before the Mongol conquest these Chinese Muslims could be seen as sojourner communities with an attachment to their original homelands in Central Asia, Persia, or the Arabian Peninsula, during the Ming they evolved into settled communities, living side by side with Han Chinese, although not always harmoniously. They gradually lost their knowledge of the Arabic and Persian languages as Chinese became their normal method of everyday communication. The Hui Muslims spoke the regional Chinese language of whichever part of the country they settled in, but to this day they retain elements of Arabic and Persian in their vocabulary, which is a testimony to the origins of their forebears.

Although it was in the rural areas of the northwest of China that the greatest concentration of Hui Muslims could be found during the Ming period, the spiritual and intellectual center of Chinese Islam was the city of Nanjing in the valley of the Yangtze River. Nanjing was chosen as the first capital of the Ming by Zhu Yuanzhang when he became the Hongwu emperor in 1368. Although the capital was moved to Beijing in 1403, Nanjing remained a city of considerable influence for centuries and served as the capital of the Guomindang Nationalist government from 1928 to 1937.

The Hongwu emperor (Ming Taizu, to accord him his correct posthumous title) was favorably disposed towards Muslims, many of whom were brought to the capital as tax collectors and interpreters or to serve in other official posts. Among the Muslim thinkers who flourished in Nanjing was Wang Daiyu (15851657), who was born into an ancient and distinguished family of court astronomers and educated in the tradition of the pioneering Islamic teacher Hu Dengzhou (15221597). Hu Dengzhou played a key role in the establishment of Muslim education in Shaanxi, and his methods were conveyed to Nanjing by Wang Daiyu's teacher, Ma Junshi (c.16281690). Wang Daiyu's teachings were greatly influenced by Confucian ideas and by the language of Confucianism. He was writing for a Muslim constituency that had virtually lost its ability to read Arabic or Persian, and also for a Han Chinese audience that he wished to inform about Islam. His major work, the Zhengjiao zhenquan (A true commentary on the orthodox faith), which quotes frequently from the Qurʾān, was an attempt to express the central tenets of Islamic thought in an understandable Chinese style. Purists disapproved of his efforts, objecting to the use of any languages other than Arabic or Persian, but Wang Daiyu's writings were welcomed by the majority of educated Hui who could rarely read anything other than Chinese.

Liu Zhi (c. 1664c. 1739), perhaps the best-known Muslim scholar of the Qing dynasty, was also born in Nanjing in the late seventeenth century. He developed Wang Daiyu's use of the terminology of Confucianism to translate Islamic concepts into Chinese. Liu Zhi was also the first translator of the Qurʾān into Chinese, although he translated only part of the text. Liu Zhi's major works are Tianfang xingli (Islamic philosophy), Tianfang dianli (Islamic ritual), and Tianfang zhishen shilu (The last prophet of Islam).

Conflict and Rebellion During the Manchu Qing Dynasty

In 1644 China was in the grip of a major rebellion. Peasant armies led by Li Zicheng attacked Beijing in April, and the Chongzhen emperor, the last of the Ming line, hanged himself on Jingshan, a hill that overlooks the Forbidden City. Into this confusion marched the armies of the Manchus, a seminomadic, partly Sinicized people from northeastern China, who over the next thirty years proceeded to capture the capital, conquer the whole of China, and establish themselves as the ruling elite for almost three hundred years. Manchu policy was to expand their Qing dynasty (16441911) into Inner Asia, and they successfully consolidated their control over Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, redrawing the map of China. The present boundaries of the People's Republic of China are effectively those of the Qing.

There was resistance to the Qing expansion, and in the northwest Muslims fought the Manchus, as did the Han. Widespread insurrections against the new dynasty took place in Gansu in 1648 and 1649. Although these were ruthlessly crushed, the distinctiveness and separateness of Muslims was maintained, and the Muslim population grew throughout the eighteenth century. The Islamic educational system was reinforced and reformed, and Sufism began to make its appearance in northwestern China, brought there by traveling ūfī mystics, as well as pilgrims returning from the ājj to Mecca who had come into contact with ūfīs in Central Asia or the Arab world. Sufism took deep root in the poor and isolated northwestern regions, and it remains an important part of the religio-political structure to this day.

Expanding populations and the competition for scarce resources, particularly land and water, led to religious and ethnic conflict. Muslim Hui villages were reinforced for defensive purposes, and there were frequent clashes with neighboring communities of other ethnic groups, often with Han but also with Tibetans and the Qiang, who lived in the Tibetan borderlands. There was also conflict between Muslim villages and between adherents of different ūfī orders and other sects.

In the second half of the nineteenth century these conflicts escalated and became so explicitly anti-Qing in their nature that the imperial government designated them as rebellions and deployed its substantial armies to crush them. China as a whole was going through a crisis during this period. Westerners had been pushing for an extension of trade with China, which led to the Opium War (18391842) and the defeat of China at the hands of the British Navy. In southern China the quasi-Christian Taiping rebellion (18511864) presented a serious challenge to Qing authority, which it aimed to replace. Nian bandit militia controlled much of north-central China at the same time.

In 1855 in Yunnan, Han and Hui miners came into conflict over mineral rights, and the local government and landowners indiscriminately slaughtered Muslims. In August 1856 the Muslim Du Wenxiu rose in rebellion and took the city of Dali as the base for an independent Islamic state (a caliphate), which he ruled until he was defeated and beheaded in 1873.

However it was in the northwest that rebellion was most savage and its repression most devastating. As in Yunnan, the roots of the conflict lay in disputes over land and other issues between Hui and Han villages, and the Muslim Hui took up arms against the landlords' militia. Their forces eventually attacked major towns and the capital of Shanxi province, Xi'an. Qing forces were dispatched to put down the rebellion, and the Muslim armies withdrew westward to Gansu, the Hui heartland. The Hui forces in Gansu were centered at four locations, all of which were associated with one or more of the ūfī orders. All of these orders had sacred sites that were built around the tombs of their revered ancestral shaykhs, and the mosques and madrasahs in these tomb complexes served as headquarters for the Hui resistance. The Hui uprising was eventually suppressed in 1873 with great brutality and loss of life by the armies of the Qing regime. The whole of northwestern China had been devastated by the conflict, and the practice of Islam was dealt a near mortal blow. Hui communities were forcibly resettled away from their traditional lands and the graves of their founding shaykhs. ūfī organizations were outlawed, and many mosques were closed, destroyed, or converted to Buddhist temples.

There were further serious episodes of communal violence in Gansu and neighboring areas in 1894 to 1895. The origins of the conflict were complex and included factional disputes between ūfī orders and clashes between Hui and Han landlords and officials. The insurrection was eventually suppressed by Qing forces under the command of Muslim officers. By the twentieth century, because of this history of rebellion, Chinese-speaking Muslims had acquired a reputation for rebellion, fierceness, and conflict with the Chinese state. In defeat, many of the public practices of Islam were concealed or reduced in scale, and the Muslim communities strove to portray themselves as loyal citizens of the empire.

Islam in Contemporary China

Islam in contemporary China is mainly of the Sunnī tradition and adheres to the anafī school of law. Muslims of this tradition are known as Gedimu, a Chinese transliteration of the Arabic al-qadīm (the ancient), in deference to the longevity of this form of mainstream Islam in China. Gedimu Islam is characterized by adherence to sharīʿah law and the five major precepts of Islam; the attestation that there is only one Allāh; prescribed prayer and purification; the giving of alms; the fast at Ramaān; and the ājj pilgrimage to Mecca. This is no different from the rest of the Islamic world, although Chinese Muslims have interpreted the precise requirements in their own way. In particular the ājj has at times been impossible for the majority of Chinese Muslims, partly because of poverty and the impossibility of travel over such long distances, and partly because of restrictions imposed on travel by different regimes.

The practice of Gedimu Islam is centered on the imām (ahong in Chinese, from the Persian akhond ), who presides over the town or village mosques. While some of the imāms inherit their role, others are elected by their community. There was a tradition of imāms circulating from community to community and of some being brought into China from Central Asia. The Gedimu celebrate the major Islamic festivals of Qurban (ʿĪd al-Aā), the festival of sacrifice that is celebrated during the month of pilgrimage; Bayram (ʿĪd al-Fir), celebrated at the end of Ramaān; and Mawlid, the birthday of the prophet Muammad.

Islamic education

Islamic education has been as important to Muslims in China as in other parts of the Muslim world. Muslim education among the Gedimu includes primary school level maktab, which concentrate on instruction in Arabic and the basic requirements of sharīʿah, and the madrasahs, which are for more advanced students who are planning to train as imāms or as theologians. Education for younger students usually occurs in the mosques. Areas where there are larger concentrations of Hui usually have separate primary and middle schools for Muslim children, although the curriculum is the same as in the mainstream schools. The issue of education for girls and women is as controversial in Chinese Islam, as elsewhere. Single sex schools for girls were closed during the Cultural Revolution, but reopened in 1987 to conform to Hui disapproval of coeducation. The closure of these schools for ten years substantially affected schooling and literacy rates among Hui women because many Hui parents would not allow their daughters to attend coeducational schools.

Among the reopened girls' schools is the Tongxin Girls' Hui Middle School, a boarding school in Tongxin in central Ningxia. The school is spacious, modern, and well equipped by the standards of northwest China. All the girls board at the school because their families live in Hui villages around Tongxin. Other rural Hui children attend the Tongxin Number 2 Hui Middle School. Pupils here also board, go home on Saturday afternoons, and return to the school on Sunday evening. Children who live in the town attend the Tongxin Number 1 Hui Middle School. The effect of mixed schools on Hui girls is illustrated by the school attendance and literacy figures for Guyuan prefecture in southern Ningxia. It is an overwhelmingly Hui region, but only 4.7 percent of school pupils were Hui girls in 1986. Half the Hui women in the region were illiterate, whereas the illiteracy rate for women as a whole in the region was 34.4 percent.

As part of the resurgence of Islam in China, eight Islamic academies for the training of clergy were opened during the 1980s, the most important being in Beijing, Yinchuan, and Urumqi. By 1988, four hundred students had been enrolled in four- to five-year courses that included the study of the Qurʾān, Islamic culture, and management. The aim of the academies was to train researchers, teachers, and high-ranking personnel engaged in international Islamic academic exchanges. Many of the students were ahongs who had been serving as clergy for some time but had been unable to obtain formal theological training because of restrictions on religion during the Cultural Revolution.

The Ningxia Islamic Academy (Ningxia Yisilanjiao jingxueyuan) in the Western suburbs of Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Autonomous Region, was built with funds provided by the Islamic Development Bank. The government of the Ningxia Autonomous Region also authorized a loan of 2,300,000 renminbi to enable construction to take place. Further technical support was provided by a visiting Saudi engineer in February 1986 and October 1988. By October 2001, the academy was fully functional, with well-attended classes taking place in Arabic, Islamic law, and computing.

The Tongxin Arabic Language School was founded in 1985, also with aid from the Islamic Development Bank, to promote economic and cultural exchange between China and Islamic countries of the Middle East. The design of the building is similar to the Islamic Academy in Yinchuan, but unlike the academies its role is almost entirely secular. It is designated a "secondary vocational school," specializing in training translators and interpreters at the elementary and intermediate level, although the students are of university age. As of 2004, Tongxin Arabic Language School was the only state-run Arabic school in China, although there were privately run Arabic schools in Shaanxi province and elsewhere. The three-year program includes Arabic language and history, general Islamic studies, and nationality theory and policies. By 1988 Tongxin Arabic Language School had ninety-eight students, mostly Hui, and twenty-nine staff members. By 1992 the school's 260 students were all Hui, with three of its graduates working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Arabic translators. Although many of the students were from Ningxia, there were also some from Xi'an and elsewhere. Teachers at the school have studied in Kuwait, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Teaching materials were provided by the Foreign Languages College in Beijing, and supplemented by newspapers and other materials from the Arab world.


The most obvious physical expression of the presence of Islam in China is the mosque. Zhongguo Qingzhen zonglan (Survey of mosques in China) estimated in 1995 that there were approximately twenty thousand mosques of different types and sizes throughout China. While they are concentrated in traditional Muslim regions in the northwest and southwest, mosques are found throughout China, even in the smallest towns. Beijing alone has at least forty mosques, the most famous being the Ox Street (Niu Jie) Mosque, which has become a showpiece for the country's tolerance of Islam.

Although mosques in China have the same basic characteristics of mosques throughout Islam, with a prayer hall, a minbar or pulpit from which the imām delivers sermons, a mihrāb that points in the direction of Mecca, and rooms for ritual wuūʾ ablutions, there is great variation in style and size. Some Chinese mosques are built in a style that is similar to Chinese or Mongolian Buddhist temples, and indeed some mosques are converted temples. Others, particularly those built since the 1970s, have deliberately rejected Chinese architectural models and favor a Middle Eastern style. The minaret is no longer universal and was discontinued in some mosques after the suppression of the rebellions of the 1860s when many Muslim communities tried to maintain a low profile. Some, such as the Id Gah Mosque in the center of Kashgar, are grand in scale, but there are smaller mosques. One mosque in the Helan Mountains outside Yinchuan consists of one room backing onto a Buddhist temple.

Shiism and China

Chinese Muslims assert that there is no Shīʿī Islam in either the Hui or Turkic Muslim communities in China, apart from the Ismāʿīlī Shiism of the small community known as the Pamir Tajiks (more accurately, the Wakh), who live in the mountains in the far west of Xinjiang. However, Hui scholars have detected the broad influence of Shīʿī culture and practices on Chinese Islam, notably in the popularity of personal names associated with the family and followers of ʿAlī, the cousin of the prophet Muammad and the first Shīʿī imām in the schism that followed the death of the Prophet. This influence is not surprising in view of the close connections between Islam in China and the Persian-speaking world, and it has been suggested that the existence of women's mosques in Chinese Islam is due in large part to this hidden Shīʿī influence.

Chinese Sufism

The influence and persistence of Sufism in China is far clearer. ūfī orders (menhuan ) or brotherhoods (they are mainly a male preserve) have proliferated, especially in northwestern China; they are typically based around the tomb of the founding shaykh of the order. This applies to both the Chinese-speaking Hui areas and to Xinjiang, although the Xinjiang ūfī orders operate independently of the others. Historically there have been conflicts between orthodox Gedimu Islam and the ūfī orders, but individuals and families frequently have ties to both traditions. The leadership of the Chinese ūfī orders is usually hereditary, although it is common for a childless shaykh to nominate a successor, or for a son-in-law to be brought in to the family to take on that role. The authority of the shaykh, as in ūfī orders throughout the Islamic world, relies heavily on the tradition of succession, the silsilah, traced back as far as the prophet Muammad.

The history and structure of the ūfī orders in China is complex: they are fissiparous in the extreme and often reflect family divisions among the ūfīs. Nevertheless, these orders play an important political and social role in China's Muslim areas, and local government officials are conscious of the need to conciliate them and allow them representation, in proportion to their importance, in local united front bodies. The oldest ūfī orders in China made their appearance in the second half of the seventeenth century. They are the Qādarīyah, which had its origins in twelfth-century Baghdad, and the Kubrawīyah, which emerged in Central Asia during the thirteenth century.

Of all the different ūfī orders, the Naqshbandīyah, which is also important in Central Asia, is the most influential in China. It is rarely referred to by that name among Chinese-speaking Muslims, but the Khufīya and Jahrīyah orders, which exert a powerful influence among the Hui in northwestern China, are subdivisions of the Naqshbandīyah. The Khufīya have traditionally been more inclined to take the side of the government and have produced a number of distinguished military leaders. They are also known as the laojiao (literally, the "old teaching"). The Jahrīyah, although also part of the Naqshbandīyah movement, were for many years the main rivals of the Khufīya and became known as the xinjiao (the "new teaching") to distinguish them from their competitors. These two terms are generally avoided because there has been considerable confusion by both Western and Chinese writers, who have taken the laojiao to be equivalent to the mosque-based Islam of the Gedimu.

The Jahrīyah trace their origins to the arrival in the eighteenth century of Ma Mingxin in Gansu after a long period of study in Bukhara and Yemen. He established his spiritual headquarters in Hezhou, now known as Linxia. The main feature of Jahrīyah religious practice, which distinguishes this group from the Khufīya, is their use of the vocal dhikr. The dhikr is the ūfī remembrance of Allāh; it is performed in silence by the Khufīya. The Jahrīyah vocalized the dhikr and added ritualized movements of the head and body, as well as breathing techniques. The Jahrīyah were more radical and aimed at a purer form of Islam: many adherents adopted a simple and ascetic style of life, rejecting material goods and refusing to pay taxes to the government. This brought them into conflict with the Khufīya, who sought accommodation with the authorities. Ma Mingxin was executed in 1781, as were many of his relatives and thousands of his followers, many of them Turkic Salars. In spite of this and further repression after the rebellions in the late nineteenth century, the Jahrīyah flourished underground, maintaining their faith by the secret practice of the vocal dhikr. Despite the original asceticism of the order, the leaders of the Jahrīyah in the early twentieth century are reputed to have made a fortune from agriculture and commerce.

One of the strongest outposts of Jahrīyah Islam in China in the twenty-first century is in Jingyuan county, a poor mountainous area in the far south of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Almost the entire population of Jingyuan is classified as Hui Muslim (97.8 percent of a total population of 81,432 in 2000). The county government is proud of this heritage and of the way that it has integrated the different ūfī orders into the local power structure, with representation on the Jingyuan Islamic Association in proportion to the numbers of the different sects. The Gedimu are in the majority, followed by the Jahrīyah and the Yihewani. There are also two Khufīya mosques. Most of the Jahrīyah live in mountain villages, where they maintain the tombs of their founding shaykhs. Some of the men wear the distinctive six-sided white hat of their order, rather than the white skull cap that is worn by most rural Hui men. In economic and social terms the entire region is underdeveloped, even by the standards of northwest China. The Yihewani (Ikhwānī) sect has also been influential in the northwest; the Yihewani has a role similar to that of the ūfī orders, but often in opposition to them.

Members of these Islamic orders may also be involved in secular social and political organizations. For example, the shaykh of a ūfī menhuan might also be the chairman of the local Chinese People's Consultative Committee, the united front body established by the Chinese Communist Party to ensure the cooperation of ethnic, religious, and other min-orities.

ūfī tombs

After the mosques, the most visible manifestations of Islam in China are the tombs of the ūfī shaykhs (gongbei ). Some of these are simple constructions; in others the tomb is the focus for a substantial collection of buildings that may include a mosque, school, residential accommodation for students, and guest accommodation for visiting worshipers. In Ningxia and Gansu, where the tomb cults are the most highly developed, the tombs are frequently located in remote villages and on isolated hills, but distance is no object to devotees of the orders based there. Thousands of members of the ūfī orders to which the tomb complexes belong make pilgrimages on feast days such as the anniversary of the death of the founding shaykh.

Muslims and the Chinese Communist Party

The extent to which religious observance has been possible among China's Muslims has varied considerably according to the current policies of the central government in Beijing and the way in which these policies were interpreted in the Muslim areas. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 it had built up a degree of credibility among the Hui Muslims after the creation of autonomous local governments in Muslim areas during the Long March. The early 1950s was a period of conflict as mosques and ūfī orders attempted to retain their landholdings in the face of a countrywide land reform campaign that was designed to redistribute land to the poor. Some waqfīyah land owned by mosques and ūfī orders was confiscated, but the authorities were at that stage still relatively tolerant of religious belief and did not seek to suppress Islam in general, although they did move against some of the more radical ūfī menhuan, which were treated in a similar way to Daoist and Buddhist secret societies and were outlawed if they were deemed to pose a threat to the security of the new state.

Conflict between Muslims and the Chinese Communist Party increased significantly with the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the program of collectivization that led to the creation of communes. Conflict between the government and Muslims was further intensified during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for approximately a decade. Collectivization, the anti-rightist campaign of 1957, and the Great Leap Forward marked a turn towards a more radical policy associated with Mao Zedong's wish to speed China's transformation into a socialist society. The component of this transformation that most affected religious organizations was religious system reform (zongjiao zhidu gaige ), which was implemented in 1958. Muslim communities, including the Hui, lost more of their land and buildings; many mosques were closed, and religious activities were restricted. Some Hui businesses, including alāl restaurants, restaurants that provided meals produced according to the dietary laws of Islam, were also brought under state or collective ownership under parallel programs to "socialize" industry and commerce.

The aim of the Chinese government was to create a pan-Chinese identity that would subsume minority ethnic and religious identities. As a result, Muslims kept a low profile. During the Cultural Revolution, mosques and tomb complexes were attacked in the Red Guards' campaign against sijiu or the "four olds" (old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking). In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, the ultra-leftist leadership around Mao maintained that China's nationality problem had been solved, and thus there was no longer any need for different policies for ethnic minorities. As a result, policies specific to minority cultures were dropped, and China's minority peoples were expected to adopt the majority Han culture. The concept of regional autonomy came to be seen as outdated, minority schools and colleges were closed, the use of minority languages was restricted or even banned, and many cadres of minority nationality were replaced by Hans.

Most of China's mosques were closed and many were badly damaged or even completely destroyed in the Red Guard crusade to destroy all remnants of what they regarded as an archaic and obsolete feudal culture. It is not clear to what extent this was an interethnic conflict. There is some suggestion that Red Guards from a Hui background wanted to be in the forefront of the attacks on mosques so as to demonstrate their ardent support of Mao Zedong. Although many mosques were destroyed, some communities managed to protect their places of worship and are deeply proud of their achievements to this day. The study of Islam, along with study in most other fields, was paralyzed during the Cultural Revolution. It was only in the 1970s that articles relating to Islam began to appear again in publications concerning archaeology and international relations.

Like other religions, Islam has been regulated by the Chinese state through the Religious Affairs Bureau, created in 1954 by the State Council. The Religious Affairs Bureau established the Chinese Islamic Association, to which all officially organized mosques belong. The Chinese Islamic Association has been the main instrument of the Communist Party's control over Muslims in China. Because of this, a number of independent or radical groups, notably the ūfī orders, have declined to register with it. This has created a conflict between Muslim groups acceptable to the state and those regarded as unpatriotic and dissident. The Chinese Islamic Association was in abeyance during the Cultural Revolution, like most state organizations, but was resurrected during the "reform and opening" period when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 to 1979.

The Shadian incident

One of the most serious incidents involving Hui Muslims during the Cultural Revolution occurred in the Yunnan village of Shadian near the border with Burma. In 1967, Shadian, like much of China, was divided between rival Cultural Revolution groups. The Red Guards insisted on the mosques being closed and burned copies of the Qurʾān and other religious texts. Others attempted to preserve the constitutional rights of ethnic minorities. The Red Guards claimed the support of the central Cultural Revolution group and were supplied with arms by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). In July 1968, the Red Guards surrounded Shadian and fired on the mosque and houses. Several people were killed, but the Red Guards were kept out of the village. Shadian became a haven for the more conservative elements in the region. In November 1968, the Revolutionary Committee of Yunnan ordered a propaganda team into Shadian. The team chose to billet themselves in the main mosque of the village, ate pork while they were there, and threw the bones into the well that the faithful used to wash before prayer. The propaganda team humiliated the Hui to prove their revolutionary fervor, and their activities provoked a violent response from the Muslims of Shadian.

In October 1973, Ma Bohua, a secondary school teacher, led a movement to retake the mosque and open it for prayer. Ma Shaomei, a Muslim and the secretary of the local Communist Youth League, was arrested in May 1974. His fellow Muslims surrounded the office of the propaganda team and demanded that he be set free, but negotiations and appeals to the provincial government on freedom of religion grounds were not successful. In December 1974, the Hui community in Shadian established a Hui militia with Ma Bohua as commander and Ma Shaomei named formally as political commissar. In May 1975, units of the PLA, which had stationed outside Shadian, attempted to enter the village, but they were barred by the villagers. On December 23, leaflets produced by the Provincial Party Committee were dropped by helicopter on Shadian, denouncing counterrevolutionaries and reactionary imāms. The Hui responded by burning the leaflets in front of the building where the propaganda team was staying. Negotiations for the Hui to surrender their weapons failed, and the Chinese authorities accused them of cooperating with the Soviet Union and of wanting to establish an independent Islamic republic. These accusations were later blamed on the Gang of Four: Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, and three of her political associates from Shanghai. This group spearheaded the Cultural Revolution during the 1970s and attempted to take control of the Chinese Communist Party while Mao was ill and dying.

PLA troops entered Shadian during the early morning hours of July 29, 1975, with artillery, flame-throwers, and incendiary bombs. At least nine hundred Hui were killed and six hundred injured during fighting that lasted eight days. Hundreds more were killed in military action in the surrounding villages. Between four hundred and seven hundred PLA soldiers probably died. Shadian was effectively razed, and after the massacre the remaining population had to be relocated, in an echo of the Qing government's policies for dealing with uprisings. After the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four, there was a "reversal of verdicts" on the Shadian massacre. Those who had resisted the troops were no longer to be regarded as counterrevolutionaries, given the special circumstances of the time, and their organization, izb Allāh (Party of God), was not to be considered an illegal secret society but a legitimate religious organization.

Chinese Islam after Mao

For Muslims throughout China, the situation changed radically after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Since 1979 there has been a remarkable resurgence of Muslim communities and Islamic religious activity. This is attributed by the government press to the influence of gaige kaifang, the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping. China's Muslims have been allowed something of a renaissance, with the rebuilding of mosques demolished during the Cultural Revolution; the publication of Muslim books, journals, and newspapers; and the realization that China had to convince the Muslim world, with which it wished to trade and establish political alliances, that Islam could be practiced freely in China. Since 1979, the five provinces and regions of northwest China with significant Muslim populationsGansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Xinjianghave organized five colloquia on Islamic issues, and others have been held in Beijing and in the southeastern coastal areas. Studies on Islamic culture in China and in the rest of the Islamic world have experienced a resurgence, and hundreds of books have been published in the field.

According to statistics published in official news and academic publications, since 1979 more than 20,000 mosques have opened (or, more accurately, reopened, since they were forced to close during the Cultural Revolution). Hundreds of thousands of copies of the Qurʾān and other Islamic classics have been printed and distributed. In addition, the magazine of the government-controlled Islamic Association of China, Zhongguo Musilin (Muslims in China), which was inaugurated in 1953, has renewed publishing in both Chinese and the Uighur language. It is estimated that some two thousand Chinese Muslims visit Mecca annually on state-supervised ājj. The official New China News Agency reported the departure in 1988 of a group of forty-four "Chinese Muslims from Xinjiang," who left on pilgrimage on June 10, with five hundred more who were due to leave for Mecca via Pakistan "in the next few days." According to statistics released by religious authorities in Xinjiang, 6,500 people of different Muslim ethnic groups made the pilgrimage to Mecca from 1980 to 1987.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reemergence on the borders of China of independent Central Asian republics with Islamic histories and traditions, the role of China's Muslims, many of whom share common ethnic and linguistic ties with their Muslim neighbors, is likely to become more significant. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the role of Islam in former Soviet Central Asia hangs in the balance, with tensions between secular nationalist and Islamic movements, as well as competition between Iran and Turkey for influence.

It is very difficult to arrive at a precise figure for the number of people who can properly be called Muslim in modern China. The term Muslim is used rather loosely to include both those who are active believers and those who belong to communities that by tradition have been Muslim for centuries, irrespective of whether the majority of the members are believers or visit mosques regularly. The government of the People's Republic of China has never collected statistics on religious adherence; the only figures available cover ethnic minority groups that are nominally and traditionally Muslim. Still, many Chinese who formerly considered themselves to be loyal Communists and possibly even atheists identify closely with the Islamic culture of their communities. Some Communist Party members are also believers, and some have become ahongs.

The Chinese authorities recognize ten ethnic groups as Muslim: Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Tartar, Khalkhas, Dongxiang, Salar, and Baoan. The total number of Muslims within the borders of China at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been officially estimated at about fourteen million, but many scholars consider this to be an underestimate. There are villages and other communities petitioning to be recognized as Hui or as another ethnic group. Estimates of China's Muslim population before World War II often gave a round figure of fifty million, giving rise to suspicions of genocide. The problem with this figure is that there was no reliable census in China before 1953, and the statistical source of the fifty million figure is far from clear. China's 1990 census suggests a Muslim population of over seventeen million, and a round figure for the 1990s of twenty million Muslims in China would be a reasonable working estimate.

The Hui of Ningxia

The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is the province with the highest Hui population and the largest concentrated Hui residential area. At the end of 1985, the Hui population in the autonomous region was 1,337,561, which was 32.3 percent of the total population of the province and 18 percent of the total Hui population of China. Although the Hui are distributed throughout the region, there are two areas of concentration: one in the southern mountainous area, which includes Tongxin, Haiyuan, and Xiji counties, as well as the Hui county of Jingyuan, where the Hui constitute 96.9 percent of the total population; the other in Wuzhong and Lingfu counties in the Yinchuan area in the north of the region, where the Hui populations are respectively 55.2 and 48 percent of the total population.

Ningxia is on the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River and is approximately 66,000 square kilometers in area. It has water and mineral resources, including gypsum and coal. Irrigation and canals on the Yinchuan plain date back to the Qin dynasty (221206 bce) and were further developed during Han, Tang, and Xixia rule. The Ningxia plain is known locally as "the Jiangnan on the Wall." Jiangnan means "south of the Yangzi" and is the highly productive region south of the Yangzi River. Agriculture in the region includes wheat, paddy rice, hemp, oil-bearing crops, and melons and other fruit. People living in the Ningxia grasslands produce fur and skins, including Tibetan lambskins. Sheep are particularly important in the foothills of the Helan mountain range, and tree planting has been both an end in itself and a barrier to the drift of the desert.

To the Han officials who control the region, Ningxia is relatively unproductive and backward in commerce, education, culture, science, and technology. They complain of fast population growth and ignorance of the concept of a commodity economy. The cities on the bend of the Yellow River and surrounding rural areas have developed much more quickly than the mountainous areas of southern Ningxia. Southern Ningxia holds 59 percent of the area and 43 percent of the population of the autonomous region, but the gross value of industrial and agricultural output was only 9.6 percent of the regional total in 1987.

The importance attached to the promotion of a Muslim region can be seen in Ningxia's thirtieth-anniversary celebrations on October 25, 1988. The People's Bank of China announced the issue of a commemorative one yuan coin that depicts the Great Mosque in Yinchuan on one side and two young Hui women on the other. Celebratory speeches inevitably praised "nationality solidarity" and unity, claimed that disputes between the Hui and Han nationalities had "all but vanished," and maintained that Hui officials occupied most of the senior posts in the autonomous region and its cities. However, at a meeting with cadres in Yinchuan on September 27, 1988, senior Communist Party figure Wang Zhen, former commander of Chinese military units in Xinjiang, called for measures to increase the number of cadres from minority nationalities. It was revealed that although Hui people accounted for 32.5 percent of the total population of the region, they constituted only 14.5 percent of the cadres, even though most of the leading posts at all levels were occupied by cadres of Hui origin.

Religious observance

Religious observance in Ningxia was stifled during the Cultural Revolution. Many mosques were completely destroyed and others lost much of their land. For Muslims in China, the most important feature of the reform program associated with Deng Xiaoping has been the possibility of rebuilding or reopening mosques. There are no accurate figures for these losses, but some examples will illustrate the point.

The Nanguan (South Bar) Mosque is the largest in Yinchuan. In the courtyard is a shop where the Qurʾān and other devotional materials are on sale, with a display of photographs depicting the destruction of the mosque in the mid-1960s, the makeshift prayer hall made up of mats and tables that the congregation used thereafter, and the reconstruction of the mosque in a Middle Eastern style in the mid 1980s. By 1991 the mosque was fully active with a madrasah enrolling about a dozen boys. Also in Yinchuan, the Xiguan (West Bar) Mosque, which is said to date to the 1880s, was rebuilt in 1981 in a Middle Eastern style. The Wuzhong Mosque in Wuzhong, a busy market town south of Yinchuan, was built in 1778 and extended twice during the late nineteenth century. After severe damage during the Cultural Revolution, it was reconstructed in 1979, with further repairs carried out in 1987, although the present mosque occupies far less land than the original. The Najiahu Mosque in Najiahu village near Wuzhong was also badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but the prayer hall, with its mixture of Chinese and Islamic architecture, remained untouched.

The Great Mosque in Tongxin, a predominantly Hui town in central Ningxia, functioned as a Buddhist temple during the Mongol conquest and it has the appearance of a temple. It was rededicated as a mosque when it was taken over by local Muslims after the expulsion of the Mongols in the late fourteenth century and the congregation now follows the Yihewani sect. The Great Mosque in Tongxin escaped damage during the Cultural Revolution, and the congregation is proud of its role in defending the mosque. As of 2001, the congregation was flourishing; according to the ahong, several dozen Muslims came to the mosque daily, with hundreds on Fridays.

Islamic literature is available in Muslim centers in China, but with certain serious restrictions. The magazine Zhongguo Musilin is published nationally and the Qurʾān is available in both Chinese and Arabic. Commentaries and other classic devotional literature, such as the writings of the Ming dynasty Muslim scholar Wang Daiyu, are published openly and are sold in state bookshops in Ningxia and Gansu, as well as in Beijing. Religious publications are also available in Urumqi bookshops. Few Islamic publications are available in bookshops in Kashgar, but religious works in Arabic and Chinese can be bought from street stalls in the Kashgar bazaar. In Linxia, the main Hui area of southwestern Gansu and Guanghe, new and secondhand books on religious topics and Arabic-language courses are on sale from barrows or stalls on the main streets. There is also a widespread network of underground or unofficial Islamic publishing, with ahongs publishing and distributing their own books, but these are difficult for outsiders to obtain.

Chinese officials treat the Muslim sects as if they were political factions. There are considered to be six Muslim factions in Ningxia: the Gedimu, Yihewani, Hufuye, Zhehelinye, Gadelinye, and Sailaifeiye. In the view of Chinese Communist Party officials, the Ningxia Hui belong to six factions, all Sunnī, the largest faction having 33,000 members and the smallest 1,000. Government policy is to treat factions equally, with each faction having its own representatives in people's congresses and the local committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an organization designed to integrate non-Communists into the Chinese polity.

In a report on Islam in Ningxia, published in 1989, the New China News Agency claimed that fights between the factions had become rare, but disclosed that there had been a clash between two groups in 1984 over the building of a mosque in Xiji county. More than one thousand people participated in the conflict; two people were killed and over a hundred injured. Other sources suggest that the conflict may have been more serious, and not an exceptional occurrence. According to an article in the latest issue of Liaowang (Outlook), conflicts between Muslims in Ningxia are common, and some have led to violence. Since 1978, two factions of the Zheherenye group (the name is derived from the Arabic word Jahrīyah ) in Xiji county have clashed on numerous occasions, with several hundred and sometimes thousands of people participating. These clashes have led to at least three deaths and five serious injuries. Generally the local government does not intervene in religious disputes, which are resolved through the mediation of religious organizations, although major cases that undermine production and cause casualties are dealt with according to the law.

Local experts maintain that there are no essential differences among the factions, except in the conduct of religious rituals. For example, one faction performs elaborate religious ceremonies, while another may simplify them. Although the differences are minor, conflicts among the factions can be fierce, sometimes culminating in armed fights, mostly for economic benefits or to win people over from other factions. In fact, these "minor" differences have been the most important source of conflict between Chinese ūfī orders for centuries.

Muslim communities and the economic reform program

Mosques in Ningxia benefited from China's move towards a market orientated economy by developing business interests that helped to finance their religious activities. For example, in August 1986, the Nanguan Mosque in Yinchuan, which is the longest established and largest mosque in the region, set up a Muslim services company. It manages an Islamic hotel with sixty to seventy beds, a canteen, grocery, shop, and clinic. By 1988, the mosque had made a profit of over 100,000 yuan. The regional government gives preferential treatment to mosques involved in business, including tax exemption for the first three to five years. The Nanguan Mosque employed thirty-six local people in the mid-1980s, and the poor, the young, and the elderly received free medical treatment in the clinic. Plans for developing the business interests of the mosque included the creation of an Islamic bazaar in Yinchuan, supported by foreign in-vestment.

In 1989, Hui Muslims in Qinghai opened their own Islamic bank, the Muslim savings deposit center run by the Xining City Bank of Industry and Commerce. The bank took 150,000 renminbi in deposits in its first month. Some Muslims were wary of the new bank, but the provincial party secretary, Yin Kesheng, attempted to reassure them by saying "We must run the Muslim savings center as a place with genuine minority nationality and Muslim characteristics. Muslim money should be used for Muslim affairs More bonus savings schemes should be organized in view of the needs of religious believers." The Hui people have a tradition of involvement in trade and finance and are likely to prosper in the more open financial environment created by the reform program.

Islam in Xinjiang

Although Xinjiang (or Eastern Turkestan, to use the name preferred by many of its inhabitants) has been under formal direct Chinese control as a province of the empire since 1884, and since 1955 as an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, the culture, society, and politics of the region and the role of Islam differ so much from that of the rest of China that it is necessary to consider it separately.

The main population of Xinjiang is not Chinese but Uighur. The Uighurs are Central Asian Muslims whose Turkic language is closely related (some say almost identical) to Uzbek; it is also related, but less closely, to the other Central Asian languages of Kazakh and Kyrgyz. Although the Uighurs have had close contact with the Han for centuries, they have struggled to maintain their distinctive Islamic society and social structure, especially in the south of Xinjiang. In addition to the Uighurs, Xinjiang is home to communities of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Mongols, as well as some Russian families whose ancestors have been in the region for centuries. There are also Chinese-speaking Hui Muslims living in Xinjiang. However, by far the largest non-Uighur group are the Han Chinese. While a minority of the Han have roots in Xinjiang as far back as the nineteenth or even eighteenth centuries, the vast majority are more recent immigrants. Xinjiang's Han population includes demobilized soldiers from the Communist forces that took control of Xinjiang in 1949, and members of the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a powerful body that combines border defense functions, farming, and land reclamation, and employs many former PLA soldiers, prisoners released from the network of labor camps that stretches throughout Xinjiang, young people from the towns and cities sent down to the countryside (xiafang ) in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and traders from eastern China hoping to make their fortunes on the new frontier in the far west.

This Han population almost outnumbers the Uighurs, making them feel that they are a colonized nation and that their culture is under serious threat. Resistance to control from Beijing dates back to an insurrection led by Yakub Beg (18201877), the independent governments that controlled Kashgaria in the 1930s, and the East Turkistan Islamic Republic, which was established in Yining (also known as Ghulja) in the 1940s. Since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, resistance has been clandestine and was hardly acknowledged officially until the 1990s, when separatist demonstrations and terrorist acts could no longer be ignored. Even so this resistance was presented as essentially motivated by pan-Turkism and Uighur nationalism against the Han. In fact, there was and is a major religious component to the resistance, and there is strong evidence to suggest that ūfī organizations, often operating through unlicensed madrasah s and unofficial mosques, are the organizational backbone to the resistance. The Chinese government and its Xinjiang arm enacted legislation to control such unregistered organs, and also issued instructions to police and customs officials to seize what were said to be large quantities of religious material being imported into Xinjiang. This included copies of the Qurʾān, exegetical literature, and sermons by radical clerics both in text form and on tape. Much of this was imported from Pakistan, and Pakistani traders were openly selling this material in small shops in Kashgar in the 1990s.

Although Islam has been more thoroughly repressed in Xinjiang than in other parts of China, it remains an important part of the fabric of the regional society. Although mosques often maintain a low profile, they remain the center of the community, especially in the more remote rural areas. In addition to their obvious role in worship, funerals, and so on, the mosques are the natural focus for community activities, welfare organizations, and, at times, popular protest against what are seen as government policies inimical to Islam.

The resistance to Beijing that has manifested itself in popular insurrectionsnotably in 1997 in Yining and in bomb attacks in Urumqi, Kashgar, and Beijinghas become more overtly Islamist in nature. Slogans at demonstrations are frequently Islamic, as well as nationalist, and the existence of clandestine Islamist organizations with names such as Zhenzhudong (Party of Allāh) has been reported.


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Michael Dillon (2005)

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