By Ian Johnson
September 6, 2016
Matthew S. Erie, associate professor of modern Chinese studies, Oxford
University. Credit Yaeji Regina Erie
Matthew S. Erie, a trained lawyer and ethnographer who teaches at Oxford
University, lived for two years in Linxia, a small city in the north-western
Chinese province of Gansu. Known as China’s Mecca, it is a centre of religious
life for the Hui, an ethnic minority numbering 10 million who practice Islam.
Along with the Turkic Uighurs, they are one of 10 officially recognized ethnic
groups that practice Islam, making the total population of Muslims in China
around 23 million, according to the 2010 government census.
Mr. Erie’s recently published book, “China
and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law,” is a look at how Shariah —
Islamic law and ethics — is implemented among the Hui. In an interview he
discussed his findings, which confound many preconceptions about Shariah,
Chinese law and the rigidity of the Communist state.
How should we understand the statistics
on Muslims in China? Officially there are 23 million, but this assumes that
Islam is an ethnicity, and that all Hui, or all Uighurs, must be Muslim.
It’s a problematic issue because it’s an
ethnic category that is used to define members of a religion. Hence, it can be
both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. For the former, Muslims outside of
China may not consider every Hui to be a Muslim. Many Hui are very pious. They
attend mosque regularly and go to the hajj. And then there are people who say
they’re Hui, meaning they just don’t eat pork. For the latter, it’s possible
that some Chinese citizens who are ethnically Han [the dominant ethnic group in
China] or Tibetan are, in fact, Muslims. It’s a very loose category.
How about converts to Islam? Can one
change one’s legal ethnicity?
There are converts, for sure. The
motivations are interesting. I met a Han laborer who worked on the railway. He
had injured his arm and did not receive benefits. He became disaffected and
found solace in Islam. He was also looking for a wife. Poor Han men sometimes
convert if they’re looking for a wife, because there are Hui networks that will
help out. Hui will help you convert and marry. But changing one’s ethnic
identity, officially, is very difficult. It can happen, but it’s hard.
One sees in China a huge spiritual
hunger and need for traditional values, which some find in religion. Is Islam
part of this religious revival?
Absolutely. The vacuum created by the end
of Maoism has led to a commercialization of Chinese society that is in its own
way spiritually void. There’s no question that people are searching for
meaning. What’s really important is that some people are doing it through
Islam. These are people who were born Hui but not part of that spiritual
tradition, and who are returning to it. They find a group of fellow believers
and discover strength in that community. Many of these people travel to places
like Linxia and study Islam for the first time in their lives.
You report that China had 20,000 mosques
in 1994 and 34,000 in 2010. That seems like solid evidence for a growth in the
The region from Lanzhou to Linxia is often
called the Quran belt. When you’re on the highway, it’s impossible to go a
minute without seeing a new mosque under construction. What’s driving this is
an accumulation of wealth, and people are willing to allocate some of it,
because they see mosques as a center of their community. It’s not just where
people pray or study but also where they socialize and share news and gossip.
Is this government-financed?
Almost none of it. Almost all comes from
donations. Donors are businesspeople using the money they’ve saved to benefit
What about overseas donations? In the West,
many big mosques are financed by the Saudis or Gulf states.
That rarely happens in China. The
government keeps tight control over this. They don’t want to have these sorts
of ties overseas.
Is there any international dimension to
The revival has two aspects. One is almost
always personal: a marriage that didn’t work out, or interfamilial strife. And
then they learn about larger phenomena through translated texts, social media
or on-the-ground missionary activity. Saudi Arabia is a natural pole star.
Egypt has major pull given its academic institutions and religious scholars.
Missionary work increasingly comes from the Dawa movement. These activists are
primarily from South Asia. The idea is that Muslims should return to the pious
behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad. This can mean a variety of things, from
daily prayer to rejecting chopsticks in favour of eating with one’s hands.
These people interact with the Hui trying to find themselves. That’s where the
Some of this seems to parallel
Christianity’s rise in China. It also benefits from overseas missionary ties.
True, but Islam is different in that you
have this global discourse on terrorism, which is oppressive and limits the
capacity of Muslims inside China to interact with Muslims outside of China.
Islam is so politicized that it’s quite different.
Does that hamper Islam’s ability to
function as a force for soft power? China makes much of the fact that it is the
world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Couldn’t it also win friends in Central Asia
or the Middle East by pointing to its vibrant Muslim population?
There’s no doubt that the state looks at
Islam in a different way than it does Taoism or Buddhism. It makes it hard for
them to participate in even a nationalistic revival — even slogans of Xi
Jinping, such as the Yidai Yilu [the One Belt, One Road initiative to link
China to Central Asia and South Asia through overland and sea routes]. I was in
China this summer and everyone was talking about it, but the question is if
Muslims can participate in this. That would be good for the state, but the
anxieties are great, too.
Your book has rich descriptions of Linxia,
a dry, remote city with so much religious life.
It’s the base of Islam in the northwest.
Muslims have built mosques and prayed there since at least the 14th century.
Some say certain Muslim tombs there date to the Tang dynasty. That’s hard to
prove, but it shows how important it is. It’s a place where Islam took hold.
Your book challenges the idea that the
Hui are the “good” Muslims, while the Uighurs are the “bad” ones, engaged in
The Hui have had numerous uprisings, most
notably during the second half of the 19th century from Yunnan to Gansu and
beyond. Not all of these were necessarily against the state. There were a
number of local conflicts that often snowballed. They are not submissive lackeys
of the state.
You show this through the fascinating
paradigm of Shariah. In the West, people often think of Shariah as a rigid
Muslim legal system from the Middle Ages, with stoning and amputations. Here we
see it as something alive and very flexible. What does it encompass?
The parameters are wide, from dietary
considerations to interpersonal relations. Some of it is deciding what is Halal
food. But it’s also what we would call torts in the U.S. — when someone driving
a vehicle strikes a pedestrian. A lot of time the authorities will ask the
mosques to aid in evidence-gathering. We have a localized sense of Hui
morality, that may be inflected with Shariah and that might affect the outcomes
— the amount of the settlement, for example. The ahongs [Hui term for cleric]
will help determine an amount.
But this consultation has its limits.
Definitely. It’s not used in criminal law,
where the state has the monopoly on using its own legitimated force. But in
social relations, the Hui are part of this local dynamic — the clerical
authority and the authority of the local state.
This is a more pragmatic exercise of
power than many might expect.
The state realizes it needs the local
clerics. If the state were to consciously exclude the local religious
authorities, it would lose legitimacy in the eyes of the believers.
Are Hui satisfied?
There is a spectrum of opinions. They push
for more autonomy and decision-making ability but are not always allowed to. In
this, I think their struggles parallel those of Muslim minorities elsewhere —
in France, Germany or the U.S. — but in China they do not have recourse to
formal law, political institutions or even civil society. Rather, they rely on
their ties to the government and increasingly transnational networks to protect
their personal and collective interests.