By Atul Aneja
August 31, 2019
After about an hour’s drive along a spanking new highway,
southwest from Lanzhou, the capital of China’s Gansu province, the landscape
changes suddenly. For several miles along the green countryside, the minarets
and gleaming domes of mosques burst into view. The area is part of the Linxia
Hui Autonomous Prefecture — an abode of Hui Muslims, whose Islamic faith
appears well integrated with the Han Chinese mainstream.
The Hui Muslims, a total of around 10.5 million in the
entire country, form a significant minority in China. They slightly outnumber
the Uyghur Muslims, who have been in the media limelight on account of their
sporadic run-ins with the state in the far western region of Xinjiang. Among
the thousands of Chinese Muslims who head for the Haj annual pilgrimage in
Saudi Arabia, the majority are of Hui lineage.
The Chinese authorities appear to have a soft corner for the
Hui community, which is often cited as a model for peaceful cultural
integration. Hui Islam traces its origin to the 7th century when, during the
Tang dynasty, Arab and Central Asian traders immigrated and seeded Islam along
the Silk Road.
Over time, local philosophers sprouted, successfully
blending Islam with the native tradition of Confucianism and Taoism. In the
18th century, Hui scholar Liu Zhi wrote Han Kitab. This was a strikingly
imaginative work representing a fusion of Confucianism with Islam. In tune with
the popular imagination, Liu projected the Prophet Mohammed as a sage in the
Confucian tradition. The Sharia law was perceived as an extension of Confucian
rituals. In the end, Liu believed that the blend of Confucianism and lslam
along certain select lines would produce a society of social harmony and
Unlike the followers of a more rigid interpretation of
Islam, Hui Muslims regularly visit Sufi shrines. Incense burning is not rare,
and kowtowing, typical of Chinese worshipers across many religions, during
visits to Sufi shrines, is routine. A blend of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy
at places of worship is also commonplace.
While Chinese authorities may be comfortable with their
cosmopolitan traditions, the Hui Muslims are often under internal attack,
especially from those who have been exposed to the Wahhabi doctrine during
their travels abroad. A Foreign Policy article quoted Imam Ma Jun, who left his
hometown of Lanzhou for a five-year study of Sharia law and Arabic at the
Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. “I was on fire when I came back
from Saudi Arabia,” Imam Ma was quoted as saying. “I felt a strong
responsibility. Chinese Muslims didn’t have enough belief. They were impure and
Imam Ma is not alone in being attracted to the puritanical
form of Islam. In the late 19th century, Imam Ma Wanfu came back from Mecca
brimming with the zeal of purifying Chinese Islam. Over time, the Yihewani (or
Ikhwan) sect of Islam, gained a foothold in Gansu province.
Unsurprisingly, the common threads of Confucianism and Islam
are visible in the mosque architecture in Linxia. From afar, the crescent moon,
a symbol of Islam, towers over buildings whose roof corners sharply turned
upwards — typical of the Taoist architectural tradition.
The Linxia area eventually merges into grasslands of the
Tibetan plateau that extend into Gansu province. The countryside becomes
seamlessly dotted with Buddhist monasteries as well as cultural nodes, which
stand out for their Tankha paintings as well as highland agricultural and
About four hours by road from Lanzhou, the Labrang monastery
— built on the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian cultures — towers over the
landscape. Its imposing white walls, capped by gilded roofs, represent a fusion
of Tibetan and Indian Vihara architectural styles.
Local and national authorities are leveraging Gansu’s
cultural diversity, beautiful scenery and heritage sites by imparting a push to
tourism. “From 2010-16, the share of tourism industry in Gansu’s economy grew
from 6% to 17%,” said Ahmed Eiweida, a senior World Bank official, last month
at the Fourth Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo at Gannan, a
Tibetan enclave in Gansu.
Original Headline: The common threads of Confucianism and