Relatives with the body of an elderly Hui woman at a funeral in Linxia. Image Credit: Adam Dean/New York Times

Matthew S. Erie, a trained lawyer and ethnographer who teaches at Oxford University, lived for two years in Linxia, a small city in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu. Known as China’s Makkah, it is a centre of religious life for the Hui, an ethnic minority numbering 10 million who practise Islam. Along with the Turkic Uighurs, they are one of 10 officially recognised ethnic groups that practise Islam, making the total population of Muslims in China around 23 million, according to the 2010 government census.

Erie’s recently published book, “China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law”, is a look at how Sharia is implemented among the Hui. In an interview he discussed his findings, which confound many preconceptions about Sharia, Chinese law and the rigidity of the communist state. Excerpts:

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 China may not consider every Hui to be a Muslim. Many Hui are very pious. They attend mosque regularly and go on the Haj. 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 labourer 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 commercialisation 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 such as 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 religion.

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 centre of their community. It’s not just where people pray or study but also where they socialise 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 their communities.

What about overseas donations?

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 Islam’s revival?

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 Mohammad (PBUH). 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 rekindling occurs.

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 politicised 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 terrorism.

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.

You show this through the fascinating paradigm of Sharia. In the West, people often think of Sharia as a rigid 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 US — 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 localised sense of Hui morality, that may be inflected with Sharia 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 realises 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 US — 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.

New York Times News Service