In focus: Mosques in China's heartland

The announcement by the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation of plans to build a Sheikh Zayed Mosque in the Chinese city of Wuzhong is a welcome reminder

Shapo mosque in Linxia, China.
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The announcement by the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation of plans to build a Sheikh Zayed Mosque in the Chinese city of Wuzhong is a welcome reminder, during the month of Ramadan, of the presence of large numbers of Muslims in China. Recent estimates suggest that their total number exceeds 20 million.

The Chinese Islamic tradition holds that the coming of Islam was the result of missionary activities by the uncle of Prophet Mohammed, Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqâs, and his companions in the 7th century.

What is thought to be the tomb of Abi Waqqas in Canton is much visited and revered by Chinese Muslims.

The presence in China of Muslim communities of Central Asian origins, such as the Uygurs of the north-west, is well known. The largest Muslim group in China, however, is the Hui, a term applied to all Chinese-speaking Muslims, who can be found throughout the country, in big urban centres as well as in remote regions.

Many Hui are to be found in the western province of Gansu, in particular in the counties of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture. Little known abroad, this area has become known to Chinese Muslims as "China's Mecca". Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Linxia and to learn something about its Islamic heritage.

Gansu lies on the Western Corridor, part of the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Central Asia and the Middle East. On the drive out of Gansu's capital, Lanzhou, I was struck by the simple dwellings in the harsh landscape of the Loess Plateau.

On the approach to Linxia, numerous mosques begin to appear, of different scales and styles and built in various materials. They are in sharp contrast to the rough mud-brick houses next to them. Minarets, both old and new, that dominated the skyline of the little towns.

There are hundreds of mosques and other religious buildings throughout Linxia's small counties. In Guanghe, the density of mosques and other religious foundations can be compared with Cairo during the peak of the Mamluk period, when it was both a political capital and a centre of religious learning. These mosques, though, lack the sophisticated and imposing architectural features found in Cairo or, indeed, in other parts of China, such as the coastal regions and old imperial cities such as Xian or Beijing. Nor can they be compared with the mosques of China's most north-western province of Xinjiang, which consistently uses the classical Islamic architectural languages of Central Asia.

As I travelled, I wondered why there were so many mosques and other religious foundations. Why were they so elaborate, while most of the people lived in modest conditions? Why did local Muslims seem to be observing different customs, as if they were following different teachings, yet all still being bound together by the same faith of Islam?

One interesting visit was to a new religious complex in Guanghe County, which included a three-storey mosque and madrassas for boys and girls. Past the entrance through an imposing gateway, the shiny marble that covered the courtyard as well as the facades of the mosque and the gateway was dazzling - a remarkable sight in one of the least developed parts of China.

Here, and throughout Linxia, the devotion of the people to their faith was evident, with even the most modest mosques standing out among the smaller, simpler residential buildings. Islam, it was clear, was an important part of their daily life.

The name of the complex is Qadiriyya Wenquantang, indicating its affiliation to a Sufi group of the Qadiriyya order. Sufism, or tasawwuf, is a form of Muslim mysticism. Throughout Linxia, religious buildings often carry names that indicate links to a particular Sufi order. One particular feature is the presence of shrines, gongbei in Chinese and qubba in Arabic, which are the burial places of well-known Sufi preachers. They are often highly decorated and are considered to be of great religious significance, such as the Great Gongbei of Linxia City, revered by adherents of the Qadariyya order.

Linxia is a centre of Sufism in China, where it was originally introduced in the late 17th century, by preachers from Arabia or Central Asia and by Chinese pilgrims returning from the Haj. Several Sufi orders are present in Linxia today, the Qadiriyya, the first to arrive in the late 17th Century, the Kubrawiyya, and two Chinese sects of the Naqshbandi order, the Naqshbandi Khufiyya and the Naqshbandi Jahriyya.

Besides Sufism, some other schools of Islamic thought are also present in Linxia. One, the oldest and largest in the whole of China, is the Qadim, a branch of the Hanafi school, which first reached China through Arab merchants trading with South China.

The Ikhwani school appeared in Linxia in the late 19th century, and Salafi thought arrived in the 1950s, both being introduced by returning Chinese pilgrims who had been influenced by the Wahabi movement in Saudi Arabia.

The indigenous Chinese Islamic school, Xidaotang, was founded in Lintan, south of Linxia, at the beginning of the 20th century, but soon made its way to Linxia. Like the Qadim, Xidaotang is a Hanafi school, but with elements from Confucianism and Daoism incorporated into it from the Han Kitab, written by Chinese Muslim scholars in the previous centuries.

A specifically Chinese Islamic educational system, known as Jingtang Jiaoyu, is well developed in Linxia and is still used in mosques and affiliated schools. Open to all Muslim children, these offer free accommodation and tuition to students from throughout China. The curriculum includes Arabic and Persian grammar and literature as well as the Quran and Islamic philosophy.

The centre of Islamic studies in China was initially in the coastal region, until the collapse of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the mid-14th century, then moving inland to the imperial city of Chang'an (now known as Xi'an) during the Ming and early Qing periods, until the mid-18th century. It then moved west to Linxia, which remains a key centre for Islamic studies in China today.

I completed my journey into this heartland of Chinese Muslim culture in the city of Linxia, the seat of the autonomous prefecture, arriving at the time of Friday prayers. The city was crowded as people made their way to the mosques, leaving with me a lasting memory of the role that Islam plays in this dusty and remote part of China.

* Qing Chen is completing a PhD on mosques in China at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London