Sunday, June 28, 2015

Islam in China: a tale of two minorities and Ilham Tohti

“SEEK knowledge, even unto China” go the words in a famous Hadith. And whilst some academics may regard this Prophetic tradition as weak, its import has real consequences. 

This is because Muslims first landed in China less than 20 years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad. Records show that from 651-798 CE, some 39 “Arab envoys” were received by the dynastic Emperors in China.  

It is believed that Ibn Waqqas was the first Companion to travel to China, and that his grave lies in Guangzhou in the south. The oldest mosque in China, constructed in traditional pagoda style, is in Xian and was built 1,273 years ago. In fact, Islam was prevalent in China long before much of the Arab world. The Silk Route, part of which travelled over China, became the crossroads of faith and culture.

For that reason China’s early rulers were tolerant of diversity. The Ming Dynasty of the 14th century, which entertained expansionist impulses not unlike today, sent Admiral Xengh He to explore the world and to bring business to China. Xengh He, probably the finest maritime explorer of all time (who circumvented the Cape long before Bartolameu Dias) was a Muslim, a Hajji and a eunuch of great girth and height.

In 21st century China there are 20 million Muslims and some 30,000 mosques. Islam in China is a tale of two significant minorities – but one with two distinct, contrasting tales. The groups are the Hui (who originate from Ningxia in central China) and the Uyghurs (from Xinjiang in the west) a mountainous region.

The Hui, who speak Chinese, are a community going back to the earliest centuries of Islam. They have Arabic, Persian, Asian and Mongol DNA and constitute about half of China’s Muslims. The Hui have also moved to Gansu, Qinghai, Mongolia, and the northern Chinese provinces as far as Tibet.

Islam is said to have been introduced to the Uyghurs from the 10th century onwards. The Uyghurs, Turkmen who are not ethnically Chinese, claim to be the original inhabitants of Xinjiang. Their home language is not Chinese.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s the Hui Muslims were severely persecuted by Mao Zedong. In those days – when religious belief was seen as being anti-state – just the ownership of a Qur’an could result in the death penalty.  

However, in 1979 the Chinese politburo started to relax its rigidity on religious practice and endorsed five faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

This led to a constitutional change, Article 36 of 1982 stating that citizens of the People's Republic of China had a right to enjoy freedom of religious belief. This was, nonetheless, qualified by government insisting that it had to protect what it defined as “normal religious activities”.

Since then the constitution has been applied unevenly. China is, after all, an authoritarian one-party state with a deplorable human rights record. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, is still not recognised; the Falun Gong (a spiritual, non-political movement) has been banned completely, its members imprisoned – and according to some sources – used to bolster China’s transplant market.

Even Christianity has felt the heat. Human Rights Watch reports that in 2013, authorities removed 150 crosses from churches in the Zhejiang province, and that China has not responded to Pope Francis’ wish to normalise relations. 

For the Uyghurs, it has been a battle for survival under extremely repressive conditions. The Hui, on the other hand, who are more of a merchant class, have assimilated fairly successfully into the broader, Han-dominated society. 

Unlike the Uyghurs, the Hui are free to wear the hijab, to grow beards, to fast in Ramadan, to construct mosques and to attend mass ‘Eid prayers. The Hui, who speak Chinese, are by definition Chinese and Muslim – whilst the Uyghurs who have their own Turkic language, do not see themselves the same way. They are Uyghurs and Muslim, not Chinese and Uyghur. This is what alarms Beijing so much – Uyghur notions of ethnic and national separatism.

The Chinese government’s response has been to squash any notion of Uyghur identity, or thoughts of an East Turkmenistan. For not only have they flooded the Xinjiang region with Han migrations (thus creating ethnic tensions), but they’ve also adopted the expedient excuse of using the “War on Terror” to crush the cultural marrow out of Uyghur bones.

It’s a political game, first and foremost, although (as we’ve said) Beijing conveniently hides behind the skirts of Islamic terror. The point is if the Uyghurs were Christian or Buddhist, they would probably be treated in exactly the same way. But that does not diminish the abuse of human rights in Xinjiang where long beards have been banned, as have veils, hijabs, and t-shirts with the Islamic crescent moon and star – and where during the month of Ramadan, fasting is banned for state employees. 

The nature of the Beijing’s Uyghur crackdown – which was intensified in 2014 – is draconian in the extreme. Late last year the academic Ilham Tohti was jailed for life on the ill-defined charge of “separatism”. 

Amnesty International described his trial and sentence as an “affront to justice”, adding that before the trial he’d been tortured, denied food for 10 days and shackled for nearly three weeks. In addition, his legal team had been denied access to him for six months, his first legal representative being pressured to step down.

Tohti, a peace activist, had been campaigning for better relations between the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and the ruling Han. He had started the website Uyghur Online and had written extensively on human rights, daring to criticise Beijing. 

It is sad, if not ironic, that nobody in the Muslim community – let alone the broader one – knows who Ilham Tohti is. Well, let’s say it: Ilham Tohti is a prisoner of conscience.  Ilham Tohti might have been caged by the Chinese oligarchs for now, but if we have any sense of justice, he will not be forgotten.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

ISIS and slavery: a state of “Islam” before the Qur’an

Amsha Alyas, who escaped ISIS after her husband was killed.
She was sold to an ISIS commander.

TWO-hundred and twenty-one years ago the Portuguese slave ship, the Sao Jose de Africa, set sail from Sofala in Mozambique with a cargo of 400 slaves. Captured in the Zambesi lowlands, the live cargo was destined for the markets of Brazil.

In 1794 the idea of transporting east African slaves across the Atlantic marked a significant shift in the brutal industry, a shift that would prolong slave trading between Africa and Brazil until 1865 – and see nearly half a million Mozambicans dispatched to the country’s sugar plantations.  

After having rounded Cape Point in late December, the Sao Jose hugged the coastline to avoid a storm and struck a rock off modern-day Clifton. It broke up and sank in shallow water about 200 metres offshore. Tragically, 212 of the slaves were drowned in the icy Atlantic after the crew were unable to rescue them.

The remaining 200, who’d survived the terrifying ordeal, were herded together on the beach and sold in Cape Town. One can only imagine their trauma: the lot of slaves at the Cape makes for miserable reading. Slavery was grossly exploitative, cruel and contrary to any concept of human dignity.

With our slave origins in Cape Town this is something that as South Africans we should be painfully aware of. In the 21st century being free from slavery is an entrenched human right – which makes it surprising that any modern nation state – let alone a “Caliphate” – should endorse it.

Yet ISIS in 2014, enforcing its Islamic “state” at the point of a Salafi-Wahhabi gun, had issued a document, via its Research and Fatwa Department, which – astoundingly – endorsed the slavery and sexual subjugation of Yazidi, Christian and Jewish women due to them being regarded as kuffar, or people of unbelief.

Questions of their “unbelief” are, of course, questionable. But that Yazidi women had indeed been enslaved by ISIS was confirmed by Human Rights Watch and Bristol University, who spoke to women who’d escaped the clutches of their rapacious captors. The BBC ran with the story and Al-Jazeera reported that girls were being sold in Mosul.

For any Muslim, this bizarre retrogression by ISIS is as baffling as its understanding of Shari’ah. Tahir ibn Ashur, the famous Tunisian scholar, once said that the maqasid (the noble goals of Sacred Law) indicated that equality was one of its objectives. Shaikh bin Bayya, a legal giant of contemporary Islam, has said the maqasid emphasises that freedom is an essential human right.

With ISIS hankering for a rose-tinted return to the past – and specifically the era of the pious forbears, the Salaf us-Salihin – one can only assume that their literalist reading of the texts has let them down again.

Slavery was indeed the status-quo of the Quraish who ruled Makkah at the time of the Prophet, but to say that he approved of slavery would be mistaken. Islamic scholars observe that the Qur’an, which Muslims believe has the final say on such things, is a thoroughly pragmatic work. This is because the Qur’an recognised that deeply embedded cultural institutions, such as slavery, could not be eliminated instantly with the sweep of a single verse.

The great elders of Qur’anic exegisis – or interpretation – tell us that Qur’anic verses have special qualities of meaning such as “specific” and “general”. They also have qualities of abrogation (naskh): in other words, one verse can out-rule another.

The abolition of intoxicants is a good example, and shows how the Prophet used gradualism to spread his word, rather than harsh reactivism. For instance, 2: 219 posits the undesirability of alcohol, but does not abolish it. In 4: 43 we get the suggestion not to come to prayer when intoxicated. Only in 5: 90 is alcohol completely forbidden.

For literalists like the Salafis, some of whom who spurn classical methodology and metaphor, there are obvious contradictions when it comes to intoxicants and prayer. On the issue of slavery it appears as they’ve reverted back to the default position – a state of Islam before the Qur’an – when slavery was accepted as an unquestioned status-quo.

The point is that Qur’an questions the institution of slavery from the get-go. However, the word of Allah is subtle, it realises that turning a society upside down short-term will not result in long-term reform. So what we get this time is a thematic thread weaving through the Holy Book from its second chapter right to the end.

In 2: 177 we are told that to free a slave is a practical deed of charity; in 4: 92 freeing a slave becomes an act of restitution for the mistaken killing of another Muslim; in 5: 89 freeing a slave is expiation for a false oath; in 9: 60 there is a reminder of the charitable act of freeing a slave; in 58: 3-4 expiation emerges again and in 90: 13 man is reminded that one of the most noble signs of justice is freeing a slave.

The Hadith of the Prophet also show that freeing slaves was a popular means of expiation. That the freedom of one slave could be equal to months of fasting – and even the feeding of 60 poor people – is an eloquent enough suggestion of its charitable merits.

A ruling, via Qur’an, that a slave woman would only receive half the legal punishment of a non-slave woman, that a portion of zakat (alms tax) should go towards freed slaves and the order (in 24: 33) for masters to help their freedman financially, is proof of a compassion towards slaves that did not exist historically before.

Unfortunately, reports from Iraq and Syria appear to contradict all of the above with regards to ISIS. Their evident return to an era of darkness and ignorance is inexplicable given the overwhelming body of scriptural evidence against reverting to slavery, and the fact that the Prophet was essentially an abolitionist, a man who believed that liberating a slave was like bringing a human being back to life.