“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.