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BOOK REVIEW: Hui Muslim face challenges practising Islam in China

27th Jul 2018

China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. By Matthew S Erie. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2016. 447pp. $140.00 (cloth).

‘In China, state law severs religion from religious law, yet following Islamic law is central to Muslim minorities’ ideas of good life, defined such values as authenticity, piety, orthodoxy and purity. This book is a study about how Hui [Muslims] exercise this capacity when the Party-State, backed by its monopoly on force, mobilises considerable institutional and discursive resources to make Islam conform to Chinese socialism and nationalism.’ (p 5)

Matthew S Erie, an anthropologist-lawyer, has written a pioneering study based on extensive primary sources and 18 months of field-work in Linxia (formerly Hezhou), known as “Little Mecca,” an important Islamic centre in Gansu Province. This is the first ethnography of Islamic law in China with a focus on the substantive and procedural conflicts between the Shari’ah and Chinese state law.

China’s Islamic law revival is part of an Islamic renaissance in the country, one that is particularly visible among Hui communities. (p 11)
Erie finds that both Hui and the Party-State invoke, interpret, and make arguments based on Islamic law, a minjian (unofficial) law in China, to pursue their respective visions of ‘the good’.

This study follows Hui ulama, youthful translators on the ‘New Silk Road’, female educators who reform traditional madrasas, and Party cadres as they reconcile Islamic and socialist laws in the course of the everyday.

Erie places his study within the established field of “law and society,” carefully elucidating the categories used in China – such as jiaofa (religious law) and xiguanfa (customary law), and the changing relationship between state and non-state legal systems under Qing, Republican, and Communist rule. ‘My use of “law” is shorthand for what would otherwise be an enumeration (ie, “law” plus “ethics” plus “morals” plus “customs”)’ (18).

The substantive chapters of China and Islam focus on areas of potential contradiction and disorder, narrating both structural, institutional histories and personal tales of community life and conflict resolution.

China has more than 23 million Muslims. The Party-State identified ten distinct Muslim ethnic groups as part of its nation-building efforts in the 1950s. In contemporary China, the largest group is Hui, of whom there are over 10 million, (10,586,087) followed by Uyghurs, (10,069,346). Unlike Uyghurs, Hui are geographically dispersed throughout China. Hui identify as the descendants of the Persian and Arab merchants, migrants, and envoys who entered China beginning in Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).

However, they are concentrated in Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and eastern Xinjiang. Even though Hui have a much longer history of interaction and intermarriage with the majority Han Chinese, they face considerable discrimination and confined to a second-class citizenship in China.

Hui Muslims have adopted a ‘flexible and tolerant form of Islamic law in regard to interactions with the Han majority. From their daily prayer obligations to disposing of real property and marrying in accordance with scripture, Hui work through and around both the rules of the Party and those of the state.’ (p348-349)

Erie has not focussed on the Turkic-speaking Muslims (Uyghurs) of Xinjiang, maybe because of the sensitivity of the region which has been suppressed by the Government. However, even to Muslims across other parts of the country, ‘to be Muslim in post-2009 China is to be a suspect class. Such adaptability has enabled them to integrate into China’s markets and state bureaucracies. ’ (p15)

The book is very well researched and insightful account of Hui Muslims and challenges they face practising Islam and Islamic law in China.

Abdul Adil

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