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Sunday, 17 August 2008 18:06


Chinese Muslims Rediscovering Islam

WASHINGTON - Chinese Muslims, repressed and brutalized by decades of Communist rule, are re-igniting an un-faltered commitment to Islam.

Even though repression continues, economic reforms and the relative easing of draconian Chinese laws have brought hope to the community. Seizing the opportunity, Chinese Muslims, and more especially the young, have shown a growing interest in becoming proficient in Islamic and Arabic studies.

Over 23,000 Muslims are enrolled in China's ten leading Islamic institutes and mosques according to Ma Yunfu, vice-president of the Islamic Association of China.

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has the distinction of being the home to the largest Muslim community in China, now has 3000 students training to be imams. Another 5,000 Manla, or young Islamic disciples, are studying Arabic and Islamic doctrine part time.

In addition, the Nigxia Economic Institute, located in the provincial capital of Nigxia, is now offering 3-4 year Arabic courses and special training classes. Nigxia University also opened an Arabic language department this year.

Ningxia has 1.78 million Muslims, making up one third of the province's total population. Several private schools teaching Islamic doctrine and Arabic language have also sprouted throughout China's western provinces.

Tian Xiping, a young Muslim from Tongxin County, the largest Muslim community in Ninxia told the People's Daily newspaper that, "systematic study of Arabic enables me to have a good command of Islam[ic] instructions and religious terms. I plan to advance my study abroad after graduation from the Ningxia Islamic Institute. "

Ma Jing, a female student, also from Tongxin county, who attends an Arabic school said, "I'd like to learn Arabic and expect to become an Arabic translator in future. As an Islamic intellectual, it is a must to study religious theory as well as commanding professional skills."

Over 300 students have graduated so far from Ma Jing's school and more than 20 have continued their higher studies in the Sudan, Yemen, Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Southwestern Yunan Province, with a total Muslim population of 600,000 belonging to Hui ethnic group, has also seen a surge in youngsters' enthusiasm to learn Islamic studies and Arabic. Most of its 800 mosques now have attached Arabic schools catering to the growing interests of thousands of students.

Ma Zeiqu, a 16-year-old female student in Juming Village religiously attends her Arabic classes at a neighboring mosque. Such is her enthusiasm that she has never missed a single class despite heavy rains and snow.

Economic reforms in China have also led to increased trade with the Middle East, sparking an enormous demand for translators proficient in the Arabic language.

According to An Chunren, dean of the Foreign Language Department under the Ningxia University, "There is an urgent need to train a huge number of professionals in the fields of trade, foreign affairs, tourism and enterprise management along with increasing economic and trade contacts with Arab countries."

According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims. Most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces. Smaller Muslim communities can also be found throughout interior China.

Islam came to China via Muslim businessman during the Tang Dynasty. There have also been reports of companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) coming to China.

Against this tide of Islamic resurgence in China, the regime, however, has unleashed a brutal crackdown against Islamist freedom fighters in Xinjiang province fighting for a separate homeland.

China Speaks Arabic

BEIJING The Arabic language, difficult as it is, is making inroads in China with an ever-increasing number of people developing an appetite to learn the language.

The number of Chinese students enrolling in Arabic classes is doubling," Mohamed Al-Sawi, professor of Arabic at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told IslamOnline.net.

"Studying Arabic is no longer the choice of Chinese civil servants."

The first Arabic language department was opened at the Beijing Foreign Affairs University in 1958.

At the time, only diplomats and government officials showed interest in studying Arabic.

"Over the past five years several universities have join in opening Arabic language departments," notes Professor Sawi.

"We now have no less than 20 state universalities teaching Arabic, not to mention tens of institutes and private centers."

Leo John Ma is the director of one such private language institute.

"The demand on learning Arabic is really high," he told IOL.

"The number of those studying Arabic in our institute has more than doubled over the past three years."

Professor Sawi regrets that Arab countries are not capitalizing on this appetite for studying Arabic.

He recalled that just Egypt has been keen on offering Arabic courses in China since the 1960s.

"Only recently, Yemen and Algeria joined the efforts, offering annual grants for Chinese to learn Arabic."

New Trend

Traditionally, only diplomats and government officials were interested in learning Arabic.

The trend changed over the past few years.

"Now, many Chinese companies are investing and operating in the Arab world," notes Ma, the language institute director.

"They are hungry for Chinese who can speak Arabic."

In 2006, China's exports to Arab countries reached $31 billion, while imports amounted to $34 billion.

Resource-hungry China is working hard to secure long-term contracts with Arab countries for oil, gas and minerals to fuel its booming economy.

Chinese Muslims who speak Arabic can also land well-paid jobs in the booming seaboard provinces, including Yiwu, a trading hub in southeastern Zhejiang province whose rock-bottom prices draw swarms of buyers from across the globe.

Interpreters earned 3,000 yuan ($1= 7.953 Yuan) a month, rising to 10,000 or above -- more than they could earn in a year in his poor villages.

According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai regions and provinces.

Muslim Uighurs, who live mainly in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, have long complained of an official crackdown and discrimination.

China Uses Muslims to Woo Partners

BEIJING Chinese authorities are loosening restrictions on a section of its 20-million Muslim minority in an effort to win hearts in the Middle East, where it seeks to strengthen trade and oil ties.

"When I graduated from high school, in 1986, the situation was very difficult," a woman running an Islamic girls school in Tongxin, a Hui Muslim-majority county in Ningxia, told Reuters.

"Now the religious policies are more relaxed. We can go ahead without fear," she added, refusing to be named.

Hui Muslims are estimated at nearly 10 million of China's sizable Muslim minority of 20 millions.

With a heritage traced back to the Middle East and Central Asia, Hui Muslims are enjoying more religious freedom in the atheist country.

Mosques devastated in the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution in Tongxin have been rebuilt with surprising splendor for one of the country's poorest regions.

More Chinese Muslims are fulfilling their dreams of learning about their faith as the government relaxes controls over Islam.

Hai, a 25-year-old Hui Muslim, goes to the mosque in Beijing every day to pray as he did growing up in the northwestern Chinese region of Ningxia.

"Not everyone was like that but my family was, and now more and more people are. Our religion is developing very quickly," said Hai, who declined to give his full name.

According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces.

Smaller Muslim communities can also be found throughout interior China.

Islam came to China via Muslim businessman during the era of the Tang Dynasty.

There have also been reports of companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) coming to China.

Official Leniency Hui Muslims are also allowed to building schools in their inhabited areas.

"The national policies are opening up and as long as you don't go against the country's religious policies and regulations, you can freely progress," said the Muslim woman who has 68 students in her school.

Most of her students wear hijab, although it is rare to see women wearing the Islamic headdress in the area.

Official leniency vis-à-vis Hui Muslims is seen as a gesture for the community in return for shying away from any political engagement.

"They're banking on the fact that China's Muslims are aware of the limits and the rules and they know how to play the game," said Dru Gladney, an expert at Pomona College in California.

For now, it's a compromise that seems to be working.

This official stance contradicts the crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, who live mainly in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

International human rights organizations have chided the Chinese government in several reports for its poor human rights record in predominantly Muslim regions, particularly Xinjiang.

Human Rights Watch has said in a recent report that Chinese policy in Xinjiang "denies Uighurs religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression."

Win Hearts

Easing restrictions on the Hui Muslim community is seen as part of efforts by Beijing to win hearts of Muslim Mideast oil-rich countries.

"The relationship with the Muslim Hui has always been a stake of international diplomacy, part of a charm offensive by China," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and a specialist on China's Muslims.

"This to a certain extent explains why the authorities have been more lenient."

The Asian economic giant has been quietly moving onto traditional US turf in the Middle East.

Its trade ties with Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is expected to hit $20 billion for 2006, a 30 percent rise from the previous year.

Beijing has also boosted ties with other Gulf Cooperation Council members, including oil producers Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

China National Offshore Oil Co. (CNOOC) is in talks with Qatar for liquefied natural gas supplies.

PetroChina is also studying plans with Kuwait to build a refinery and petrochemical complex in South China, and the state oil firm Saudi Aramco is negotiating refinery joint ventures in China.

"Trade relations between China and the GCC countries are expected to grow and go beyond the current $32 billion dollar estimate that they reached in 2005 in various commodities and services," said Rochdi Younsi, Middle East and Africa analyst of the Eurasia Group in London.

From Pork to Islam

BEIJING It was around 10:00 a.m. Beijing time, nearly three hours to the Friday prayer, when the young man approached the mosque.

Jang stood for sometime outside at the mosque's doorstep hesitant to step in, especially with a "Muslims Only" sign in Chinese, English and Arabic attached to the gate.

He finally defeated a whiff of indecision and walked into the Muslim place of worship.

"Can we help you?" asked the mosque's leading imam.

"I want to become a Muslim," answered Jang.

The smiling imam welcomed him and accompanied him to the Islamic Society office, attached to the mosque.

They offered Jang three booklets on Islam to know more about the faith he wants to embrace.

To their surprise, the young man said he not only read the booklets but also many other books on the Muslim faith.

Jang engaged the imams in a discussion that proved to them he knew what he was about to do.

One imam walked him into Islam with the pronouncement of the Shahadah; testifying that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is His Messenger.

Journey to Islam

Jang, who changed his name to Selim, sat down with IslamOnline.net after the ceremony to talk about his journey to Islam.

"It all started with pork," he said with a smile.

Islam's dietary habits, including the prohibition of pork, led a curious Jang to read about the Muslim faith.

"I perused medical journals and devoured books for an answer."

Islam considers pigs unclean because they are omnivorous, not discerning between meat or vegetation in their natural dietary habits unlike cows and sheep for instance, which eat only plants.

Some scientists say eating pork can cause no less than seventy different types of diseases.

"I found the same conclusion in traditional Chinese medicine, which does not recommend eating pork and designated it as the most harmful and least healthy meat," said Selim.

A jubilant Selim joined an extended family of more than 30 million Muslims in China, according to official data.

Islam came to China via Muslim businessman during the era of the Tang Dynasty 1300 years ago.

There have also been reports of companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) coming to China.