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Decoding China: How Beijing is Sinicizing Islam

Dang Yuan
June 28, 2024

China's rulers have always tightly controlled matters of faith, and today the country exerts tight control over the practice of Islam.

The Grand Mosque in Xian
Image: DW

"Salam Aleikum," I greeted the gentleman at the cash desk of the Grand Mosque in the central Chinese city of Xian. "Wa aleikum assalam!" he greeted back in Arabic. "You are a Muslim. Free entry!" he said, inviting me in.

No, I'm not a Muslim. I just wanted to visit the old mosque. It is now a tourist attraction in the city, a former capital of China, known as "Chang'an," or "Eternal Peace" in English.

Non-Muslims visiting the mosque need to pay the equivalent of €5 to enter the place of worship, a hefty entrance fee in Xian.

The man at the cash desk was, nevertheless, delighted with my greeting in Arabic, as other domestic tourists apparently only greet him in Chinese.

First mosque in the 7th century

Xian is the end point of the ancient Silk Road. Since the 7th century — during the Tang Dynasty — the city had witnessed intensive international exchanges. The Tang ruler commissioned the monk Xuanzang to bring Mahayana Buddhist texts from India to China and translate them from Sanskrit into Chinese. Buddhism, like Islam, is an import to China.

The Grand Mosque in Xian
The compulsion to renovate and redesign mosques shows how freedom of religion is massively restricted in ChinaImage: DW

The first champions of the Muslim faith reached China by sea. Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, met the Tang emperor in 651 and received an imperial concession to build the first mosque in the country.

The Great Mosque of Xian, not far from the imperial residence, is also said to have been built around this time.  

Arab traders also came to the city from the west via Muslim-influenced Central Asia.

They brought luxury goods and foreign ideas with them. Today, the mosque is located next to a bazaar in the middle of the Muslim quarter.

Those in power control religion

Around 17 million Muslims currently live in China, according to the Washington-based think tank Pew Research. Most of them are Shiites. The largest Muslim communities are those of the Hui and the Uyghurs, each with just under eight million people.

The Grand Mosque in Xian
A Hui Muslim waits outside the Grand Mosque in Xian for the evening prayerImage: DW

Like the Christian churches, Muslims in China are not allowed to maintain direct contacts with foreign countries. "Only the 'patriotic' religious associations are allowed to become legally active within their temples, churches, mosques and registered meeting places, in accordance with detailed administrative regulations. To do so, they must adapt to the socialist state," writes the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.

The last big mosque in China that still retained Arabic-style features lost its domes in February, the British daily The Guardian reported. The minarets of the mosque in Shadian in the southwestern province of Yunnan were also radically altered to a Chinese architectural style.

"In Chinese history, there have been many emperors and statesmen who focused on controlling and ruling the people. That's why they put all religions under state supervision," said historian and philosopher Qin Guoshang.

"They took measures to weaken the influence of divine power by suppressing heretical ideas and beliefs, introducing state-controlled religions and restricting religious activities." It is no different in China today, Qin added.

Islam yes, but controlled

The mosque in Xian strikes a distinct visual appearance, marking it apart from traditional Islamic architecture.

Its defining element — the minaret — is designed like a pagoda. The prayer hall also follows the traditional Chinese style.

China peddles alternative reality in Xinjiang

The compulsion to renovate and redesign mosques shows how freedom of religion is massively restricted in China.

In Chinese history, the demand for adaptation was always a political requirement.

According to a popular saying, for instance, nine out of 10 Huis have the surname "Ma."

The surname is common in China and goes back to the Prophet Muhammad.

For the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), the surname Mu Han Mu De (Muhammad) was not Chinese enough.

He decreed that people of other faiths had to adopt a Chinese surname, marry locals and renounce their own traditional customs and costumes. This meant that the Hui had to shorten their surname and bow to imperial power.

Adaptation of the Hui, humiliation of the Uyghurs

People have to confine and tailor their belief systems to what the state allows — like the Huis I met in Xian do. The Hui are currently one of the 56 officially recognized ethnic nationalities.or groups in China, but they do not differ significantly from the majority Han Chinese.

Their identity factor, their faith, hasn't led to exclusion. The Hui mostly have friendly relations with Han Chinese, wrote Frauke Drewes, who researched Islam in China at the German University of Münster until 2015.

"It can be assumed that the Hui are very close to the Han majority, closer than their co-religionists of other nationalities."

The Grand Mosque in Xian
The defining element of the Xian mosque — the minaret — is designed like a pagodaImage: DW

But Uyghurs, the other large Muslim group in China, are subjected to "systematic humiliation, punishment and torture," says Amnesty International.

Beijing had set up so-called vocational training centers in the far-western Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where most of the Uyghurs live, and claimed to give the Muslim minority access to professional training.

They learn Chinese and communist ideology in these facilities, which are internationally regarded as internment camps. This is an attempt to eradicate religious identity, human rights organizations criticized.

The Xinjiang regional government reported in 2019 that all "vocational students" had now "graduated" and were therefore released.

"However, this does not mean an end to the oppression of Uyghurs," writes sinologist Björn Alpermann from the University of Würzburg for the German Federal Agency for Civic Education.

Beijing continues to "strive for the assimilation of the minoritized ethnic groups and is committing cultural genocide" in Xinjiang, he said, adding that the repression is invisible today.

"The roadblocks have been replaced by surveillance cameras. The aim is still to assimilate the minoritized ethnic groups into the Han Chinese and to control them in all areas of life."

According to the last census, there are about 11.6 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang, alongside almost 11 million Han Chinese.

The Grand Mosque in Xian
Like the Christian churches, mosques in China are not allowed to maintain direct contacts with foreign countriesImage: DW

Faith not socially acceptable

Many Uyghurs have turned their backs on their home province. They find better-paid jobs, mostly in Muslim restaurants, in China's booming metropolitan areas.

They often live their faith underground.

During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, I met a waitress from Xinjiang in Beijing's Sanlitun bar district.

In her noodle soup restaurant, there was a sign on the wall in Chinese: "Consumption of food you have brought yourself forbidden! No pork allowed!"

It was three days before Eid. I wanted to find out from her when the sun would set and Muslims would be allowed to eat. She looked at me, irritated at first, and then at her iPhone. Then she whispered in my ear: "Shh, please don't disturb other guests! There are still 13 minutes until sunset."

For the Han majority, the Chinese term "Zhai Yue," the month of fasting, is not automatically associated with abstaining from food and drink. "Yue" means month. And in a religious sense, "Zhai" superficially means "vegetarian food for Buddhists and Taoists."

This article was originally written in German.

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.