Chinese Muslims & Shari’a


A review of The Prophet and the Party: Shari’a and Sectarianism in China’s Little Mecca, by Matthew Erie.

Since the People’s Republic reopened its doors to foreign researchers in the 1980s, China studies has kept up a small but sustained interest in Chinese Muslims (the “Hui”). Although the Hui and Islam may exist on the margins of Chinese society, scholarship on the Chinese Muslim experience has repeatedly demonstrated that the study of the Hui can yield theoretical insights that profoundly reshape the broader field of China studies. Pioneering studies by Dru Gladney, Jonathan Lipman, and Zvi Ben-dor Benite, to name just a few, have established the central place of Muslims in the tenuous construction of the “minzu paradigm” of ethnic relations in China and even the ongoing process of defining “China” and “Chineseness.” Matthew Erie’s recent dissertation addresses perhaps the most salient question yet to be addressed by these previous studies: What role does Islamic jurisprudence—shari’a—play in contemporary China? In answering this question, Erie provides us with not only a detailed ethnography of mosques and Muslim religious leaders (Ch. ahong) in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu province and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, but also a theoretically informed analysis of law that can serve as a framework for understanding the legal cultures of other minority ethnicities and liminal sectors of Chinese society.

Erie, who took time in the midst of his PhD studies to pursue a J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, conducted eighteen months of fieldwork in Gansu and Ningxia from 2009-2012. His primary research location was the “Bafang,” the densely-populated Muslim suburbs of the historic Sino-Tibetan border town of Hezhou, now known as Linxia city. A region of considerable Muslim settlement since as early as the Yuan dynasty, Hezhou took on additional significance for Chinese Muslims during the Qing dynasty when, in the wake of renewed contact with Central Asia and the Arabian peninsula, it became the birthplace of several successive waves of Sufi orders (Ch. menhuan) which sought to reform local Islam. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslims from the Bafang were again instrumental in the introduction and reinterpretation of intellectual trends circulating elsewhere in the Muslim world. Chinese members of the Chinese Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan) and Salafi movements continue to maintain an active presence in both Hezhou and the Middle East. Given the importance of Hezhou to contemporary Hui and the heightened sensitivity of the government of the People’s Republic to Islam and Muslim affairs since the Urumchi protests in the summer of 2009, it is remarkable that Erie was able to undertake any fieldwork at all. Yet Erie was able to conduct extensive interviews with Hezhou Hui, including the ahong of the thirty-four main mosques of the city, as well as organize small scale surveys of Hui attitudes towards Islamic law. The dissertation is also based on unpublished or limited circulation internal histories of the mosques, teaching schools (Ch. jiaopai), and Sufi orders that Erie was able to collect during the course of his research. In light of the reviewer’s own personal experience in Hezhou, it should be noted that such documents are very difficult to acquire since the PRC has largely suppressed the publication of such “sectarian” histories (for fear of fanning conflict between religious orders) and local Hui are reluctant to share such documents with outsiders both Chinese and foreign.

Erie begins by addressing the basic question of whether it is appropriate to even speak of “shari’a” in the context of the contemporary Hui experience. He answers in the affirmative and coins the expression “Han shari’a” to refer to what in practice is a continuum of subjective and historically contingent interpretations of Islamic “law” (Ch. fa). In his own words, Han shari’a is, “a recombinatory or patchwork practice of shari’a influenced by socialist law ‘from above’ and Chinese customary law ‘from below’” (p. 124). The phrase recalls the indigenous label “Han Kitab,” which Chinese Muslims have used since the early 19th century to refer to their own canon of Chinese-language treatises on Islam and Confucianism. For Erie, this label is designed to convey two observations: First, the extent to which Hui understandings of Islamic law have been influenced by the legal traditions of the non-Muslim Chinese—a process Erie describes with reference to the theory of creolization; and second, the degree to which both scholarly and government-produced descriptions of Hui society within China have sought to obliterate the Islamic orientation of Hui law by applying the secular label “Hui customary law” (Ch. xiguan fa). For Hezhou Hui, maintenance of the tenets of Han shari’a, Erie argues, are essential to preserving their sense of difference from the Han majority. Yet the dissertation also argues that debates over the correct interpretation of Han shari’a have been perhaps even more central to the production and maintenance of the complex sub-communities into which Hezhou Hui divide themselves: the various Sufi orders and teaching schools.

These observations lead to several further questions about Han shari’a: What does Islamic law mean to contemporary Hui? Who has authority to interpret shari’a? Does Islamic law conflict with the laws of the PRC or Han custom? How has the socialist state managed the legal authority of mosques, religious specialists (in particular, ahong), and other popular Islamic organizations? The attempt to provide an evaluation of these questions in a manner that does justice to the complexity and diversity of historical experiences within Hezhou has resulted in a substantial dissertation that consists of eleven chapters organized into three parts. Part 1 provides an overview of the history of Hezhou and the origins of the Sufi orders, the Chinese Ikhwan, the Salafiyya, and the unaffiliated “traditional” mosque-based communities (Ch. gedimu). Erie’s extensive summary (chapters 1 and 2) adds considerably to prior scholarship on the history of northwest China as a result of his impressive use of unpublished histories from within the Muslim communities of Hezhou and because it carries the narrative past 1949 and through the reform era (1979-2013). Chapter 3 turns the reader’s attention towards the history of Han shari’a. Here, Erie introduces us to the core texts that have influenced the legal culture of Chinese Muslims: the Qur’an, the Hadith, but also the Sharh al-Wiqāya (Ch. weigaye/weidaojing), a fourteenth-century treatise on shari’a from Central Asia. Erie finds that the twentieth-century Chinese translation of this latter source is a nearly ubiquitous presence in mosque libraries in Hezhou and across the northwest. This work is significant, Erie argues, because Chinese Muslims have not developed their own written tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, but instead have used translations of Arabic or Persian-language jurisprudence. Yet, as Erie discusses in Chapter 4, despite attempts to implement shari’a on the basis of imported legal traditions, Hui legal culture reflects the sometimes intentional yet often unconscious “creolization” of Han customary law. By “creolization,” Erie refers to the ways in which aspects of Han culture have been reinterpreted, relabeled, and legitimized in Han Shari’a. By offering this analysis, Erie contributes to the literature on legal pluralism, which he argues has often over-emphasized the distinctiveness of the legal traditions that operate within a single field (pp. 17-18, 191-192).

Part 2, “Substantive Law,” analyzes how contemporary Hui interpret Han shari’a in the fields of ritual purity and social relations. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the divergent interpretations of “purity” (Ar. tahāra) and worship among the Sufi orders and teaching schools. In these two chapters Erie puts his recent ethnographic observations to work on a question that has bedeviled non-Muslims outsiders since the 1780s: What explains the seemingly intractable and often violent disputes between Muslim groups in Gansu over ritual practice? On the basis of observations of how Hui in Hezhou think about issues such as the pork taboo, the valorization of sheep and mutton, a 2010 riot over a karaoke parlor, burial rituals, and graveyard etiquette, Erie argues that ritual orthopraxis is important to Hui because it sustains their uniqueness in the context of a majority non-Muslim Han society. He also makes the original observation that much of the heightened emphasis on ritual practice results from the desire of Sufi orders and the teaching schools to maintain their memberships and boundaries in a social environment that is much more fluid than their leaders care to admit. Under the strain of constant competition for adherents and riven with doubts about the authenticity and correctness of their faith in a land so distant from the Muslim heartlands, maintaining allegiance becomes a matter of “feverish” importance (pp. 279-280, 283). Chapters 7, 8, and 9 focus on social relations between men and women. Erie describes how local Hui understand the relationship between religious laws regarding courtship, marriage, divorce, and polygamy and the laws of the socialist state. Despite the fact that both indigenous interpretations of shari’a and the PRC’s laws on marriage offer certain protections to women, Erie argues that the exercise of these laws by ahong and PRC legal authorities presents women with a “doubled patriarchy” in which they face marginalization and discrimination at the hands of both Han shari’a and PRC courts (pp. 417-418). These chapters contain valuable transcripts of Hui women recounting their experiences with both religious and secular authorities.

In Part 3, “Procedural Law,” Erie examines in more detail the relationship between Hui ahong, shaykhs, and other Hui community leaders and the contemporary Chinese state. In Chapter 10, Erie argues that through state-affiliated and supervised organizations such as the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, State Administration for Religious Affairs, and national to county-level Islamic Associations, the ahong and other Muslim authorities have been transformed into an “unofficial bureaucracy” (pp. 451, 492). On issues as dissimilar as traffic accidents and inheritance disputes, Erie notes how officials in Hezhou informally and discretely solicit the aid of local ahong to mediate a range of conflicts. Chapter 11 contends that the participation of Hui religious elites in state-tolerated mediation helps produce a “spectacle of law” that helps the party-state legitimize its claims of ethnic/minzu autonomy yet simultaneously remind the Hui that the state and Party remain the ultimate source of legal authority (p. 500). Erie writes that his ahong interlocutors rarely forget that they have no formal mechanisms for enforcing Han shari’a and that they exercise their authority at the pleasure of the state. Religious law (or “custom”) must never violate state law.

A recurring image from the dissertation is that of mosque offices decorated with parallel displays of state laws and Qur’anic verses. Perhaps the greatest strength of “The Prophet and the Party” is its observation that for many Hui in Hezhou and elsewhere in northwest China, there is no inherent conflict between their twinned submission to state law and Han shari’a as interpreted by their religious order (pp. 147-148, 511). Erie’s efforts to explain this paradox should be of interest not only to students and scholars of Islam and Muslim minorities, but to anyone who seeks to understand the durability of the People’s Republic across the complex human and historical terrain of China.

Max Oidtmann
Assistant Professor of History
School of Foreign Service, Qatar
Georgetown University

Primary Sources
On-site interviews in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Lanzhou City, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region
Historical materials held by Linxia City Library (In Dong Gongguan), Linxia Prefectural Library, Linxia City Archives, and Gansu Provincial Library
Historical publications and reports held by the Northwest Minority Research Center Materials Room, Lanzhou University
Archives and documents from the Islamic Resources Center, Lanzhou City
Pickens Collection, Harvard-Yenching Library

Dissertation Information
Cornell University. 2013. 657 pp. Primary Advisor: Steven P. Sangren

Image: Photograph by Matthew S. Erie.

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