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Islamic Education in China
Written by Jackie Armijo
        Over the last twenty years a wide range of Islamic educational opportunities have been 
developed to meet the needs of China's 20 million plus Muslim population. In addition to 
mosque schools, government Islamic colleges, and independent Islamic colleges, a growing 
number of students have gone overseas to continue their studies at international Islamic 
universities in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and Malaysia.
        Girls' class in a village classroom building in central Yunnan. The lesson on the board is a 
verse from the Qur'an. Photo: Jackie Armijo Islamic Education in China: Rebuilding Communities 
and Expanding Local and International Networks.
      Jackie Armijo is an Assistant Professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department 
of Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. She has lived in China for more than 
seven years, two years in Beijing (1981 - 1983) and five years in Kunming, Yunnan (1993 - 1998) 
where she carried out her dissertation research on the early history of Islam in southwest China. 
After completing her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1997, she chose to remain in China working as a 
consultant for different international NGOs, and began carrying out research on the revival of Islamic 
education. Her teaching and research interests include gender and Islam, the minority peoples of 
China, and the comparative study of Muslim minority communities. 
She can be reached at This email address is being protected from 
spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it. At a time of rapid economic development 
and growing social unrest, and as income disparities escalate and government social welfare 
benefits disappear, increasing numbers of Chinese are seeking an ideology or faith that can 
help them through unsettling times. While some look to new belief systems which offer alternatives 
to the state-sponsored ideologies (which have been mostly discredited over the past two decades), 
others are returning to a faith that has survived for over 1,300 years in China, through periods of 
isolation, state persecution and state support: Islam. The ability of Islam to not only survive, but thrive, 
within a cultural civilization renowned for its ability to absorb and transform other peoples 
and cultures it has encountered, is one of the most intriguing chapters in both Islamic and Chinese 
histories, and yet one that still largely remains overlooked by both fields of study.
      Over the past twenty years, throughout all of China (except for Xinjiang1), mosques have 
organized classes in Arabic and Islamic studies for all members of their community, from three-year 
olds in pre-school programs, to eighty-year old retirees determined to study the Qur'an and learn 
about their faith in their twilight years. In addition to government-run Islamic colleges, communities 
have also established independent schools.
2             According to government estimates there are now 35,000 mosques in China, 45,000 
Muslim teachers, and 24,000 students studying in Islamic schools.
3             More recently, increasing numbers of Chinese Muslim students have chosen to go abroad 
to continue their Islamic studies. At present the most popular destinations are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, 
Syria, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia, but there are also students who have traveled to Turkey, Sudan, 
Libya, and Kuwait.
4             As more and more students complete their studies in China, and those studying overseas 
return, there are ever more qualified teachers available to establish schools in areas where Islam has 
not been taught for decades, if not generations.
      Based on dozens of interviews carried out between 2005 and 2006, with Chinese Muslim students 
and leaders throughout China, as well as those studying in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and 
Pakistan, this article argues that the revival of Islamic education has not resulted in the widespread 
radicalization of Muslims in China. Instead, the revival of Islamic education has offered Muslims the 
opportunity to rebuild their faith and their religious institutions in the aftermath of the state-sponsored 
attacks on Islam during the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976). It has also allowed Muslims throughout 
China, even in the most remote villages, to gain access to information about issues facing not only 
Muslims in nearby villages, but also those in distant regions of China, as well as the world.
      This article focuses on four main characteristics of the revival of Islamic education in China: the 
role of the state in supporting government Islamic education; the rebuilding of mosques and their role 
as centers of community religious activity; the active role of women in promoting Islamic education; 
and the potential impact of increasing numbers of Chinese Muslim students seeking to continue their 
Islamic education at international centers of Islamic learning overseas.
      China's Muslim population is conservatively estimated at 20 million, and although there are 
Muslims living in every region of China, the highest concentrations are found in the northwest 
provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia, with significant populations also found throughout 
Yunnan province in southwest China and Henan Province in central China. Of China's 55 officially 
recognized minority peoples, ten are predominately Muslim.
5             The Hui and Uighur are the largest groups, followed by the Kazak, Dongxiang, Kirghiz, Salar, 
Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar. Except for the Hui, these other groups are based in northwest China, 
and most have their own Turkic-related language, and unique culture.
      The Hui are the largest and most geographically dispersed group of Muslims in China. They are 
also the most linguistically and culturally assimilated with the mainstream of their respective areas. 
So although the majority live near or amongst Han Chinese, speak Chinese as their mother tongue 
and have adopted many Han cultural practices, there are those who live among other minority peoples 
such as the Tibetans, Dai, and Bai, and speak those languages as their mother language and have 
adopted many of their cultural customs. Regardless of where they live now in China, most Hui originally 
descended from Western and Central Asia Muslims who began migrating to China in the early years 
of the Tang dynasty (618 - 907). In fact, there were Muslims in China from the earliest days of Islam, 
as Arabs and Persian traders had been traveling back and forth to China for centuries before the 
advent of Islam. One of the most famous hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad, "Seek 
knowledge, even unto China" (utlub al 'ilm was law fi al-Sin) is said to reflect both the importance 
of pursuing an education at all costs, and also the early Muslims' understanding of the importance 
of China, despite its distance.
      It was not until the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1274 - 1368), however, that large numbers of Muslims 
settled in China. The Mongols recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Muslims from 
Western and Central Asia to help them administer their rapidly expanding empire. In addition to 
craftsmen, artists, architects, engineers, medical doctors and astronomers, the Mongols also brought 
administrators and officials who were posted to government positions throughout China. These men 
married local women, and were able to pass on their faith and religious practice for generation upon 
generation, over the centuries. The Mongol Yuan dynasty was then followed by the Ming dynasty 
(1368 - 1644), when once again Han Chinese ruled China. 
Although all the foreigners who had settled in China during the Yuan dynasty were allowed to remain, 
lingering resentment over the influence of "barbarians" resulted in a series of laws requiring all 
residents to adopt certain traditional Chinese cultural practices, including wearing Chinese clothes, 
speaking Chinese, and adopting Chinese names.
6             By the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), Muslims were so assimilated, that like local Chinese 
throughout the country, many rose up in revolt against local government malfeasance.
7       The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 saw a renewed interest on the part of Muslim 
communities in different regions of China to build both secular and religious schools.
8             These efforts lasted until the chaos brought on by the Civil War, and the Sino-Japanese war. 
During this period of unrest, the Communist Party appealed to the Chinese Muslims in the northwest 
for assistance. In return they were promised guarantees of religious freedom and a certain degree of 
autonomy. However, these promises did not last long, as several Muslim leaders and intellectuals 
were caught up in the Anti-rightist campaign, one of the first major political campaigns of post-
      During the Cultural Revolution the situation for the Muslims grew significantly worse, and all forms 
of religious practice were outlawed, including communal prayer, religious instruction, and religious 
Even traditional expressions such as the standard Muslim greeting as-salam alaikum (peace be 
upon you), or alhamdulilah (thanks be to God) were banned. As was the case with other religious 
leaders during this period, Muslim leaders were persecuted, jailed, and even killed. Although the 
Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it was not until the early 1980s that most Muslim communities in 
China were allowed to regain control of their mosques. Except for the mosque in Beijing, which 
continued to be used by the diplomats from Muslim countries for weekly prayer, all other mosques in 
China were taken over by local officials and most put to other uses. A common practice was to select 
a use most likely to offend Islamic sensibilities and defile sacred space, for example to use the 
courtyard to raise and slaughter pigs.
      In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, as mosques were repaired and rebuilt, they slowly 
regained their role as centers of Muslim communities. In addition, as a response to the chaos and 
targeted attacks they had just survived, Muslim communities throughout the country immediately set 
about organizing informal classes on Islam.
State-sponsored Islamic Education
      The state was also well aware of the impact of their systematic efforts to undermine religion, 
and in the case of Islam, sought to redress some of the damage by establishing Islamic colleges 
throughout the country to offer formal training for imams (known as ahong in Chinese, from the 
Persian akhund). In all, some ten colleges were established in different cities in China to serve the 
needs of distinct regions.
9             In the early years these colleges were fully funded by the state and provided students with 
modest stipends. In addition to offering four-year programs that included instruction in Arabic, 
Qur'an, Hadith, Islamic law, Chinese language, and Chinese history, these colleges also offer 
three-month intensive "refresher" courses for imams. By acting quickly to establish comprehensive 
Islamic studies colleges, the government was able to both begin to rebuild that which they had helped 
destroy, but they also were able to have a strong influence in how Islam, or at least the study of Islam, 
was reconstituted in China. Although most Muslims appreciated these efforts, and continue to do so 
even to this day, there are others who worry that these schools are not sufficiently independent. 
The government strictly controls which teachers are hired to teach, which students are selected, 
and the content of the courses taught. Despite these reservations, many of the most respected 
older scholars of Islam have accepted teaching positions in these schools, and many of the most 
outstanding young students have chosen to study there. Four years after they were established, 
it was the graduates of these schools who were the first Chinese Muslims in over fifty years to go 
overseas to continue their Islamic studies.
      In recent years, many of the students who have completed their studies abroad and returned to 
China have taken up positions as teachers (of course after being vetted by state authorities) in these 
colleges. Furthermore, although these schools, like all public schools in China, are now fee-paying, 
the tuition is relatively low, and for many poorer Muslim families, especially in rural areas, these 
schools offer an important alternative to more expensive standard schools. Many of these 
schools now also offer classes in English and computer studies.
Private Islamic Colleges
      Perhaps as a consequence of the lingering reservations about the government-run Islamic 
colleges, beginning in the late 1980s different communities began to establish independent 
Islamic colleges. One of the earliest, and most respected of these schools was set up in a 
village outside Dali, in western Yunnan province. This school was the brainchild of several 
retired Hui schoolteachers. Opened in 1991, its very first class included students from every 
region of China; from Xinjiang in the northwest to Hainan Island, off China's southeast coast. 
Indeed, that this small school in a relatively remote part of China was able to attract students 
from such a wide-range of places so quickly speaks to the complex networks of communication 
linking Muslim communities throughout China. Many of these schools also have their own websites.
      Although there was a government-run Islamic college in the provincial capital Kunming, 
these teachers had been able to convince authorities of an additional need for Islamic studies 
schools. The courses offered included Arabic, Chinese, and the traditional Islamic Studies 
courses; with English and computer classes added later. The first group of students included 
many outstanding students, who upon graduation continued their studies overseas, or became 
teachers at the school. Most, however, were sent to teach in villages needing teachers. 
In order to place the teachers, the head of the school would travel to different villages to find 
out which were in need of teachers and what local conditions were like. He would then match 
students who were about to graduate with specific communities. Before graduation they would 
be sent off for a one-month trial teaching assignment to see if they would be suitable for a two-year 
      The efforts the head of the school made to locate appropriate teaching assignments for his 
students appeared to have been quite successful. While some returned to their home villages 
and towns, many were assigned positions quite far away. In one particular village, two days travel 
from the school, I met two young women who were teaching at a large mosque-based school. 
One had just finished her studies at the Dali independent Islamic college, and the other was just 
completing her first two-year teaching assignment. 
Although they were living far from home, they were extremely enthusiastic about their teaching 
and looking forward to new challenges. The teacher trainee was just finishing up her one-month 
practicum, had settled in quite well and was looking forward to starting her two-year teaching 
assignment there in the fall. The teacher who had just finished her two-year assignment also 
spoke enthusiastically about her experience in the village, but felt strongly that it was time for 
her to return to her home village, which she knew desperately needed a teacher. I later traveled 
to her home village and found that it was indeed one of the poorest I had ever seen. Its mosque 
was in a state of disrepair, with Cultural Revolution slogans still visible on the walls, and little 
evidence of any active community religious activities. Two years teaching in a community with 
a strong commitment to reviving religious knowledge and practice was no doubt exactly the kind 
of training she needed before returning home.
      There are dozens of these independent Islamic colleges throughout China, mostly established 
in the 1990s, and according to several informants, the government has not recently allowed any 
new ones to be established. Some are co-educational, some for men only, and some for women 
only. They play a crucial role in the development of local Muslim societies as they are independent, 
supported by local communities, and developed with the needs of the community in mind. Some 
have argued that more so than the government-run Islamic colleges, and even the famous foreign 
Islamic colleges, these schools offer the best training for teachers and imams. For in addition to 
receiving advanced training in Islamic studies, students also learn about the Muslim communities 
in which they live, their unique histories, customs, and values.
      Another important role played by these schools is attracting students from distant regions 
of China. Both a school in Inner Mongolia and in Henan may equally attract a diverse student 
body from Xinjiang, Shanghai, Guizhou, and Tibet. These students bring to their school their own 
life experiences as well as the experiences of their communities back home, so that during their 
studies, not only do they learn a tremendous amount about the communities in which they live, 
they bring that knowledge back to their home village upon completing their studies. In addition, 
I have met many teachers from different regions of China who met and married while in school. 
These relationships serve to further develop ties between Muslim communities scattered across 
Mosque-based Education
      Mosque based education, known as jingtang jiaoyu (education in the hall of the classics) is the 
most common form of Islamic education, and is found throughout all regions of China (except for 
Xinjiang), in both large cities and small villages. Classes are offered for children of all ages, adults, 
and the elderly. However, for school-age children, classes are only offered during times when regular 
school is not in session, for example in the early morning, late afternoon, or during summer vacation. 
The government maintains strict control over the curriculum in state schools and seeks to maintain 
uniform content. Thus, although schools in areas with predominantly minority populations might have 
some classes in their native language during the first few years of school, they are not allowed to 
offer classes that cover their own history and culture.
      These mosque-based schools are extraordinary in their range of size, condition, and quality 
of instruction. Some are brand-new multi-storied classroom buildings equipped with computer labs, 
while others might consist of one small blackboard attached to the outside wall of a slowly crumbling 
mosque. The size and quality of the classrooms is mostly a reflection of the economic status of the 
village or community, as well as their commitment to Islam. The quality of instruction also depends 
on the communities' ability to attract good teachers. I have met teachers who have studied overseas, 
speak three languages fluently, and have extensive knowledge of Islam. 
However, in some extremely poor and remote villages, I have met others who seemed barely literate 
in Chinese, and appeared to have only a rudimentary understanding of Islam. Nevertheless, as 
increasing numbers of young people complete their Islamic studies, one can find qualified teachers 
in the most remote and poor regions. In some cases a teacher would have returned to their home 
village upon graduation, whereas in others there are graduates who volunteered to be sent wherever 
they were most needed.
      The students also represent a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Morning classes are 
usually held for the retired and elderly. In the late afternoon and evening, classes are offered for 
those who work full-time. In cities, on the weekends there might be classes for university students 
who take time away from their regular studies to learn Arabic and study Islam. Many mosque schools 
also offer pre-school programs for 3 - 6 year olds. These pre-schools are especially important in 
larger cities where once the children are enrolled in elementary school, they may find themselves 
one of only a handful of Muslims in their school.
      The impact of these schools on community life was made clear to me one afternoon as I visited 
a small village in Yunnan province. It appeared as quiet and ordinary as most Chinese villages on 
a late summer afternoon. Gradually as the sun began to set, dozens of children appeared in the 
mosque courtyard, and soon there were hundreds of children there, many having walked in from 
neighboring villages. The children were lively and high-spirited, and while most of the boys played 
outside until it was time for classes to begin, many of the students had gone up to their classrooms 
early to review for their classes and socialize with their friends. For Muslim communities who have 
lived through difficult and sometimes devastating times, it must mean a great deal to them to see 
their latest generation embrace the study of their faith so enthusiastically. The classroom building 
in this particular village was especially impressive as well. Five stories high and towering over the 
village buildings, it had been built by funds raised by several neighboring villages, and served the 
entire community.
      Of course I also heard stories from teachers of sullen teenage boys who had been sent off to 
study in Islamic schools by their parents in the hope that they would be kept busy for a few years, 
and steered away from the temptations created by lack of jobs and too much time on their hands. 
Many parents also seemed hopeful that Islamic studies training would provide a sufficient moral 
grounding for their sons to help guide them through the rest of their life.
      Nancheng Mosque in Kunming. This mosque is typical of recent efforts to eliminate all traditional 
Chinese architectural influences on mosques in China. Photo: Jackie Armijo
Studying overseas
      Beginning in the early 1990s, Chinese Muslim students were allowed to continue their studies 
overseas. The first group of students went to Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan. Shortly thereafter the 
Saudi government instituted a scholarship program that required students to first pass an Arabic 
exam before being eligible. A few years later, Iran also began a scholarship program, and there 
are now students also studying in Malaysia and Turkey. 
Overall the students who I interviewed who were most positive about their studies overseas were 
those who studied in Syria. They praised the quality of education they received, the generosity and 
friendliness of the Syrian people, and the relatively low cost of living. Since I first began interviewing 
students there in 1999, several have decided to settle down there, at least for a few years, and a 
few have even married Syrians.
      The students studying in Saudi Arabia enjoyed the most comprehensive scholarships. In 
addition to all education costs being covered and yearly plane tickets home for summer vacation 
provided they pass all their end of the year exams, they also received a generous monthly stipend 
to cover living expenses. Although several students who had not studied in Saudi Arabia told me 
they would never consider doing so, and several of those who studied there complained about 
adapting to life in the kingdom, most students who had been there spoke highly of the education 
they had received. 
Despite Saudi's reputation for promoting the most conservative and intolerant form of Islam (also 
known as Wahabi or Salafi Islam), most of the students and graduates with whom I spoke do not 
seem to have adopted such a world view. According to one graduate of Madina University, of all 
international Islamic universities it was the "best place to study  religion," for in addition to covering 
the four schools of law (see below), they also "read a wide variety of sources with the understanding 
that reading different interpretations of Islam would not interfere with their own faith." In addition to 
learning about some of the major differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, he also enjoyed 
learning about some of the great Muslim intellectual reformers of the early 20th century.
      However, there are graduates from the universities in Saudi Arabia who bring back with them 
a certain degree of intolerance regarding some of the local practices of Islam within China. 
As Islam evolved in China over the centuries, although the essential beliefs remained the same 
as in the rest of the Islamic world, slight variations did arise. For example, until recently most 
mosques in China were built in a style very similar to traditional Buddhist temples. Some students 
who have returned have led movements within communities to replace these "foreign style" mosques 
with more "authentic" Middle Eastern style mosques. As a result, dozens if not hundreds of mosques 
dating back centuries have been torn down and replaced with mosques deemed more "authentic". 
There are also slight differences in prayer times. Normally prayer times vary from day to day by one 
or two minutes expending on the rising and setting of the sun. However, in many areas of China the 
prayer times are set year-round and do not change day to day. Although these differences are minor, 
they have recently created rifts within communities. There are now several villages in Yunnan (and 
most likely other areas of China with significant numbers of Saudi graduates), mosques offer two 
different times for each of the five daily prayers. Although most people believe that these differences 
will work themselves out, there is some concern within the Muslim community that these differences 
will grow overtime. In one case, a returned student was extremely critical of local practices and went 
so far as to establish a new mosque.
      However, a student who had graduated from another Islamic university overseas used the famous 
Chinese saying about "a frog in a well" (jingdi zhi wa) to describe students he had met who had 
studied at Madina University in Saudi Arabia. The expression refers to people who are narrow-
      The students who studied in Iran were among the most satisfied, even though their studies and 
training proved to be more rigorous than that offered anywhere else. Not only do they have to study 
Persian, in addition to Arabic, they also have to study the Shi'a school of law, in addition to the four 
classic Sunni schools of law: Hanafi.
10,          Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi'i. 
Despite these additional burdens, all the graduates with whom I spoke were extremely positive 
about the comprehensive Islamic studies education they received and their experiences living in 
      Another popular destination for Chinese Muslim students is Pakistan. Although the U.S. has 
put a huge amount of pressure on the Pakistani government to close Islamic schools (madrasa), 
or at least forbid foreigners to study in them, many Chinese Muslim students have somehow 
managed to continue their studies there. In addition to speaking very highly of the quality of Islamic 
education provided there (Islamic universities are able to provide bachelor's, master's and even 
Ph.D.s in Islamic fields of study), the Chinese students also said it was one of the easiest countries 
to adapt to, the cost of living was very reasonable, and in the summer it was possible to travel back 
and forth overland which was extremely cost-efficient, allowing them to avoid expensive international 
flights. Although there are a handful of extremist religious schools in Pakistan, the majority provides 
mainstream Islamic studies programs, in addition to intensive short-term courses for imams.
11           None of the students I interviewed who had studied there expressed any extremist views.
Most students stay abroad for between five and eight years. Some go on for post-graduate degrees, 
while others choose to settle, at least temporarily, in the cities where they studied because they had 
such positive experiences while living there. These graduates supported themselves, and sometimes 
their families which had joined them from China, by working a variety of jobs. Everyone with whom I 
spoke planned to return to China eventually, but for some it was clearly in the distant future. I met 
one such couple who opened a small restaurant in the outskirts of Cairo near the new Al Azhar 
University campus. It had proved especially popular among the Al Azhar students from Southeast 
Asia who lived nearby, as well as the Chinese students. In Damascus several students managed an 
internet café near the university campus which attracted a wide range of international students. The 
range of languages heard as students conversed with friends back home through internet telephone 
programs was quite extraordinary. I also met students who taught martial arts and ones who provided 
traditional Chinese medical treatments. However, most ended up working as interpreters in local 
company's that had business dealings with China. As communities of Chinese students become 
more established, students have not only encouraged their friends, siblings, and former classmates 
to join them in their overseas studies, but several have even convinced their parents.
      There are also students who decide to study overseas for more practical reasons. As the 
Chinese government has abandoned its long-standing policy of fully funding college education, 
and passed the bulk of the expense onto students and their parents, some families have chosen 
to use the money they would have spent educating their child at home, to send them abroad. 
Islamic universities overseas are often a popular option as the expense is reasonable and it would 
be relatively easy to make contacts with other Chinese Muslims studying there, thus facilitating the 
      In conversations with Chinese Muslims who were studying, or had graduated from Islamic 
universities overseas, it became clear that these young people had learned a tremendous amount 
about the rest of the world and challenges faced by Muslims elsewhere. Those who return to China 
bring back an awareness of the world, and a strong foundation in Islamic studies. Although many 
hope to immediately take up positions as imams in their home towns and villages, it is often the 
case that the religious leaders of the community, although impressed with their foreign training, 
want to make sure the future imams have also acquired an understanding of their own communities 
and their needs.
      "Educate a man, educate an individual; educate a woman, educate a nation."
      Over the course of dozens of interviews with Chinese Muslim students and teachers, I was 
struck again and again by the extraordinarily active role played by women in all levels of the revival 
of Islamic education in China. Like the men, they attended public and private Islamic colleges in 
China, and also went overseas to study. But unlike the men, it seems that more women, immediately 
took up a teaching position upon completion of their studies. In addition, the women also made the 
effort to establish schools for girls, especially in the poorer Muslim regions of China. I often wondered 
if the women were not somehow more dedicated to the task of providing an education to all. In an 
interview with a woman teacher who had set up a small girls school in a village, I asked her why she 
was so determined to carry out this endeavor, even though it meant living a difficult life away from her 
home village. Her response was immediate, "educate a man, educate an individual; educate a 
woman educate a nation." Sitting in a small village in a remote part of China, she listed the various 
ways in which a young girl's education could have a major impact on the health and social well-being 
of her future children and grandchildren and the community at large. She seemed to know intuitively 
what it had taken the World Bank and several international NGOs years of research and millions of 
dollars to realize.
12           Another important role played by female graduates of both government and independent 
Islamic colleges, is as imams. Closely tied to the phenomenon of women's mosques in China 
(most commonly found in the Central Plain provinces of Henan, Shandong, Anhui, Hebei, Shaanxi
13           This tradition is unknown in most of the Islamic world. One prominent scholar of Islamic Law, 
Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law has argued that the tradition of 
female imams in China is a remnant of a practice that existed in the earliest days of Islam but was 
gradually undermined by traditional Arab patriarchal values together with those of other cultures 
encountered as Islam spread.
14           According to research by French scholar Elisabeth Alles, the practice of women's mosques 
has recently spread to other regions of China as students who have studied in places where they are 
common return to their home communities.
15           In addition, female imams have also traveled to other regions of China to both further their 
studies and help establish new schools. According to Chinese press reports, there are now even 
women imams in Ningxia, which together with Gansu have the reputation of having the most 
conservative Muslims in China, especially when it comes to issues related to gender.
16      Although the phenomenon of women's mosques and female imams may be 
unique to China, in fact it reflects a movement presently taking place throughout the Muslim world. 
No longer satisfied with traditional interpretations (and some argue misinterpretations) of the Qur'an 
provided by men, be they Islamic leaders, fathers, husbands and brothers, women are organizing 
Qur'anic studies classes in which they closely study the text of the Qur'an themselves under the 
guidance of female religious scholars.
17           Chinese Muslims' commitment to educating girls has also allowed for an important alliance 
between religious leaders and government officials determined to stem the tide of rural households 
forgoing education for their daughters. Over the past ten years, government fiscal reforms have 
resulted in the burden of support for public education being passed from the central government to 
local governments. As a result, due to lack of funds, local governments have often introduced school 
fees that have multiplied over the years. These fees have now reached crippling proportions, and as 
a result, an increasing number of rural farmers are choosing to forgo educating their children, 
especially their daughters. In response, the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) has 
begun a rural campaign to encourage the education of daughters. In Muslim regions, imams have 
worked together with this government group to remind peasants in rural areas of their religious 
obligation within Islam to educate all their children. ACWF officials have told me that these 
cooperative efforts have been very successful.
Lasting Impacts
      In addition to promoting religious knowledge, Islamic schools have also played important roles 
in strengthening networks between Muslim communities both within China and abroad, and also in 
promoting different degrees of religious identity. As one travels to different regions in China, one 
will encounter, even in the most remote and impoverished areas, Muslim villagers who are not only 
informed about the situation of Muslims living in the region as well as other parts of China, but also 
the latest issues concerning Muslim communities throughout the world. These networks were 
originally based on the trade routes plied by Muslims throughout the country, as they have for 
centuries dominated the transport trade. Muslims traveling to study under different religious scholars 
has also been a constant source of flows of information. In addition, Muslim communities have 
established journals and newsletters, and most recently, websites. The range of this network of 
information has expanded dramatically recently with increasing numbers of students going overseas 
to further their Islamic studies.
      One final indication of the growing awareness of multiple degrees and facets of religious identity 
is the recent trend among religious educated Muslims in China to distinguish between ethnic and 
religious identity. In the past if one wanted to ask if someone were Muslim, one would ask, "are you 
'Hui?'" Technically Hui refers to ethnicity only, but has been conflated with religious identity. Now, 
Chinese Muslims very self-consciously will distinguish between someone being "Hui" and someone 
being Muslim. For example, the response could now be, "yes, they're Hui, and they are also Muslim,
" or "they are Hui, but they are not Muslim."
      Although over the past few years the Chinese government has made it increasingly difficult for 
Chinese Muslim students to continue their studies overseas (primarily by refusing to issue a 
passport to anyone who stated the intention of wishing to study Islam while abroad), many 
continue to find ways. However, recently I interviewed several Islamic studies teachers who had 
studied overseas, and they argued that there is no longer such a great need to study overseas. 
They were confident that there were now Islamic colleges in China that were able to offer comparable 
levels of education and training. Others in the community, especially the elderly, continue to argue 
that imams who are locally trained have the benefit of having developed a more in-depth 
understanding of Muslim communities and their unique histories and cultures. But perhaps most 
importantly, this recent trend of promoting Islamic studies within China reflects a growing confidence 
within the Chinese Muslim community of the integrity and authenticity of Islam as it is practiced in 
China. In the past Chinese Muslims had to contend with conservative Arab Muslims (especially 
some from Saudi Arabia) who accused them of somehow being inauthentic Muslims for having 
been so influenced by Chinese culture. Chinese mosques, renowned for their beauty and their 
incorporation of traditional Chinese temple architectural styles were held up as examples of a 
corrupt form of Islam. This argument is of course ludicrous, as mosques throughout the world have 
always reflected indigenous culture and architectural traditions. Nevertheless, some Chinese 
Muslims were vulnerable to these accusations, going so far as to tear down traditional mosques and 
replace them with ones that can best be described as pseudo neo-Arab, and extraordinarily 
unaesthetic. Thankfully, more recently this practice appears to have stopped. In cases where 
traditional mosques had to be repaired or replaced, great efforts have been made to retain as 
much of the original architecture and decoration as possible.
      In conclusion, it is important to mention one more factor that will continue to influence Chinese 
Muslims' decision to study overseas: rapidly expanding economic ties between China and the 
countries of the Middle East, especially the oil-producing countries of the Gulf. In January of 2006, 
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz traveled to China to sign agreements related to oil, 
energy and trade. China is rapidly approaching U.S. levels of energy use and is seeking to establish 
long-term energy agreements with countries in the Middle East. Chinese trade with Saudi Arabia for 
the first 11 months of 2005 totaled more than $14 billion, and is expected to continue to rise quickly. 
The recent hike in oil prices has accelerated the already extraordinary boom in construction in the 
region, and China has successfully won a series of contracts to build some of the largest projects in 
the region.18 Another major trading partner of China in the Gulf, is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 
Trade between the two countries was estimated at $10 billion in 2005. The UAE is also the site of 
the largest trade hub for Chinese goods outside of China. The complex, known as Dragon Mart is 
1.2 km long and displays manufactured goods from hundred of Chinese companies. China also has 
extensive contacts with Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar and has recently assisted in the establishment of 
an Islamic bank in Bahrain that will invest in real estate in China following Islamic Shariah 
      As these economic ties expand and diversify, knowledge of Arabic will be of increasing value 
either as an important incentive for students considering studying Arabic, or an option for those 
who have completed their Islamic studies, and also happen to be fluent in Arabic.
1..           Despite its official designation as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (or XUAR) 
Xinjiang is the most tightly controlled and religiously suppressed region in China. The state has 
conflated the practice of Islam with separatist activity and instituted a range of measures prohibiting 
most forms of Islamic education and public religious practice. 
In the aftermath of 9-11 China was quick to jump on the "War on Terror" bandwagon, further justifying 
their repressive measures in Xinjiang. Thousands of Uyghur’s in Xinjiang have been thrown in jail 
and sentenced without public trial. There are many reasons given to justify China's harsh policies 
there, however, it should be noted that in addition to being the most natural resource rich region of 
China (with major sources of oil and natural gas), it is also a strategic border region which neighbors 
Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Mongolia and Russia. Furthermore 
it is the site of China's nuclear weapon development and testing site. Both Amnesty International and 
Human Rights Watch have extensive reports on China's policies in Xinjiang. Last year Human Rights 
Watch issued a report that dealt specifically with the issue of religious freedom in Xinjiang. Titled 
"Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang," Volume 17, Number 2 (2005) it 
documents the extent to which the government has denied Uighurs the ability to openly practice their 
religion and systematically sought to undermine parents ability to pass on their faith to their children. 
In addition, for a brief summary of the situation that includes possible government policy solutions, 
see Dru Gladney, "Xinjiang: China's Future West Bank?" Current History (September 2002) pp. 
267 - 270. Because the state so tightly controls all forms of religious activity in Xinjiang, including 
Islamic education, 
this article focuses on the situation in the rest of China.
2..           China has nine years compulsory education. Only a small number go on to finish the 
American equivalent of grades 10 - 12. The Islamic studies schools are for students who have 
completed the required nine years of public education, and are referred to as colleges in this article, 
even though the term is not exactly equivalent. According to government estimates, in 2000 there 
were approximately 23,000 students enrolled in these schools. "Young Chinese Muslims 
Enthusiastic about Learning Arabic," People's Daily (English edition) 30 March 2001.
        3.. "Islam's Lasting Connection with China," People's Daily (English edition) 20 May 2003.
        4.. Although there are no official records kept, it is estimated that there is a total of between 
1,500 and 2,000 Chinese Muslims presently studying in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, 
Turkey, and Malaysia. Al Azhar in Cairo, has the largest number, with approximately 300 students. 
Most of the students are sponsored by their family and community, but many also receive a small 
stipend at whichever Islamic university they 
        5.. According to the 2000 China national census, the Hui population of China is approximately 
9.2 million and the Uighur population is 8.6 million. The other Muslim populations are: Kazak 1
.3 million; Dongxiang 400,000; Kirghiz 171,000; Salar 90,000; Tajik 41,000; Uzbek 14,000; 
Baonan 13,000; and Tatar 5,000.
        6.. Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, many Muslim families had become completely 
conversant in all aspects of elite Chinese culture. Many passed the grueling imperial examinations, 
while others joined the economic elite. By the beginning of the Qing dynasty a group of Muslim 
scholars who had been trained in both the Chinese Classics and Islamic studies, developed a body 
of knowledge that came to be known as the Han Kitab written in Chinese. These works used 
Neo-Confucian ideas and concepts to discuss fundamental Islamic principles. It was not an effort 
to define themselves for the Han Chinese, but rather a reflection of the degree to which they had 
adopted certain Confucian ways of thinking. As Tu Wei-ming explains, "They were so steeped in the 
ambiance of the Neo-Confucian world that they took it for granted that 'this culture of ours' provided 
the solid ground for them to flourish as Muslims." p. xi in Sachiko Murata's Chinese Gleams of Sufi 
Light (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000). The Han Kitab is also the subject of a recent study by Zvi Ben-
Dor Benite, The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). It was also during this time that the first Islamic 
studies schools were established.
        7.. Two recent works on Muslim rebellions in China which make the effort to include as many 
perspectives as possible are David Atwill's The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity and the Panthay 
Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), and Kim 
Ho-dong's, Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia, 1864-1877 
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). In Yunnan, in response to the state's perceived 
mistreatment and corruption, Muslims led a multi-ethnic revolt against the local government officials, 
establishing a semi-independent state that lasted for almost twenty years. In his work, David Atwill 
documents the events leading up to the rebellion and the degree to which Muslims made repeated 
appeals to the state for justice before rising up. In Kim's work, he uses a wide range of sources to 
document the rebellion led by Ya'qub Beg in Xinjiang.
        8.. For a comprensive overview of Islamic education efforts in China in this period, see Leila 
Cherif-Chebbi's, "Brothers and Comrades: Muslim Fundamentalists and Communists Allied for the 
Transmission of Islamic Knowledge in China," chapter in Stephane Dudoignon (ed.) Devout 
Societies vs. Impious States? Transmitting Islamic Learning in Russia, Central Asia and China, 
through the Twentieth Century (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2004).
        9.. Schools were established in Beijing, Kunming, Xi'an, Shenyang, Xining, Lanzhou, Yinchuan, 
Urumqi, and Zhengzhou. The school in Kunming, for example, serves the Muslim population of 
Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces. The school in Beijing had originally be established in 1955, 
and was administered by the Islamic Association of China, which is part of the government's central 
Religious Affairs Bureau set up to oversee all religious activity in China.
        10.. The vast majority of Muslims in China are Sunni Muslims and follow the Hanafi school of law.
        11.. For an excellent overview and analysis of commonly held 
misunderstandings regarding the role of Islamic studies schools, see William Dalrymple's, "Inside 
the Madrasas," New York Review of Books, 52.19 (December 1, 2005).
        12.. Lawrence Summers, for example, has repeatedly reiterated the importance of educating 
girls to international development. He mentioned it most recently in January 2006, at the World 
Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland where in an interview he stated, "The education of girls 
is the single most important investment that can be made in the developing world. Beyond the 
tangible economic benefits, it promotes smaller, healthier, and happier families."  
        13.. For a comprehensive overview of the role of women's mosques in China, see Maria 
Jaschok and Shui Jingjun, The History of Women's Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of their 
Own (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000).
        14.. Professor Abou El Fadl also goes on to express the hope that, "perhaps from the margins 
of Islam the great tradition of women jurists might be rekindled." Lousia Lim, "Chinese Muslims 
Forge Isolated Path, BBC News, 15 September 2004.
        15.. Elisabeth Alles, "Chinese Muslim Women: From Autonomy to 
Dependence," chapter in Stephane Dudoignon (ed.) Devout Societies vs. 
Impious States? Transmitting Islamic Learning in Russia, Central Asia and China, through the 
Twentieth Century. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2004.
        16.. "First Generation of Female Imams Emerges in Western China," Xinhua News Service, 
24 August 2003.
        17.. This movement is extremely important and influential as it has allowed Muslim women 
around the world to distinguish between the God granted rights and obligations for both men and 
women as proscribed in the Qur'an, and those that are actually based on traditional local cultural 
practices that are not Islamic but are often claimed as such by men.
        18.. John Irish, "The Manchurian Candidates," MEED: Middle East 
Economic Digest, vol. 48, issue 51 (17 December 2004). These contracts 
involve thousands of Chinese workers relocating to the Gulf region. Here in the United Arab 
Emirates thousands of Chinese have also been recruited to work in clerical and clerk positions.



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