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Seeking Knowledge unto China

“Seek knowledge, even unto China”—this is a very famous hadith among the Chinese Muslim communities. Even though many well-known scholars, including Salafi authority shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), have ruled out its status as an authentic hadith, it’s nonetheless very often quoted by Chinese scholars and politicians in various scenarios to show that there’s some kind of connection between China and the Islamic world. In this sense, arguing whether the hadith is authentic or not seems to lose its relevance, as one could barely deny the historical and contemporary bonding between China and Islam.

Islam in China

The estimated population of Muslims in China is a little more than 20 million nowadays. About half of them are Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, who greatly differ from their Chinese-speaking co-religionists in language and culture. In recent years, the Uyghurs’ homeland Xinjiang Autonomous Region has frequently been in the news because of reports of human rights violations and even genocide taking place there. While this is obviously a serious issue, the image of Xinjiang and Uyghurs should not cause us to overlook the other 10 million Chinese-speaking Muslims whose faith, religion, culture, and society are also worth studying.

In the 1300-year-long history of Islam in China, periods of stagnation and renovation appeared alternately. The first Muslims arrived in Tang Dynasty China in the late 7th century, and the community gradually indigenized and kept growing, peaking in the Yuan Dynasty which was part of the Mongol empire stretching from Sinai to the Far East. After the collapse of Mongol rule in China, there was a time gap that lasted for nearly two centuries before some Chinese Islamic scholars began to promote religious education and the faith was revived again. Still, Chinese Muslims would have to wait for another hundred years for the connections with the outside Islamic world to be restored by the expansion of Naqshbandi, Kubrawi, and Qadiri Sufi orders in China. Then, in the late 19th century, Salafi ideology began to take its root in China, brought by pilgrims coming back from the “core” of the Islamic land with a sense of conviction to authenticity. Today, Salafi groups constitute the most active and dynamic part of China’s Islamic landscape, which makes it full of interesting ideas and practices waiting to be discovered, sorted out, explained, and introduced to those who would like to know.

Stigmatising Salafis

Just like its Sufi and Gedimu (the old-school, Sinicized Islam; the notion itself originates from the Arabic word qadim, meaning old) counterparts, Salafism—or Salafi Islam—in China is not a homogeneous single trend. To a certain extent, neither is it a group with a clear-cut boundary. There are Wahhabi-ish Chinese Salafis who (would like to) strictly abide by the strictest version of Salafi creeds, following the exemplar Saudi sources in matters from the content of faith to the details of rituals and as many aspects of daily life as possible. There are also others who are reluctant to be stigmatized as Wanhabingye (the transliteration of Wahhabiyya in the north-western Chinese dialect, mainly used as a derogatory term accusing someone to be unorthodox) by non-Salafi Chinese Muslims. They nonetheless overtly adopt the Salafi path, but they do not necessarily follow Saudi sources or lead an aloof, sometimes socially separated life. There’re even those who are never labeled as Salafi by their polemical enemies (Salafi or non-Salafi), but still claim that what they say and practice conforms to Salafi teachings, thus making it absolutely authentic in their view, and would be happy if called Salafi. Chinese Salafi groups also differ in the strategies they adopt to survive and expand: some choose to collaborate with the government; some decide to stay away from politics altogether and keep silent; others criticize, resist, get suppressed and leave the country.

In the past decade, the study of Salafism has definitely taken off and Islam’s so-called “new religious movement” has garnered ever-greater attention among scholars, politicians, social activists, and the general public all across the world. As academics’ insight into Salafism gets deeper and sharper, the spotlight of research has more or less shown a tendency to move from the “core” Middle East and the European continent to the more “peripheral” areas. Publications on Salafism in Africa and the wider continent of Asia have emerged, and developments of Salafism outside of the Arab world with alternative intellectual lineages in various cultural and social traditions are becoming better recognized. In this sense, a study of Salafism in China would contribute greatly to this endeavor, if it could place the Chinese Salafis properly in the global Salafism chart and show their distinctiveness from as well as inter-relatedness with Salafis in other traditions. Hopefully, such a study, like the one that I’m working on, can lead those who are interested in this topic to a better understanding of both Islam in China and Salafism as a very, if not the most, important Islamic trend in the contemporary world. Anyway, if it’s true that there’s knowledge in China, I have no reason not to seek it.

Jiang Xiaokun is a PhD-candidate in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. His research focuses on Salafism in China. Photograph: an Arabic plaque in one of China’s oldest mosques (copyright Jiang Xiaokun).