Reviews

In the perspective of the astounding Islamic revival that has been sweeping all over China for three decades, Susan McCarthy addresses the Hui Islamic revival in the southwest of Yunnan province.  She takes advantage of a substantial fieldwork for proposing an innovative view on how Hui Muslims have preserved—or are (re-)discovering—what they consider “authentic” Islam, its knowledge and its orthopraxy in a fast-changing society.  Cultural and religious revival among minorities has been permitted, even encouraged by the party-state, which through this way has managed to preserve its say in the forms taken by this revival.  S. McCarthy takes as an example the remote village of Haba, mostly populated by tibetanised Hui who till the 2000s had turned their back on Islamic practices for adopting their Tibetan neighbours’ way of life and language, including customs and food, to the point of including pork in their diet.  Haba Muslims asked and obtained help from southern Yunnan Muslims in 2000, and slightly two years later they have become practising Muslims, built a new mosque, and began sending their children to the mosque school.  This move has put an end to their isolation and brought them into contact with ‘modernity’.  Their life has been made easier thanks to gifts and financial help from fellow Muslims; they enjoyed travelling and trade opportunities and, most importantly, they have been given access to education through religious courses given in Arabic language within the precinct of the mosque.  Conversely, this new attitude has cut them from their neighbours from other nationalities, and caused resentment among the latter when Muslims built a new mosque on a sacred territory belonging to the Naxi people.  

The author questions the exclusively Arabic oriented education dispensed in Haba, contrasting it with the example of the Muslim Culture College of the prefecture of Dali which offers a Chinese college-level education together with Islamic education, and aims at training devout Muslims who may at the same time act as productive members of Chinese society.  The debate is raging over Yunnan Hui Muslims about what the “authentic” Islam is, and what stance may be adopted in relation to the ongoing religious and cultural revival.  Some Muslims, like those in Haba, have chosen to revive their faith through an exclusively Arabic teaching that ignores Chinese culture and society, forming what the author called an “uncivil” Islam—an Islam which places itself outside of the Chinese civil society.  Others, as in Dali, or among Hui scholars generally speaking, find that “authentic” Islam in China should have Chinese cultural characteristics and they support a “civil” Islam.   The party-state, having permitted if not encouraged the Islamic revival, is deeply involved in shaping the image of Islam in China, funding researchers and studies in order to promote the idea of a national and “civil” Islam.  S. McCarthy develops innovative views on the present situation, pointing out first the historical peculiarities of Yunnan province, evidencing the intricate links between Muslim and other populations.  

The article’s historical overview could have underlined more clearly the specificity of Muslims in Yunnan compared to the rest of China:  After all, they have conquered and ruled the province for decades under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and were long represented by an intellectual elite that flourished brilliantly from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.  Interestingly, the author points out how the party-state contributes to shape the Hui cultural and religious revival, without repression and with little direct pressure, notably by financing Muslim researchers on Islam.  In conclusion, this survey deals with the issue of “authentic” Islam as it is discussed in the Yunnan province.  The terms of the debate would be quite different in a region like the Northwest where the subjects of religious schools or sectarianism constitute an important part of the debate on what “authentic” Islam is or may be.

Leila Chérif-Chebbi, National Foundation for Political Science, Paris
CER: I-5.3.E-508