“The government bends over backwards to accommodate our request to practice our faith in our daily lives, and we are grateful for that,” said Imam Na Xue Jun, who leads the prayer in Najiahu Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in Ningxia. This time-honored mosque in traditional Han style is located in the center of the Hui village of Najiahu in Yongning County. He says the Hui are comfortable practicing Islam in the province and that the government doesn’t restrict their freedom of religion.
The mosque has a long history, and Muslims and non-Muslims alike cherish this rich and colorful part of Chinese history. The mosque traces its past all the way to the 13th century when Muslims interacted with Chinese through Silk Road trade. It was only in 1524 when Muslims built the mosque in Najiahu, which literally means “the village of the family surnamed Na.” About 60 percent of the 6,000 village residents still carry the last name “Na,” though almost all are Muslims.
The mosque covers an area of more than 2 hectares, consisting of the gate, minarets, the great hall of worship, a wing that serves as a conference or study hall, bathrooms and an adjacent cemetery. It boasts a traditional Chinese architectural style with a touch of Islamic decorative art. The impressive gate features a 21-meter-high, three-story fly-eave structure, known as “Wang Yue Lou” (moon-viewing building) where Muslims observe the moon to mark the beginning and the end of the holy month Ramadan. The gate stands next to the minaret.
The mosque was listed as a cultural relic for priority protection of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in 1988. It became an integral part of the recently built China Hui Cultural Park, which spans an area of 5,000 square meters, with one building based on the design of the Taj Mahal and another by the lake featuring elements of Islamic architecture.
Imam Na Xue Jun told Sunday’s Zaman that during regular prayer times, the hall is filled with 300 to 400 worshippers. “We have some 1,000 people who attend weekly Friday prayers,” he said. But the challenge remains on how to rekindle Islam among the young generation. At the Asr afternoon prayer Imam Jun led during our visit, almost all the attendees were over 60 years old. He says because the young Huis must work hard to earn a living, mosque members are mainly composed of retirees. Members usually cycle their way to the mosque on two or three-wheelers, some use motorized ones. They park their bikes and bicycles in the courtyard before taking a seat on wooden benches lined up against the exterior wall of the mosque, waiting for the Athan, or call to prayer, by the muezzin through loudspeakers.
Najiahu Mosque is just one of the 3,300 mosques located in Ningxia province, albeit one of the most famous and historical ones. The autonomous province has 8,760 imams, according to officials here. There are many restaurants featuring halal-certified foods and beverages, catering to the needs of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The halal food market alone created an economy worth 16 billion yuan in 2010 with over 500 companies involved in the halal food industry in the region.
Just like the other 55 officially recognized national minorities in China, Huis enjoy positive discrimination by the Chinese Communist Party government, which is keen to consolidate internal stability. Officially Chinese Muslims are not subject to the national one-child policy, and the government gives preferential development aid to regions where minorities live. The Hui community enjoys holiday breaks during Muslim holidays and is allowed to maintain a separate cemetery for their dead. Na Xue Dong, a member of Hui Muslim congregation in Najiahu, says all of his family is buried in a lot allocated only for Muslims next to the mosque. “I am happy with the arrangement,” he notes.
The story of the Hui Muslims in Najiahu is not a unique one in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. There are 2.2 million Huis living in this region, which has a population of 6.3 million, mostly Chinese Hans. In Shizuishan, a prefecture-level city and the second biggest city in the northern part of Ningxia, Huis number around 150,000 in a city with a population of 750,000. Ma Sheng Ying, the deputy of the publicity department at the local division of the Communist Party of China, says authorities have never faced a problem with Huis and Hans working together for the well being of the city. Ms. Ying, a Muslim herself, said Chinese Hui people in Shizuishan are as productive as Hans and that they live in harmony with each other.
China’s Hui Muslim minority practices their religion in a free environment in other provinces as well. Take, for example, Henan province, which is home to 1.2 million Hui people in a population of some 100 million. The last incident between Hui and Han in Zhongmou County in central Henan in autumn of 2004 with numerous dead and injured seems to be long forgotten. Kong Yufang, deputy governor of Henan, underlined that the provincial government has great respect and admiration for Hui people. “We respect their traditions and religious practices. We apply preferential treatment in the economic development of ethnic minorities. In fact, Muslim regions develop at a faster rate than non-Muslim areas,” she told Sunday’s Zaman. She recalled that Li Chengyu, of the Hui ethnic group, was the governor of the province from 2003 to 2008 before he assumed the position as the president of the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives.
There is an important reason why Hui and Han Chinese get along with each other. Unlike Muslims of the other ethnic minorities like Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik, the Hui Muslims speak Mandarin just like the Hans. They share similar physical features, characteristics, culture and lifestyle. There are incidences of intermarriages between the two groups, mostly ending up in conversion to Islam, be it groom or bride, officials say. Chinese who were believers of Buddhism and Taoism are usually the ones who convert to Islam when a marriage takes place.
The central and provincial governments also help Muslims to make annual pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, also known as the hajj, officials here say. Over 2,500 Muslims in Ningxia flew to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj via government-organized trips this year. As the income of the Chinese grows, more Chinese Muslims are able to afford hajj journeys each year. The Ninxia provincial government sent a 76-member team to offer various services for the Muslims, including translation, accommodation, medical treatment, transportation and security. Authorities say across China, about 13,800 Muslims went to Mecca this year. Yang Yun Xia, deputy general secretary of the Chinese Journalists Association in Ninxia region, a Muslim herself, says the government simplifies visa procedures for pilgrimages and provides all kinds of assistance during their voyage to the holy lands.
That does not mean, however, that the Hui have no grievances. The main problem Chinese Hui Muslims face is the limited availability of religious books and Islamic education. Though the shortage of Qurans was solved according to Ms. Xia, the variety of religious books is still limited. An Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) fact-finding mission organized last year also noted these shortcomings and offered to help Chinese Muslims with the consent of the Chinese government. It praised China’s openness in discussing these issues. As a sign of increasingly cordial ties between Turkey and China, in February 2011 an agreement between Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate and the Islamic Association of China (IAC) to train and educate China’s imams was signed, marking the first contact between the two bodies. Under the agreement, students from China, where 23 million Muslims live, will return to their native land after studying in Turkey. The agreement also envisages current Chinese imams receiving in-service training in Turkey.