Modern China And The Question Of Muslim Sectarianism In The Context Of Inter-Asian Religious Circulations

Post Author(s)

Sinophone Islam, as found in the Xibei (Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia), is characterized by sectarian (jiaopai) divisions among four groupings: the Qadim, the Sufi orders (menhuan), the Ikhwan, and the Salafis. With the exception of the latter, all of these sects adhere to a common doctrinal and legalistic tradition, shared by their co-religionists in Central Asia, of Maturidi-Hanafism. Yet this commonality in the framework – and the broader Sunni affiliation that unites all of these sects – has not deterred the emergence of discernible sectarian identities shaped by strained inter-sectarian relations that have occasionally devolved into exclusion, excommunication (takfeer) and even violence. This sectarian configuration makes China’s Islamic landscape unique when compared to other non-Chinese Muslim contexts wherein sectarian cleavages have, particularly over the past two decades, expressed themselves in terms of the more well-known Sunni-Shi’ite divide. This highly-contingent sectarianism creates an opening for thinking about the evolution of societal and state-centred politics (in relation to minority religiosities) as well as the unexpected international entanglements of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the religious and ideational worldviews of others.

 

The proposed research project aims to explore the question of Muslim sectarianism as it relates to the PRC by focusing on three distinct dimensions. First, at the communal-level, the project looks at the production and re-production of sectarian identities among Sinophone Muslim communities in the Xibei from the twentieth century onwards. Some of the critical questions that will be examined include how and why did such self-identities get promoted by elites as well as take root (i.e. the process of sectarianization) in the Xibei while failing to do so in other environments such as in the Zhongyuan or Yunnan. Additionally, how have these sectarian identities intersected with other ‘unifying’ ethnic/nation-building projects – Hui, Salar, Dongxiang, Bao’an – promoted by the state?

 

Second, at the state-level, the project interrogates how the modern Chinese state, in both the Maoist and post-Maoist eras, imagined and controlled sectarian divisions among its Xibei-based Muslim citizens. Of interest is identifying the hallmarks (sources) and evolution of official thinking on the topic, and what strategies have been deployed by multi-levelled state actors, in provinces such as Qinghai for instance, to contend with these divisions and realize stability maintenance (weiwen). In other words, this dimension is concerned with understanding the PRC’s ‘state governance of Muslim sectarianism’ and how it utilizes/checks the tensions arising from sectarian difference.

 

Third, at the international-level, the project considers how the PRC has been incorporated into the sectarian imaginaries of various actors from the Muslim world over the preceding two decades. It will pay particular attention to the Arab world wherein various narratives have re-cast China as a key battleground for a much larger Sunni-Shi’ite struggle. In doing so, China’s rise and growing visibility within Muslim-majority Belt and Road Initiative countries is brought under new light, highlighting the ‘religious-sectarian’ aspect of this rise. In many ways, this dimension shows how the “realities” of China (including that of sectarianism within it) are side-lined in favour of other more locally-grounded ideational projects.

The project, which will be converted into a book, promises to be of interest to those studying sectarianism and sectarianization, state management of religion and minorities, Islam in China, and global perceptions of China.

Article (joint authorship) submitted to Journal of Contemporary China entitled “Guarding Against the Threat of a Westernising Education: A Comparative Study of Chinese and Saudi Cultural Security Discourses and Practices towards Overseas Study”

 

Cultural security has become a major watchword in the national security discourses of both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Within this discourse, overseas study has been imagined as a conduit for cultural and ideological subversion threatening the authority of the prevailing regimes. At the same time, overseas study has been actively encouraged by both the Chinese and Saudi states as an important element in their modernization projects. In the past two decades, the Chinese and Saudi overseas student populations have been some of the largest in the world. The article seeks to explore these tensions by examining the conceptualisation and practice of cultural security in the PRC and Saudi Arabia through their management of overseas study.

Article (single-author) to be-soon submitted to Journal of Islamic Studies (Oxford University) entitled: “Traditions of Anti-Wahhabism in China: An Account of the Yihewani Hardliners and the Theological Origins of the Yihewani-Salafiyya Schism

 

The paper examines the Yihewani hardliners, also known as the Ma-Ha faction, a notorious subcurrent of the broader Yihewani known for their strong anti-Wahhabism and concentrated primarily in rural Gansu and Qinghai. It provides an account of this subcurrent, sketching out its contextualized emergence, leadership profiles, doctrines and narratives. More recent developments, including the subcurrent’s suppression by the state, will also be part of this account. The core argument made by the paper is that the significance of the Yihewani hardliners and their beliefs is that they best encapsulate the logic that underlies the Yihewani-Salafiyya sectarian division in China, long conceived in terms of a schismatic division over matters of orthopraxy and madhab or legal-school identity (Hanafism versus Hanbalism). Rather, as the paper shows in its investigation of the history and beliefs of the Yihewani hardliner subcurrent, this schism is – under a more persuasive and logical reading of sectarianism that will be propose in the paper – rooted in theological differences that have long been neglected in the existing English and Chinese scholarships.

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