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Muslim Belt of China in Midst of Revitalization


LIJIAZHUANG, China — The newest building in this dusty, impoverished village of 400 cave dwellers is the mosque erected by an order of Khufiyya Sufi Muslims.

Not to be outdone, members of the rival Yihewani Muslim religious order a few hundred feet down the hillside have decided to replace their older mosque, fashioned from adobe, with a new building. Stacks of bricks and timber rest on the ground where the new mosque will be constructed.

Like many villages and towns in this predominantly Muslim belt of China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Lijiazhuang is experiencing a religious revival. During the anti-religious rampages of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, the village's only mosque was destroyed.

Nearly 20 years later, with two mosques representing two factions of Sunni Islam, elders in the village proudly boast that it is now qing zhen-- pure and true.

Indeed, despite government attempts to minimize the extent of religious activity, Islam throughout China is in the midst of a significant revitalization. Although the nation has only 20 million Muslims in its population of 1.2 billion, most are concentrated in the sparsely populated west and north that make up 60% of the country's land mass.

As a result, noted Dru Gladney, a specialist in Chinese Islam at the University of Hawaii, China's Muslims have influence "greatly disproportionate to their population."

Moreover, liberalization of the economy during the past two decades has reopened Chinese Muslims' contact with the rest of the Muslim world. These include more orthodox Muslim regions surrounding western China, among them newly liberated Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.

"Throughout China," Gladney said after a 1993 visit to the far western Xinjiang region, "Muslims are now building mosques and madrasas [Muslim colleges] on their own initiative and sending more and more Muslims on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, with funds from the community. Despite the widespread closures and destruction of mosques in China during the Cultural Revolution, there are now more mosques in China than there were in 1949."

The call to prayer echoes across the barren landscape of Tongxin County, a predominantly Muslim area in central Ningxia famous for its many outposts of Sufism, the mystic branch of Sunni Islam.

In the farming village of Yangjia, for example, devotees of the Khufiyya Sufi sect are building an ornate $80,000 shrine to a saint, Zhou Lao Taiye, who died in 1943. The saint's large marble tomb rests in the center of a tall, green pagoda with pentagonal glass windows.

The village, irrigated with water pumped more than 30 miles from the Yellow River, is much richer than the dry hill villages. Some of the villagers are engaged in profitable wool trade with Mongolia and Central Asia. Old Silk Route trade roads have reopened under the economic reforms.

The shrine was built in part to show gratitude for the new prosperity, said Zhou Yancai, 60, a grandson of the Sufi saint.

"I gave 155,000 yuan [about $19,000]," volunteered Zhou, interviewed as he harvested edible yellow day lilies from a field blooming next to the shrine. "I have five sons who are wool traders, and they also gave money." He said Zhou Lao Taiye has between 70,000 and 80,000 followers in the area.

Other mosques and shrines are much less ostentatious. But a government official, also a Muslim, who accompanied a reporter to Yangjia went away muttering about what he called the "excess."

"You shouldn't care so much about style," he said, sniffing. "Religion should be in your heart. Islam teaches you shouldn't care about individuals."

In fact, given a long history of rebellion against central authority during times of crisis, the Muslim Hui Chinese in Ningxia are viewed warily by the central government as a potential secessionist threat. China's Hui population, which accounts for about half the nation's Muslims, consists mostly of ethnic Chinese whose ancestors converted to Islam after trade routes opened with Muslim Central Asia.

In the late 19th Century, the Qing Dynasty emperor was forced to send an army to the region to quell a rebellion, and several hundred thousand people were killed in what became known as the Northwest Hui Rebellion.

Government officials in Yinchuan, the Ningxia capital, consistently downplay the significance of the religious revival. Ma Zhiren, a Hui Muslim member of the Ningxia Religious Affairs Bureau, estimated in an interview that there are only 60,000 fully observant Muslims out of a Hui population of 1.7 million in Ningxia.

Still, the government was given a scare in 1994 when 50 people were killed in the southern Ningxia city of Xiji in fighting between rival Sufi orders. Authorities confiscated 5,422 guns and 21 homemade cannons in the episode.

The official New China News Agency reported that 22 people, including a prominent Ningxia politician and two Muslim academics, were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.

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