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Ummah: Encountering Muslims in China

The first Saturday of March, April pushed at my shoulder, “Addy, wake up! He’s already waiting for us at west gate!”

I sat up, looking down at my jeans. “Do I have time to change my pants?” Back in Chicago, I rarely wear pants, let alone jeans. I brought this sole pair with me thinking they would be a good clothing item to potentially lose to Beijing’s smoggy atmosphere, and how right I was: earlier that day upon climbing machinery in the 798 Arts District, first the right seam followed immediately by the left seam of the inner thigh tore down to the knee. I wore tights underneath, thankfully, but I nonetheless looked quite ridiculous. I also didn’t know what kind of Muslim this boy was: would he think badly of me for being a Muslim girl who wore pants? Yes, that kind of judgement is out there…

“No, no, he’s already at the gate. I told you, he won’t judge you! We should leave now,” my roommate April said, eyeing my scarf atop my desk. I reached for it. “You don’t need to put that on though, right? He’s Muslim, too, like you.”

I smiled. Only a week prior she asked why I fastened it about my face just to take out the garbage. I told her now what I told her then: “I always wear it,” adding this time: “Even when both legs of my jeans are torn clean to my knee.”

Yahya, April’s classmate, stood behind the bikes aligned just inside the west gate, shifting his weight from one leg to the other and facing away from where she and I approached. She called his name and he turned, exposing a tall nose, green eyes, and an evidently well-loved mustache. An identity marker, however small, that pencil thin mustache conveyed his ethnicity – Uyghur, the second largest group of Muslims in China. I offered my salaams to his back and he returned them over his shoulder as he lead us across the street to a qing zhen (请真: Chinese for halal) restaurant where we would share dinner.

“Why you come to China?” I remember, was the first question he ever asked me.

“To study.”

“Study what?”

“Religion in China.”

He clicked his tongue and smothered a small smile: “We have no religion in China.”

I felt my eyes narrow while I suppressed the urge to mention how I noticed a prayer mat in his back pocket on the walk over. April leaned forward, just as confused as myself. The whole purpose in introducing me to her classmate was to help widen my circle of Muslim friends in Beijing. Yet, here was Yahya, the classmate whom April assumed knew all Muslims on campus, telling me there is no religion in China. “China has religion,” I said slowly. “The people here, in this restaurant, they’re Hui. Aren’t they Muslim? And… and there are more Christians here than in all of Europe.”

“But in Beijing?” The slight smile remained.

“Don’t tell me there is no religion here – I’ve been to mosques here. And I know there are churches here. And temples! Daoist and Buddhist. It is just the Han,” I said, motioning to my roommate seated beside me, “who do not believe in anything.”

“We believe in something!” she declared.

We both turned to her, his eyes widening with amusement at her outburst. “Really?”

“We believe in Chairman Mao!”

At that, his mustache thinned with the blossoming of his grin. “So, please,” he motioned towards her, “pray to Mao for us, say xiexie for the food.” She smiled yet reddened, balling up small napkins one by one and throwing them across the table at him as he laughed himself into his hands.

Being Muslim in China boasts about as much uniformity as being Muslim in America, i.e. none whatsoever. I came to China under a fellowship to research the perception and expression of modesty among Muslim women in China, and where there exists no uniformity within a supposed Muslim experience in China, there is even less of such uniformity within being a Muslim woman in China. Saturated with contradictory ideological hues of filial piety, legalism, Daoist nonaction, and more, many practices of Islam in China give way to new forms of religiosity often very little seen in other contexts. Here, in Beijing especially, you’ll encounter the Hui, the Uyghur, the occasional expat, and the less-occasional Han convert, each of whom will tell a completely different story from the next of what it means to be Muslim in China.

Hui’s are the largest group of Muslims in China with populations in every province. They themselves identify as descendants of Arab and Persian traders who wandered and settled into China from the Silk Road. I was fortunate enough to grow close with two Hui girls during my semester abroad: the first I met at Niujie mosque in Beijing, and the second I met at the library on campus. The first, Violet, showed no hesitance in inviting me to her family’s home in rural Ningxia, fifteen hours west of Beijing by train – an invitation I would act upon precisely one week after meeting Yahya. I would message him over WeChat midway through the journey to ask in my anxiety how he does salah, the Muslim prayer, while on trains.

Blame it on my inexperience: I purchased a ticket for a seat as opposed to a bed thinking such would be sufficient. Yet in the crowded last cars of the train, where some middle-aged men purchased tickets for standing-room-only on this overnight journey, I sat as the obvious sole foreigner amidst a bloom of Chinese. Adding to all this, I never travel with my hijab; my passport photo displays me without it. So when a policeman took my passport and flipped through every page before the train even embarked, I froze. The main photo may show an image of me without hijab, but my Italian visa from last semester dons an image of me with hijab. When he inevitably discovered this dissonance, his fingers jumped between these two pages, these two contrasting images of me. He looked to me and laughed before sauntering the entire length of the train car to show every patron already craning their necks. He shouted jokes about this silly foreigner – is she American or Arab? – and how she’s going to get her passport stolen if she dares sleep tonight. I froze to my seat and thought of ways not to panic so suddenly, before the train even left Beijing. I slipped my passport into my shirt the moment I had it back in my hands. I wanted to pray isha.

No isha, Yahya would message back. It’s okay. Or in your seat in your head. Don’t worry.

I played Al-Fatihah on repeat from my phone and shamelessly draped my hair over my face – a veil from the standing-room-only men in front of me, beside me, behind me. All with their phones out, taking photos.

It was salah that lulled me into a few hours of sleep then, and it was salah that tied Violet’s mother to me once I arrived at her home in Ningxia: “Look,” she would say to her sister during dhuhr the next day, “This American, she prays like us.” And it would be salah that introduced me to Helen as she passed me in the library stairwell back in Beijing where I prayed maghrib: “You actually pray here?” She traced her eyes over the design of my prayer mat. “I never pray here.”

“Oh, are you Muslim?” I asked.

“Yes,” she mumbled. “I hate it. It’s unnecessary. Backwards. Every Hui in Beijing thinks so.” She sat herself down next to me. “I never pray here.”

“You must not like salah very much,” I said, standing up. Her face drained.

“No,” she breathed. “No, please don’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“I did not say I hate salah.” Her hand moved over the threading of my prayer mat. “No, I love salah. I hate Islam.”

“But you said you do not pray in Beijing?”

“I do not pray in Beijing because it is just so busy. So many people. And no one to pray with. I promise, I love salah.” She stood, positioning herself as though she were about to use my mat for her own prayer. “It is just so… peace.”

For many of the Muslims I encountered in China, prayer and peace stand as focal points of their Islam. As far as modesty is concerned, between both women who wear hijab and women who do not wear hijab, very little is made of their physicality. Rather, almost all discussion of modesty focused primarily on salah and the attainment of peace through salah. Where language falters and cultures contradict, no matter the barrier, salah amends those grounds. Where I held slight language hurdles with my Chinese-speaking Hui friends, such hurdles stood taller when with my Uyghur friends who themselves have a native language and often speak Chinese as a second language, making English their third. Despite the ever-widening language barriers though, Yahya volunteered to be my guide to jummah every Friday in Beijing. Some Fridays our commute would include only him and I. Other Fridays, he would have one to three other Uyghur friends. And one Friday, we had a small crowd of seven chatting earnestly with one another in a mix of three languages on the bus over. The people, the stories, the encounters – they all go on. I could talk myself in circles with these tales that truly contain almost no other purpose besides the oftentimes silly joy they contain. In a matter of four months, I’ve found ummah here. My Muslim friends no longer ask why I came to China. I suppose it may seem self-evident after knowing me over these months – perhaps they cannot imagine me in any other place besides China. I certainly can’t. This, they know. And so, with just a little over a week until my departure, I am instead met always with the question: When will you return?

By Addy M., Loyola University Chicago, Spring 2017 Student