THE MUEZZIN sounds the evening call to prayer. White skullcaps glint in the fading brightness of the setting sun as the faithful make their way into the mosque. The shush of whispered Salaam Alaikums, fills the hall. Outside, the mosque's minarets stretch up into the sky; a single crescent moon decorates the top of the green dome.
An unremarkable scene were it not for the fact that this mosque is tucked away in the landlocked interior of officially atheist and traditionally Buddhist China. When the Imam preaches he speaks Mandarin Chinese. Under the skullcaps and behind the veils of the men and women gathered, there are Chinese faces concentrated in prayer.
Reliable data are difficult to obtain but China's estimated 20-30 million Muslims may, in fact, be the country's second largest religious community, after the 100 million or so Buddhists. Islam in China is moreover currently in the process of a strong revival, spurred on by increasing trade links with the Middle East that have ended the centuries-long isolation of Chinese Muslims from the wider Islamic world.
Greater orthodoxy amongst Chinese Muslims is on the rise as ever-larger numbers go on Haj and youngsters return from their studies abroad in Muslim countries. Nonetheless, Chinese Islam retains characteristics that set it apart. The Communist revolution with its emphasis on gender equality has left its mark here. Mao famously said that "women hold up half the sky," a lesson China's Muslims seem to have imbibed well. Women Imams ( Nu Ahong) and exclusively women mosques ( Nu Si) play a unique role in the Middle Kingdom.
Islam in China has a long tradition stretching back over 1,200 years. The largest community amongst the Chinese Muslim groups is the Hui. Numbering about 10 million in total, the Hui are descendents of Middle Eastern traders and their converts who first travelled to China along the silk route during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). Centuries of isolation meant that they blended in with the largely Confucian and Buddhist Han Chinese who make up over 90 per cent of China's population. The Hui speak Chinese and look like the Han. The primary way of telling the two communities apart has traditionally been the absence of pork from the diet of Hui Muslims, a meat that is the primary staple for the Han. The Hui are also not to be confused with the other large Muslim minority group in China, the Uighurs who are of Turkish ethnicity and live mostly in the western province of Xinjiang.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a northern province flanked by the Gobi dessert, is home to 1.8 million Hui Muslims or 35 per cent of the province's total population. Ningxia has some 700 officially licensed Imams and more than 3,000 mosques. According to Ma Xiao, vice-president of the Islamic Association of Ningxia, there are currently over 5,000 Manla, or young Islamic disciples studying Arabic and Islamic doctrine part time in the province.
Certain restrictions continue to apply to Islam in China. For example, proselytising is strictly forbidden and Muslims who work for the government are not allowed to pray in their offices. Moreover, children below the age of 18 are not permitted to receive religious instruction at all. Nonetheless, as a visit to virtually any part of Ningxia will reveal, the Hui are embracing their faith with enthusiasm.
In recent years, Ningxia has benefited from donations worth millions of dollars from the Islamic Development Bank, which has enabled a facelift for The Islamic College in the provincial capital Yinchuan, as well as the establishment of several Arabic language schools. Interest in Arabic is booming so much so that even the Ningxia Economic Institute has begun to offer 3-4 year Arabic courses.
A hundred miles east of Yinchuan in the small town of Ling Wu, 50 other women, their heads covered with scarves, sit in a room reciting verses in Arabic from the Koran. They are being taught by Yang Yu Hong, one of two women Imams at the Tai Zi mosque. Ms. Yang received her title of Imam from the Islamic Association four years ago. She is one of about 200 certified women Imams in the province.
Ms. Yang says she does not see anything un-Islamic about the concept of women Imams.
But this new tradition of women Imams in China is less revolutionary than it first appears. While the women are granted the title of Imam they are still not allowed to lead men in prayers. Their role is more that of a teacher and their students are exclusively women.
Ling Wu's Tai Zi mosque has been rebuilt four times in the last 20 years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), most places of worship were demolished and Tai Zi suffered the same fate. Since the 1980s, however, a religious renaissance accompanied by increasing prosperity has led to the local Muslims donating enough money for four major expansions of the building.
But as is often the case in China, the driving force behind this Islamic revival is economic. "Other provinces have ports and natural resources. In Ningxia we have Muslims. This is our competitive advantage," says Chen Zhigang Deputy Director General, Investment Promotion Bureau of Ningxia.
To exploit this "competitive advantage" the provincial government organised for the first time a massive Halal Food Exhibition in August, through which it aimed to establish connections between the food industries of Ningxia and the Middle East. In Ningxia, Islam and trade are blending in a delicate mix to the benefit of both religious and secular life.
But while the Hui Muslims' Arabic language skills and cultural affinity with the oil-rich Middle East are now being seen by the authorities as a valuable economic resource, the stronger sense of group identity amongst the Hui fostered by these renewed linkages with the Islamic world, is leading to new challenges.
In the past, the Hui were amongst the least orthodox Muslims in the world. Many smoked and drank, few grew beards, and Hui women rarely wore veils. Increased contact with the Middle East has, however, wrought changes. Thousands of Hui students have returned from colleges in Arab countries over the last few years and they have brought with them stricter ideas of Islam. Mosques in Ningxia have now begun to receive worshippers five times a day, more Hui women have taken to wearing head scarves and skull caps are in wide evidence.
There is a strong identification among the Hui community today with the wider problems of the Islamic world. "It is American policy that has given all of us Muslims a bad reputation," says Yang, Tai Zi mosque's woman Imam, quivering with indignation.
For many Han, this identification of the Hui with communities outside of China is problematic. "Earlier the Hui were just like us except they didn't eat pork. Now they think they are very special. They think of themselves as foreigners," a Han foreign office official in Ningxia complained.
For the Hui, greater freedoms and contact with the wider world mean they must undertake the difficult task of negotiating between their increasingly complex identities: at once Muslim, Hui, and Chinese. For the Han, the challenge is to foster Hui culture without alienating the community from the rest of Chinese society. The manner in which both sides address these challenges will be key to the maintenance of social stability in China in the coming years.