Islam in China

This is a guest post by David Dettmann, Assistant Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at UW-Madison.

Presently I am teaching a course on Islam in China, including the largest Muslim groups in China, the Chinese-speaking Hui people and the Turkic-speaking Uyghur people. I have two goals with this course: to broaden the students’ perspectives of what constitutes China, and also to broaden the students’ views on who in the world practices Islam.

My first encounters with Islam were actually in China. After I arrived in China in 1995 to study in Guangzhou, I, like many other Americans, was very impressed by the diversity of the metropolis. I found and began to frequent restaurants operated by Hui (many Hui run superb beef noodle shops) and Uyghurs (Uyghur food is very similar to the foods of Eurasia: nan flatbread, kebabs, and rice pilaf).

After my second year in Guangzhou, I went traveling out west, to Xinjiang Province (Xinjiang shares borders with many Central Asian countries, and it also shares cultures of the region). There I was utterly taken by the warmth of the Uyghur people, the beauty of the landscape, the flavors of the food and the fascinating music. That is what ultimately inspired me to study Turkic languages and Islam.

I noticed, even then, that there was some tension between the Uyghurs and the Han. To many Uyghurs, their own culture and livelihood was in jeopardy by the influx of Han settlers (Han Chinese had lived in Xinjiang for many decades, but in recent years they came in ever increasing numbers looking for work). That said, many Han who went to Xinjiang didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Regardless, tensions remain high in Xinjiang to this day. This tension, together with historical incidents of Muslim uprisings in the Qing dynasty and later prompt some people in China to imagine this has something to do with Islam being a violent religion. In my experience, religion has very little to do with the violence between groups in China. I never saw anything to make me think that Islam would incite violence by its followers.

Since my three years in China, I have had the opportunity to travel to and stay in other countries with large Muslim populations: Morocco and Turkey. I’ve also befriended and gotten to know Muslims here in Madison. Now when I think of Islam in general, I have to think of all of those experiences and remember all of the extremely tolerant and hospitable people I’ve met. The lesson that I’ve taken away from this is that the world’s Muslim population is incredibly diverse, and it is very difficult if not totally inappropriate, to generalize about them in any negative way.

For more information about Islam in East Asia, please visit our upcoming East Asia page.