Even as the ladies rush to be registered as descendants of Confucius, and as churches — both state-sanctioned and underground — continue to swell and burst through the seams all across the land, China is becoming the most unlikely birthplace of progressive Islam, if this highly enlightening Asia Times article entitled “Islam with Chinese Characteristics” is anything to go by.
The article discusses at length the rising religious fervour of ethnic Hui Muslims in Ningxia province, and mentions a certain Yang Yuhong, who is “one of about 200 certified female imams in the autonomous region”!
We found that statistic staggering (we happen to come from Singapore — a city-state with a sizeable Muslim community that has often promoted itself as a staunch proponent of “moderate Islam”. Our friendly neighbour to the north has repeatedly called for Islam Hadhari … “progressive Islam”).
Well, moderate they might be, but progressive definitely not. Because it is 2006, and neither Singapore nor Malaysia has a single female imam! And while Salma Qureshi became the UK’s first female imam just last year, China Daily reported 30 female imams in Ningxia back in 2003.
The Age tells us more about a phenomenon unique to Chinese Islam:
Most strikingly, in the past 150 years women-only mosques or “nusi” and female imams have emerged — unique in the Islamic world, where elsewhere women worship in the same mosque as men, but in a separate curtained or partitioned space, and hear the same male preacher.
We end with this very interesting quote from the Asia Times article which may suggest why Chinese Islam has managed to “retain characteristics that sets it apart”:
The communist revolution with its emphasis on gender equality has left its mark here. Mao Zedong famously said that “women hold up half the sky”, a lesson China’s Muslims seem to have imbibed well.