Exploring a Hui small town

An internal refrain during every stage of this journey has been sheer awe in the face of such consistent, unanticipated, and overwhelming hospitality from such a wide group of people around the world. I’ve been left with unassailable feelings of gratitude and debt that I know I may never be able to repay, but most certainly will strive to pay forward. Jumuah, pictured below, was one of those big hearts who took it upon himself to show me his hometown in which he repeatedly, and proudly, noted as a “Chinese small town.”
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Jumuah at the Tongxin Great mosque.

A view of Tongxin's rooftops.

A view of Tongxin’s rooftops.

Jumuah on the train. I don't think I would have been able to manage the right train without Jumuah. It was a bit of chaos.

Jumuah on the train. I don’t think I would have been able to manage the right train without Jumuah. It was a bit of chaos.

Tongxin is a county in the Ningxia region in the north of China and about 7 hours on a train from Xi’an. I know that because we had to take the train at night. We broke our fast on the train, and we barely made it in time to eat a meal before we started fasting again. But as Jumuah repeatedly pointed out to me, I was assuming the outlook of a very spoiled American. Seven hours on a train is certainly nothing to complain about for the vast majority of the people I had encountered during my travels to Muslim communities.

Tongxin is a small county. It has approximately 360,000 people with the official records estimating an 80% demographic of Hui Muslims. It is fair to say that in Tongxin, the norm is to be Muslim.

An elderly man stopped by to say hello to Jumuah on his way to the early morning prayer. We followed him shortly after.

An elderly man stopped by to say hello to Jumuah on his way to the early morning prayer. We followed him shortly after.

Arriving to the mosque for the early morning prayer. Jumuah, though loves the mosque and community in Boston, reminded me that this is his hometown mosque where he came often growing up.

Arriving to the mosque for the early morning prayer. Jumuah, though he loves the mosque and community in Boston as a second home, reminded me that this is his hometown mosque that has a special place for him.

Just few minutes before the prayer, the students, who live and go to school next door, came in to the mosque in a very orderly two lines cutting through people to the front lines of the mosque.

Just few minutes before the prayer, the students, who live and go to school next door, came in to the mosque in two very orderly lines cutting through people to the front lines of the mosque.

The mosque was quite filled for the early morning prayer.

The mosque was quite filled for the early morning prayer.

Jumuah knew I was interested in seeing how free the Hui are to open Islamic schools and the practice of Islam in ways that stand in sharp contrast to ethnic Uyghurs. A few hours before the Friday prayer, we went to the Islamic school.
Jumuah knew everybody – it was a small town, after all. Or at least it looked like he knew everybody. There were way too many conversations lost in translation. Nonetheless, my insider connection as Jumuah’s friend gave me access to browse the school, its classes, and talk to the students.

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It was unusual for me to see all these books in Arabic and Mandarin in the school.

It was unusual for me to see so many books in Arabic and Mandarin in the school.

The teacher was asking the student to recite something. The student was stuttering through the recitation. I could see the teacher getting frustrated. The minute I left the class I heard the the sound of a slap. Whether it is a hand-slap, a stick slap, or a book being dropped. I can't tell for sure. Few student giggles followed the slap sound.

The teacher was asking the student to recite something. The student was stuttering through the recitation. I could see the teacher getting frustrated. The minute I left the class I heard the distinct sound of a slap. Whether it was a hand-slap, a stick slap, or a book being dropped I couldn’t tell for sure. A few student giggles followed the slap sound.

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The principle/imam of the school stopped by to talk to me. Of course, there was a scene surrounding the American visiting the school.

The principle/imam of the school stopped by to talk to me. Of course, there was a scene surrounding the American visiting the school.

Students young and old can get really curious around the camera.

Students young and old can get really curious around the camera.

The school is currently offered to students at the high-school level, although they are working to expand it to elementary levels. However, rather than serving as a traditional school with a broad base of educational dimensions, this institution more closely resembles a vocational school. Students learn Islamic studies and Arabic. My understanding is that graduates can only follow-up with college education in either one of those subjects. They then have two potential career paths: to become an imam or to become an Arabic interpreter/translator. I asked one of the classes, “who wants to be an Arabic interpreter?” Approximately three-quarters of the class raised their hand. I asked, “who wants to be an imam?” there were probably 2-3 hands raised. The rest, I guess have not decided yet.

Immediately after the Friday prayer, it was announced that there is a prayer, salat al Janazah, to be performed for a someone who died the day before. The crowd lined up outside the mosque.

Immediately following the conclusion of the Friday prayer, an announcement followed that there would be another prayer. Salat al Janazah, to be performed for someone who died the day before. The crowd lined up outside the mosque.

Just before the prayer, a few people walked around and gave each person a few Yuans for everybody.

Just before the prayer, a few people walked around and handed a few Yuan to each person in line. It is meant to serve as charity to the family of the deceased.

Crowd and traffic control is always an issue coming out of a mosque. It was not different in Tongxin.

Crowd and traffic control is always an issue coming out of a mosque. It was not different in Tongxin.

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It is common to cover over the grave while someone, a relative of the deceased, goes down and adjust the deceased body. Islamic traditions does require the body be covered with a white cloth sheet.

It is common to cover over the grave while someone, a relative of the deceased, goes down and adjust the deceased body. Islamic traditions does require that the body be covered with a white cloth sheet.

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We visited this large complex an hour away from Tongxin that, considering its extravagance, was extremely isolated in every conceivable way. I believe it is called: Honggangzi Gongbei. Honggangzi relates to the Sufi tariqa name. Gongbei means the grave of a Sufi master. At the time, I only understood that it was the burying-place of an old imam who the people respect. Every year, there is a time window where people flood the place to pay their respect for this imam. I later pieced together from what little was available in English and what Google managed to translate properly*, that this imam was a Sufi imam who had his own tariqa. This led me to explore more the word menhuan, which is Chinese for a Sufi-order.

 

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The grave of the imam under the big dome of the mosque. I was told that this building could accommodate more than 10,000. While it initially appeared empty when we arrived, we noticed 2-3 people who were making dua while facing the grave.

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There have been multiple renovations to this building in recent years. Visitors provide donations that are essential to the facility’s ongoing maintenance.

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The imam and keeper of the complex.

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On our way to the airport, we stopped by the Hui Cultural Park. It is a Disney World of sorts that is supposed to represent the Hui culture.

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Ironically, this incredible complex was located in what felt like the middle of nowhere. The architecture bears the resemblance of both Middle Easter and Uyghur influences.

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This very large mosque is not actually used for daily prayers. While visitors can pray in it, it’s built to show-case how regional mosques look for inquiring tourists. In this picture, a Chinese tourist group listens to their guide sing to them Tala al Badru Alayna.

In Tongxin, it seemed to me that Islam is embedded in the social tradition. It is part of the culture. There are few references to Middle Eastern or other cultures. Arabic scriptures were limited to Quranic verses. Jumuah and his friends talked of differences in mosques, and consequently the Islamic practices of those who go to these mosques; the new, old, and a third one (which I have yet to understand the distinction of). I understood that the old were more or less followers of a Sufi order. The new rejected any association with Sufi imams as the only way of understanding Islam.

The language barrier in understanding Islamic history and practices became a significant obstacle within the Hui community. While learning from Islamic communities around the world, I often found some measure of successful communication through the use of basic Arabic words. Among the Hui Muslims, this was not the case, and it highlights an incredibly important element of Chinese Muslims; that the existence of Islam in China has deep roots that no longer look to the Middle East or broader Muslim world for influence or identity.

*For Chinese readers, check this website: http://www.hggz.org where, as far as I understood, the Sufi tariqa in China is represented in considerably more comprehensive detail.

Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.

For more information, visit our page about this journey.