Muslim Religious Education in China
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Translated from the French original by Michael Black
1Despite their diversity, China’s Muslims1 have been engaged for twenty years in a process of reaffirmation of their religion and identity2: construction and renovation of mosques, dissemination of information on Islam in the world, translation of religious texts, etc3. As is the case in the rest of the Muslim world, their efforts have also been aimed at the field of education. At first, in the early 1980s, education was restricted to the mosque schools, but quickly, through individual or collective initiatives, both local and provincial, a number of private Arabic or Sino-Arabic schools, as well as many institutes, have opened all over the country. During the surveys we carried out in 2000 and 2002 in the provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Henan, Yunnan and in Hainan, we were able to observe the extraordinary growth of this Muslim teaching4.
2Muslim religious leaders in China have always complained of their co-religionists’ lack of religious knowledge: the flowering of schools does indeed answer a desire for education but also corresponds to the need to maintain and keep alive the Muslim religion among the faithful dispersed in the Chinese world, on whom twenty years of repression5 of all public religious activity have left their mark. Moreover, in the framework of the policy of reforms carried out in the field of education6 for over ten years (decisions taken in 1985 and 1993) which led to the decentralisation and privatisation of education, the objective of these Muslim initiatives is to compensate for the disengagement of the central state, and to make it possible for populations7 in difficult economic situations, and particularly for girls, to receive a basic education. Within the Chinese Muslim world, education and its modernisation are the objects of debate, controversy and competition between religious movements. These debates are not about the situation of the primary or secondary public schools, although it is a difficult situation, for these schools remain on a very low level despite the efforts made, particularly in the peripheral regions and along the frontiers8. According to Hui researchers, the situation of Hui public schools, as with other schools, has deteriorated, particularly with decentralisation. One of them gave a revealing description of a primary school in a Hui area of Xi’an, which does not seem to be the only one in this situation: “In order to be able to meet the needs of the school, whose expenses have increased considerably, the schoolyard has become a warehouse and a parking lot for taxis and lorries, and the school toilets have been made into public toilets”. He also noted the difficulties encountered in paying the salary supplements of teachers, and lamented the fact that many of the pupils had to work after school: “It means that they can open their books only during classes”. In 1997, the school lost one-third of its pupils.9 But since the public schools are the responsibility of the central and local authorities and the local population has little influence on their decisions, discussions tend to be about the private schools, over which the Muslims, having established them, have real power.
3A study of the current development of denominational schools makes it possible to measure the degree of autonomy available to Muslims and to observe the way in which the political control of the state is exercised over this aspect of religious life nowadays. In fact education, a politically sensitive issue, is an area where many players confront each other, on a variety of levels.
4In the Uygur autonomous region of Xinjiang, the authorities in Peking decided to impose strict and systematic control over education in the areas of both religion and language. Religious education, which had become widespread with the return of religious activities in the 1980s, was once again forbidden in 1996 following the troubles in the region (incidents in Khotan, Gulja, Bahren and Aksu). Since then there has been a slow recovery10. In 2002 an Imam was allowed to teach only one or two students11, and only with the backing of the Bureau of Religious Affairs and of the local authorities, whereas, as we shall see, there can be close to a hundred students in the mosque schools in other Chinese provinces. The rule which states that one must be over 18 to study religion is, in Xinjiang, strictly applied. Moreover it is not legally possible to open a Muslim school like the ones in the rest of the country. Only one Koranic Institute (jingxueyuan), managed and controlled by the authorities, is authorised in Urumqi. Basic religious instruction is provided in the Arabic language. On the linguistic level, in May 200212, Peking provided a reminder in the press of the decision—taken earlier but not yet really applied—to eliminate the Uygur language from higher education13. Moreover the poverty of Uygur families, especially in the oases in southern Tianshan, makes it impossible for their children to receive a normal education in public schools which have now become fee-paying, even for the theoretically obligatory first nine years of schooling. The result is that a Uygur child who does not come from an urban and relatively prosperous background has very little chance of being able to avail of an education beyond primary level, which he will usually have received in Uygur14. If a family seeks to compensate for this educational deficiency with religious schooling, they will have to wait until the child reaches the age of 18 and send him either abroad, in this case to Pakistan, if they can afford it, or to have him follow the course in a Koranic school in another part of China if they have been able to establish contact with the school15. The organisation of clandestine schools is indeed possible, but the risks are real. Thus, the limited opportunities for education mean, that in the streets of the cities, as in Khotan for example, numbers of young boys aged between 12 and 14 work as drivers of ramshackle taxi-carts pulled by donkeys in order to contribute to their families’ needs. Moreover, even a young Uygur graduate of the University of Urumqi has but little hope of professional employment in the region, as his low linguistic competence in Chinese will prevent him obtaining a job, preference being given to Han Chinese speakers. In these hopeless situations, it cannot come as any surprise that young people seek to leave the area or are attracted by a modern discourse which preaches the unity of Islam and a return to the Caliphate16. A number of them, suspected of belonging to the Hizb it-Tahrir17 (Liberation) movement, were arrested18 in the spring of 2001 in Xinjiang19.
5In the other Chinese provinces, the situation is very different, in as much as it is mainly a case of Chinese-speaking Muslims (the Hui). The confrontation then takes place not only with the central state but more with the local authorities. Moreover religious education reveals the rivalries between Muslim religious movements.
6There are about 40,00020 mosques in China, each of which, in theory, has a school21. However, not all the ahong (Imams)22 of these places of worship have students. Apart from the authoritarian restrictions to be seen in Xinjiang, this can be due, in non-conflict situations, to the tiredness and advanced age of the ahong. In these circumstances, students can easily join another school nearby. While the average number of students can be estimated at twenty per mosque, some of them, which have space, better facilities and where the teaching of the ahong is renowned, can bring together a hundred students. In theory at least 18 years old23, these students are mainly boys, particularly in the provinces of the north-west. However the mosque schools are also open to girls when there are no mosques for women24 as in the provinces of the central plain. Some of the students have been to public school, up to the end of the second secondary syllabus (gaozhong); however a large number of them stopped at primary school or at the end of the first secondary school syllabus (chuzhong) and some are virtually illiterate in Chinese. They are natives of different regions and sometimes come from very far away. Tuition fees are paid for by the host community, as is accommodation, if the student’s family is unable to find the money.
7All through the history of Islam in China, as well as today, education has been a major issue. It is a question of maintaining communities of the faithful in an environment which is overwhelmingly non-Muslim. In the sixteenth century, schools were opened at the mosques to provide religious education called jintang jiaoyu (teaching of the room of the classics), characteristic of traditional Islam (laojiao)25, the content of which had been elaborated by an ahong from Shaanxi, Hu Dengzhou (1522-1597)26, on his return from a journey to Mecca. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the fundamentalist and reformist movement ikhwan 27, of Wahhabite inspiration, made the modernisation of education one of its watchwords, insisting at the time on the learning of Chinese and the education of women.
8Other Muslim reformers involved in the intellectual ferment of the whole of Chinese society at the beginning of the twentieth century set up schools, such as the famous teacher’s training college, Chengda28, whose objective was to provide modern teaching combining the joint study of Chinese and Arabic, of history, mathematics, and the sciences, and to promote the sending of students abroad.
9The classic syllabus in traditional Islam (laojiao) called for over ten years of study, with several ahong. The halifa 29 learned Arabic and Persian, the basic texts (the haiti 30, the zaxue 31, the Koran, the sunna 32, the tafsir 33, the fiqh 34 ) and carried on35 with deepening texts in both languages with an emphasis on Persian36, particularly in the case of Sufi teaching and of that dispensed by the female ahong. It was a teaching based on the master to disciple relationship, which favoured a deepening of the understanding of the texts and a broadening of knowledge. This course ended, as it does today, with a ceremony called “the taking of the vestment” (chuanyi)37 which marks the progression from the rank of student to that of ahong.
10With the revival of religious activity, the need to rejuvenate the ahong, and the pressure from reformed teaching, the form and content of the classical syllabus have been modified. The number of years of study has been reduced to four or five, and the special relationship between master and disciple is tending to dissipate, because of the sometimes rapid turnover among the ahong, but above all because of the increasing number of teachers. Where the content is concerned, teaching is limited to the learning of Arabic and knowledge of the basic texts, supplemented by a course on the religious policy of the state. Thus the modernisation of religious teaching takes into account one of the main criticisms made of the ahong of traditional Islam, which was that they are unable to express themselves in Arabic, and pronounce it with a strong Chinese intonation. Arabic is thus learned as a modern language and no longer simply as a written language, the sacred language of the Koran. In order to display the good level of Arabic of today’s young Chinese, competitions in reading the Koran are regularly organised, at provincial and national levels, in the presence of dignitaries from the Muslim world. This improved language training is taking place at the expense of Farsi, which, nevertheless, still remains a language of study in the teaching of the female ahong and the Sufi brotherhoods. However, the texts required for the final examination being mainly in Arabic, works in Persian are tackled less and less frequently. All in all, while young students now have a real ability to speak Arabic, there is, on the other hand, to the regret of many ahong, a reduction in religious knowledge. The academic cycle ends with an examination supervised by the local Bureau of Religious Affairs, by a representative of the local branch of the Islamic Association, if there is one, and by the local ahong. After having taken the vestment, the new ahong is invited by a local community to come and officiate. This reformed teaching has spread to all the mosques in the last few years, whatever movement they belong to.
11Since the 1990s, on the initiative of ahong or of lay teachers, some of the mosque schools, while remaining on the premises or close to the religious building, have changed into independent organisations with the establishment of a director and a specific administration38. Other schools are being built independently. They all have the status of a private or specialised school (sili xuexiao, zhuanye xuexiao, or zhuanke xuexiao).
12 These private schools have acquired considerable importance. Some are known for the numbers of their students, male and female, the diversity of their training, and the possibility they offer of following university education in China (in the foreign language sections) or abroad. They often go by names such as “Sino-Arabic school” (zhong a xuexiao), “Arabic language school” (ayu or alaboyu xuexiao), or “Muslim Culture School” (musilin wenhua xuexiao). These names sometimes convey a specific option; certain schools choose the name “Arabic School” in order to emphasise that their main objective is the teaching of the language; others add another component showing their religious commitment such as Muguang alaboyu xuexiao (“Muslim Light” School of Arabic) or else an Arabic word: Xida zhong a xuexiao (Xidayah (The Right Path) Sino-Arabic School). Others emphasise their characteristic identity: Huizu wenhua xuexiao (School of Hui Culture). Those responsible for the Dali School have, deliberately, not mentioned “Arabic School” or “Sino-Arabic”, but use the concept of Muslim culture: Dali musilin wenhua zhuanke xuexiao (Dali Professional School of Muslim Culture). Indeed, their objective is not to restrict themselves to language learning, but to give the students as wide an awareness as possible of the contemporary world39. These designations show the tensions between what is specific to the Hui identity, what is part of the Muslim identity, and the desire to put Arabic in the forefront, but we cannot draw any general conclusions from this, for the choice of names depends not only on the founder(s) of the school, but also on the local community, on its history and on the circumstances of the moment.
13It is difficult to have an exact idea of the number of these private schools in the whole of China. There are said to be twelve schools in Yunnan province40; for the other provinces, one can estimate that, where the number of Hui is relatively high41, there is a minimum of five or six schools. If one is to believe some young Hui students of this teaching, five schools are considered the most prestigious: one in Ningxia, two in Henan, and two in Yunnan. The content of the teaching is now largely identical; the differences lie in the facilities42, particularly in computers, and in the emphasis given to certain classes. The subjects taught include: Arabic, using textbooks produced in Peking or Shanghai; a more or less extensive basic religious education (Koran, Sunna, fiqh, tafsîr), for which the books come from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait; the history of China and of Islam, with books published in Chinese and mostly written by Hui43. Lastly, there is a course called social sciences, dealing with Chinese legislation and religious policy in China. Some schools offer instruction in modern and classical Chinese, and even sometimes additional courses in English44 and computing. Studies are spread over four years with a final examination which only a few succeed in passing. The schools are often co-educational (but with separate classes)45; the students are aged between 18 and 2546, with girls making up more than half of those registered. They are accepted after having passed the final secondary level examination (chuzhong or gaozhong) or reached an equivalent level. The number of students averages a hundred and can reach three hundred in the biggest schools. More than half come from the province in question, but also from all over China, and although the majority are Muslims (Hui and Uygur), there are also young Han, or, depending on the region, other minzu (Li, Yi, etc.) who convert when their studies begin47. The study costs of the least wealthy are usually paid for48 by the host community. In poor areas, costs are limited to 200 yuan for four years; elsewhere fees average 400 to 500 yuan a year, to which must be added food and lodging costs of between 50 and 100 yuan per month. These modest fees are explained by the financial involvement of the local communities and also by the low levels of remuneration given to teachers, some of whom are retired and work for nothing. Salaries are calculated according to a person’s family situation, geographical origins and training. Which is to say that a man who is the head of a family, who comes from another province from that of the school, and has studied abroad, will have the highest salary. Payments are in the range of 300 to 500 yuan a month. While the majority of teachers are men, about one-third are women. A noteworthy complementary activity is the regular publishing of a newspaper written by the teachers with the participation of the students. These publications are widely distributed in the mosques and in the other schools of each province and beyond; they are used to propagate theological ideas and to provide information on social issues.
14The education of women, a preoccupation often spelt out by the ahong, is one of the major components of current developments49. Thus, evening and sometimes morning classes in the mosques, aimed at adult working or older women, bring together dozens of people and sometimes more. These classes are given by ahong 50 of both sexes. An example is the evening school, called the women’s school (nüxiao), in Sanya on the island of Hainan. This establishment consists of two main buildings, one being reserved for the young girls who follow the regular teaching of one of the village’s mosques, the other being made up of four classrooms. The quiet of the day yields, at nine o’clock, to the buzz of comings and goings, and when the female ahong arrives, there rise the first sounds of the collective recitation of the surats of the Koran, sung out loud, surats which are repeated over and over in order to be remembered. There are about fifteen people in each classroom. The same evening classes are to be found in the women’s mosques in the Central Plain and also in the women’s mosque of Lanzhou (Gansu). A complete plan of action designed to favour the education of girls has gradually been put in place alongside the schools with regular courses. For example, instruction is given one evening a week in specially provided classrooms, or during the holidays in mosque schools, where one can see little girls of five or six learning the Arabic alphabet in chorus. Even more remarkable are those which, with few resources, manage to maintain instruction aimed at adolescent girls.
15Let us take the example of a girls’ school in Shuijinwan, a village in northern Yunnan, near Zhaotong. This very poor village is 90% Hui, whose resources are essentially agricultural. It is a village where there has never really been any education for girls despite the existence of a public school, to which families virtually only send boys51. The situation has apparently grown worse with the advent of family planning. In 1982, an ahong ikhwan 52, along with a woman teacher from another part of Yunnan, decided to found a school for young girls in one of the mosques. This immediately had a hundred students. After having to move twice, the school found a permanent establishment in a former food factory. The son of the ahong took over, with the assistance of five young female teachers, and together they teach over 80 students aged between 12 and 20. The school is considered to be a minban, and receives funds from the local community; when things get too difficult the district authorities assign it a subsidy of 1,000 yuan for the year. The young girls pay no tuition fees, their families are too poor, the only costs are board and lodging (20 yuan per month) which some families cannot pay. The school adds up to 30 yuan per pupil per month. These conditions mean, of course, that the buildings remain dilapidated, the dormitories with floors of beaten earth are cleaned by the pupils, and the meals cooked by the older ones. The teachers are paid a salary of 150 to 200 yuan a month. All the pupils are boarders; they go home to their families only at weekends or on religious holidays. When one sees the harshness of life around it, the school seems a haven of peace, and it is without any doubt a protective place for girls. In principle, the pupils have attended public primary school, and in this school are preparing for the secondary school examinations (chuzhong and gaozhong), but because of infrequent attendance at primary school a remedial class is provided for the youngest. The day begins with exercise in the schoolyard and continues with teaching in Chinese (five hours a week) and the learning of Arabic (eight hours a week). These young girls also receive religious instruction which is increased in the third and fourth years. Few pupils manage to continue their studies, but it is notable that in 2002 four of them were able to go to a mosque school in Shandong.
16For the young girls, the school is a way of getting out of their family environment. It is quite common to hear pupils recount their progress — sometimes rapid, from a few days to a year—from school to school: they stay in the one where they feel most comfortable. For others, it is a real source of hope. A young woman of 19, from a very religious Hui family in Xinjiang, told us how she had been obliged to stop going to primary school in order to help and support her sick mother. Her brothers and sisters were able to pursue their secondary studies normally, while she alone remained at home. When the family situation improved, she wanted to return to secondary studies, but no longer could; one of the religious schools in Yunnan then gave her a way out.
17In parallel with private initiatives, the state has founded Koranic Institutes (yisilanjiao jingxueyuan) at provincial level, through the Department of Religious Affairs and the Islamic Association of China. Established between 1983 and 1987, they now number eight, all over China, in the cities of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Yinchuan, Xining, Kunming, Peking53, Urumqi and Zhengzhou. They have university status54 and their objective is to train ahong, teachers, and Arabic language translators. These Institutes receive major funding55, and one can admire the enormous new buildings which admit numbers of male and female students which are much lower than in the mosque schools or the private schools. The Zhengzhou Institute has only 90 students (47 male, 43 female). The students enter these Institutes at the end of the second secondary cycle (gaozhong) after an examination. Until 2001, the length of studies was only three years, but is now five. Fees are relatively high: even if a student can obtain a grant, they must pay 1,600 yuan for tuition and 140 or 150 yuan a month for lodging. On the other hand the monthly salary of teachers is around 1,200 yuan. In order to attract students, the Institutes, such as the one in Zhengzhou, seek to diversify the syllabus by opening specialised courses in calligraphy, for example, or in martial arts. A considerable number of Muslim parents do not particularly want to send their children there: on top of the selection process for admission and the cost of studies, they are wary of the kind of religious instruction given, since this is entirely controlled by the political authorities.
18Going abroad is an opening for these students who would have had no chance of being able to do so in the framework of public education (their families not being wealthy enough, or not being able to get into the best schools). When they return, having acquired a better knowledge of Muslim societies56, they relay the debates under way in the Muslim world: their approach to society and to the role of Muslims in the world, as well as their behaviour, often depend on where they have studied57.
19For those who have not been lucky enough to go abroad, the normal syllabus leads to becoming an ahong; others become teachers or interpreters (in Canton and Shenzhen) or follow a university course at the Foreign Languages Department of Peking University. The young women, for their part, teach in private schools or can find a job in the kindergartens opened by local communities58. However, many Hui teachers and leaders emphasise that there are now more than enough ahong, and prefer to open other possibilities to the young. From this point of view, it is worth examining the experience of the Dali School. Situated in a small village near the south gate of the city the “Specialised School of Muslim Culture” (musilin wenhua zhuanke xuexiao) was founded by three retirees, two former high school teachers and a former school director. Having returned to their village, they were upset at the irrelevance of classical Koranic teaching to the needs of today and to changes in society. In 1991, they founded a school in a part of the mosque (laojiao), despite the reservations of the old ahong. As well modernised teaching, they decided to open a section entirely in Chinese in order to prepare students for the final examination for the teacher training university of Kunming (shifan daxue)59. In 2002, 13 of the 16 candidates registered passed the examination, which will make it possible for them to teach in a public establishment.
20Islam in China, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, is not monolithic. It has been and continues to be influenced by many movements. While in past centuries there were struggles for influence between traditional Islam and the Sufis, or between the Sufi brotherhoods themselves, since the beginning of the twentieth century the confrontation has widened out to one between a fundamentalist and a modernist Islam, represented by the ikhwan, and more recently to a more rigoristic movement called salafi (san tai)60. The places of confrontation are traditionally the mosque, and sometimes the street, but education has always been one of its main battlegrounds. Today, as in the past, the conflict can become very violent61; formerly disagreements concerned the interpretation of the Koran and religious practices. In our day, the debates have changed little, it is a question of returning to the purity of the origins, of reforming practices which have been overly adapted to local circumstances, of remaining faithful to the Koran and of advocating the unity of Islam. Education is thus by nature the place where these movements are expressed. It is generally on his return from a stay in the Holy Land that a man bearing a rejuvenated gospel introduces his teaching into a mosque school. His charisma, his ability to persuade and train disciples will be the driving force of the success of such a movement, as well, of course, as the social and political situation into which he fits. Consequently, after twenty years of religious activity, profound changes in Chinese society, the anxieties produced by social inequality resulting from economic development, the lack of bearings of many young people and the absence of any democratic political space, mean that a growing number of young people are attracted to the discourse of the salafi movement on the unity of Umma, and by the clarity and simplicity of its doctrine (a return to the faith of the elders (salaf)62. While there is here an attempt to find a kind of social morality, some ideals and a course of action for life—an attempt which is understandable after the preceding years of political campaigns and today’s upheavals—, this rigoristic trend produces other effects, more surprising in the contemporary Chinese context, particularly for women. One becomes aware of it63 at the sight of young girls being educated in the schools of salafi inspiration, who are entirely veiled in black, with their faces covered. This is a singular sight, for the young girls of the religious schools generally only wear a simple headscarf (hijâb) and sometimes long dresses.
21The question of religious education has preoccupied the Chinese authorities since long before September 11th. The increase in the number of schools, the growing numbers of students returning from Muslim countries, the circulation of the writings of reformers from the beginning of the century, which are now banned64, the situation in Xinjiang and also the activities of other movements such as those of the Christians and of the Falungong, have prompted the authorities to increase surveillance. Thus on April 23rd 200165 they established, through the very official Islamic Association of China, a “Committee in charge of Islamic education affairs”, considered to be a specialised commission (zhuanmen) at national level and made up of 16 members, with a Hui majority (10 out 16). The authorities have also provided themselves with an instrument to regain the upper hand and try to control not only the teaching but also the content of religious discourse: “Eliminating among the masses the false interpretations (wujie) and confusion (hunluan) about religious matters”66. The first public initiative took place in Xinjiang in August 2001 and was devoted to the presentation of a new book of sermons published by the Committee in July and strongly recommended67. Sermon competitions will be organised from now on, like those concerning the reading of the Koran. This committee is also responsible for the publishing of translations and of the textbooks for teaching. We have in fact been able to observe, in the private schools we visited, a kind of standardisation through the widespread use of the same books on language, history, etc. However the effectiveness of such methods is open to question, particularly in Xinjiang where the problem has never been of a religious kind. A significant event recently provided evidence of this: after a very official concert during which a poem exalting Uygur national sentiment was sung, a severe call to order68 was addressed to the Party cadres of the region, for an incident which manifestly had nothing to do with religion.
22Thus while the Party is unable to exercise total control over the ideas in circulation, delegating their surveillance to the Muslims themselves seems to be a guarantee of restricting the growth of new movements. However, where the growth of the salafi is concerned, this calculation has so far been mistaken. In fact, the traditional independence of one mosque from another and the increasing autonomy of society make control more difficult. Consequently, between state intervention in matters of religion and the increasing forms of autonomy, there is an unstable balance, the duration of which is difficult to predict. Moreover, the exercise of this control will be all the more complicated because the government will not always be able to use the divisions of Islam among the various “nationalities”. There has been much emphasis on the heterogeneousness of the situations of these “nationalities” and on the differences which divide them on historical, linguistic and cultural levels. These differences are indisputable and are visible to any observer; it is nevertheless true that not only are there exchanges between these groups, but that similar movements of revitalisation pass through them and transcend their boundaries.
Élisabeth Allès, « Muslim Religious Education in China », China Perspectives [Online], 45 | january-february 2003, Online since 23 November 2006, connection on 27 April 2017. URL : http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/230Top of page
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