Women Imams of China

"The history of Islam's spread into China is not well known. In the seventh century, after the caliph Otman set up his first embassy there, Arab and Persian traders, scholars and diplomats entered China as far as Canton via the Silk Road and by sea. They eventually formed their own class of high-ranking civil servants, especially under the Yuan Mongol dynasty. Later, erudite scholars well-versed in Chinese, Arabic and Persian (the language in which learning was passed on) confirmed the emergence of a Chinese Islam as a cultural and religious force.

From the 10th century on, these Muslims married Chinese women and founded families. Their descendants today are the Hui, Muslims who speak Mandarin and cannot be distinguished physically from the rest of the population. The Hui have melted into the ethnic landscape, unlike some other Chinese Muslims such as the Uighur, from Xinjiang region, who are descended from Central Asian tribes and speak a Turkic language.

The Hui would be just another Sunni community, albeit somewhat exotic compared with those in the Middle Eastern Islamic world, were it not for the fact that they have instituted a tradition that is almost unknown among Muslims: the setting up women's mosques, or nüsi, and the creation of female imams.
It is a fairly recent tradition: the first nüsi would seem to go back only to the 19th century and the reign of the Qing dynasty.
The women's mosque in Zhengzhou, which was built in 1912, is more than a holy place; it is a living space where dozens of women, most of them elderly, meet in a convivial atmosphere. They do not practise any form of ostracism against men, who have their own mosque next door but are not forbidden from entering the women's building except during the five daily prayer sessions.

Maryam feels that in China "equality between men and women is encouraged; that is why Muslim women are not discriminated against here as they sometimes are elsewhere. As a woman, I feel equal to men."

When asked if that is not one of the consequences of communism, which in theory advocates equality between the sexes, she replies: "Yes, here in China we practise an Islam that has Chinese characteristics" - a politically correct way of defining the concept. "The national ideology takes precedence over the doctrine of Islam. We live in a communist country, but we're free to practise our religion. No one is any longer forced to give up his or her beliefs. In our view it's important to live in peace with the system. The People's Republic of China doesn't force us to be communists and leaves us free to believe in God. Nor does Chinese communism force us to become the slaves of atheism."

Women Imams Of China