Islam in China - part 3 - Islamic Education


Muslim in China, Graduation ceremony of a Islamic girl's school

Vhina Muslim Regions

Between Expectations and Ideals:
Hui Women Finding a Place in the Public Sphere through Islamic Education

By Esther Reiser


This paper explores the dynamics of Islamic education in China and the mobility it offers to female students, focusing on the Hui Minzu (Chinese Muslim ethnicity). I will first consider the history of the Hui and draw attention to the hybrid discourses of Islam and Confucianism that have shaped Muslim women′s self perception. I will then look at the nuanced character of the Nusi/Nuxe (traditional mosques and Madressas exclusively for women), and their modern manifestation of mosque education of Muslim communities-the Sino-Arabic School. The resurgence of interest in Islamic education in China since the 1980s has provided Hui women with greater opportunities in public leadership roles in both religious and secular domains and has given them more room for expressing their hybrid Chinese and Muslim identity . This activism on the part of Hui is part of a trend of Islamic activism in the larger Muslim community and will provide a fascinating voice in transnational discussions on Muslim women′s rights.

“Ah! Muslim Sisters! Let us go out this door and purify ourselves in the light of the sun, release our life-energies, give our existence still greater meaning, and our life, splendour! Sisters, let us walk arm-in-arm!”- Lu Jiye and Wang Hailan “For Our Muslim Sisters.”

Globally, efforts have been made by Muslim women to create spaces for themselves and to challenge the highly patriarchal worldview upheld by much of the traditional corpus of classical Islamic law and Qur′anic exegesis, as well as contemporary efforts to uphold this status quo, both historically and now. It is difficult not to make this statement without fear of playing into orientalist stereotypes, but to deny the highly patriarchal character of much of both traditional and modern Islamic scholarship is not only inaccurate, but does a great disservice to Muslim women′s activism. Exclusion from public religious practices and discourse leads Muslim women to develop their own religious spaces, paralleling those of men. As diverse as Muslim women are, religious outlets for women unsurprisingly vary greatly from community to community.

One such example is that of the women′s only mosques and seminaries, known as Nusi and Nuxe in Chinese. These spaces have been utilized by Chinese Muslim or Hui women for over three hundred years. Now although the presence of such establishments may lead the observer to claim, for whatever reason, that Muslim women in China are somehow more advanced in religious knowledge and suffer sexism less than women in other parts of the Islamic world, it must be said that this assumption is not entirely correct. Both Nusi and Nuxe have traditionally taught a very basic religious curriculum, emphasizing basic religious practice, the filial obligations of Muslim women and upholding patriarchal family and societal norms. However, as with other parts of the Islamic world, Chinese women have voiced opposition to male hegemony and, especially in the modern context, have fought to maintain their autonomy. This struggle coincides with the liberalization of Chinese legal policies restricting religious teaching and practice. The resurgence of interest in Islamic education in China since the 1980s has provided Hui women with greater opportunities in public leadership roles in both religious and secular domains and has given them more room for expressing their hybrid Chinese and Muslim identity. To establish this argument, I will analyze Hui history, religious scholarship and praxis.

The Hui People: Identity, Islam and Gender

Before delving into to the importance of Islamic education in Chinese Muslim communities, or considering how mosques function as organs of such knowledge, it is important first to consider the history of Chinese Islam. Islam arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) with the arrival and settlement of Persian and Arab traders and subsequent intermarriage with Chinese women. In the early periods of settlement, Chinese Muslims lived in isolated and insular communities, speaking Arabic and Persian and paying little attention to learning Chinese language or to greater intellectual currents. This dynamic would change significantly in the 17th century with the onset of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE), with its less than tolerant view of minority faiths and the decline of knowledge of Persian and Arabic due to the Sinoization of Chinese Muslim communities.

This set of circumstances led to a movement within Chinese Islamic scholarship wherein Chinese language (as opposed to exclusively Arabic or Persian) was adopted and Neoconfusian concepts and idioms were used to explain religious dogma. This was a highly pragmatic shift: not only did this move present a vehicle to explain Islam to the populace, it also presented Islam as a religion that could exist within the Chinese cultural framework. The choice was also wise for a religious minority fearing persecution from state powers. From the 17th century onward a distinctly Chinese Islamic, or Hui (hitherto referred to as such) identity developed. Islamic concepts such as Tawhid (unity within monotheism) were likened to Neoconfusian concepts of Tao (way of path) and living in harmony with the natural world. Similarities between Islamic and Neoconfusian social and family values, with a shared stress on females refraining from sexual contact (Jie -purity in Chinese) and female subservience within a patriarchal family structure, were exploited.

Wang Daiyu, perhaps the foremost scholar in early Chinese Islam, followed the Confusion idea of sangang wuchang (Three Principals and Five Consents), which for women include segregation and sancong, obedience to the father, husband and son. Yet, even with such restrictions, women, as Muslims, were encouraged to study Islamic doctrine on the basis that it was zhengxue (with an attitude of complete humbleness and obedience to scripture) and, most pragmatically, to ensure children had an understanding of Islam. The later scholar Liu Zhi took Wang’s restrictions a step further, describing women as having greater yin and being therefore morally debased compared to men. This notion of lesser moral status was used to justify the same Confusion-Islamic rhetoric that Wang has espoused earlier. Yet, using examples from exemplary female figures , Liu believed that women could overcome their debasement and even transcend the moral fortitude of men. This view is summarized in his maxim, “a man is a thousand times worthier than a woman but a virtuous woman is a thousand times worthier than a man.

Maria Jaschok and Shui Jingjun in the groundbreaking The History of Women′s Mosques in Chinese Islam: a Mosque of Their Own credit these scholars’ beliefs with the necessity of Islamic education in the establishment of Nusi and Nuxe . Even with such limited parameters of expression, there have been noted female Hui scholars. One example is Sumingdashishi, a woman from a scholarly family who attracted much praise for her religious learning. Male scholars were also among her admirers, a fact which suggests that she had some contact with unrelated men. A meticulous scholar, she attained the title of nu junshi or female scholar. All this was before the advent of jingtang, or standardized religious learning, wherein women would find their scholarly pursuits curtailed.

For Hui communities, the center of the dissemination of religious teachings was the mosques. Mosques play a vital role in the resilience and revitalization of Hui communities. Safeguarding knowledge being the key to communal survival, the Hui mosques across China became centers of Islamic learning. Started in the 16th century by the educator Hu Dengzhou , men training to become Ahongs (religious scholars and leaders) would receive a basic Qur′anic education; the more academically inclined would remain for a 12 year program in which Qur′an, Tafsir (Qur′anic exegesis), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and philosophy would be taught. This method, known as jingtang became the standard of Hui religious education . The most distinctive innovation of the Hui educational program was the establishment of mosques and madrassas (religious schools) for women only: mosques known as Nusi and madrassas known as Nuxe. Marshallsay maintains that the development of these female-only learning centers was a product of pragmatism to ensure cultural survival; however, Shui maintains that these learning centers had provided for women a space of religious autonomy, beyond the grasp of patriarchal legal and dogmatic interpretations, depending on the leadership and financial independence. Even with the traditional strong hold Ahongs may have had over Nusi/Nuxe curriculum, Hui woman have utilized this space as a platform to voice their agency and challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islamic doctrine.

Nusi, Nuxe and Nu Ahongs: the Traditional Face of Women′s Islamic Education in China

The very concept of women′s mosques has caught the eye of the present Muslim world, with some communities quickly imitating this process. Some have hailed it as a progressive feature for women′s rights that developed remarkably on the fringe of the Islamic world. Others have questioned this interpretation, both from a feminist standpoint, where women′s mosques are dismissed as agents of male hegemony, and also from a religious stand point; as Ingrid Matson points out, where women′s mosques are seen as causing social disruption (Fitnah in Arabic) by encouraging women to leave their homes, thereby becoming neglectful of filial obligations. While I do not intend to explore the theological arguments for or against the women′s mosques in this paper, I have found strength in both arguments with respect to women′s mosques as centers of re-enforcing patriarchy, but also the possibility they can serve women′s interests in developing a female friendly space .

The leadership of the Nusi/Nuxe comes under a female teacher known as a Nu Ahong (female Ahong-scholar). How independent these teachers are from the male-controlled Mosques and their respective Ahongs varies depending on circumstances: single (divorced or widowed) Nu Ahong in independent Nusi has greater autonomy than Nu Ahong who are married to Ahong and teach in the Nusi/Nuxe connected to the main (male) mosques. It is important to recall that, the tradition of the Nusi/Nuxe is old indeed, dating back to the 16th century, thanks to Hui scholarship that found it necessary to provide future Muslim youth with educated mothers. In the past, in Nusi/Nuxe, women′s education was hardly comparable to the lengthy academic careers of their male peers. Women did not learn Arabic or any advanced Islamic doctrine. Instead, they studied what is known as the “woman′s Qur′an”, Persian text which is a collection of Qur′an and Hadith (prophetic traditions) which dealt mainly with basic Islamic rituals (especially involving purification) and home practice. Women were also instructed how to be proper wives and mothers and, if need be, provided with emotional and spiritual support by the Nu Ahong and other women in religious and family matters.

Still, it would be erroneous to paint the Nusi/Nuxe as purely agents of male hegemony. Historically, there have been examples of noteworthy Nu Ahong who not only challenged male scriptural interpretations, but who also served the larger Chinese community as political actors. One such example is Yang Huizhen, a Nu Ahong of a Nusi in the Henan province of central China. Committed to women′s rights, she preached an Islamic theology that called for female engagement in the public world. Living through the long and bloody Japanese occupation of China, she was also very active in providing for families left destitute by war and famine: she made her Nusi into a make shift shelter and started soup kitchens. What is also noteworthy is that her activism knew no religious boundaries; Yang provided much needed assistance to members of both Hui and Han communities. However, her actions were seen as nefarious by the male mosques leadership, who issued an edict that, by violating codes of gender segregation, she would have to be removed from her post. Yang was thereby ejected from her Nusi and replaced with a more compliant Nu Ahong. It is important to bear in mind, however, that Nusi/Nuxe do provide women with some degree of education, and this traditional paradigm of religious education offers women in isolated agrarian parts of China some form of schooling, where government provisions for education leave much to be desired to this day.

As Jashok and Chan illustrate by their interview in the with a Nuxe pupil who claimed that, as a farmer, secular education was useless to her; Islamic education however, provided her with useful and illuminating knowledge on how to prepare for the next life. More and more Nusi/Nuxe are also providing secular education as well as religious education, which although irrelevant for some farmers, do provide educational and work opportunities for young urban women. Moreover, some Nusi and Nu Ahongs have come to be highly independent of male control. One example is the Beidajie Nusi in Zhengzhou, Henan province. The Nu Ahong of this Nusi, Du Shuzhen, is a fiercely independent woman whom, after becoming a widow at eighteen, refused to remarry and devoted her life to Qur′anic study, supporting herself as a seamstress. In this Nusi, Du Shuzen has trained eight Nu Ahong, who have taken up positions across the country, including urban areas with large Hui populations such as Xi′an. The Beidajie Nusi is independent of the local (male) Mosques. All funding comes either from communal donations, services the pupils provide such as washing the dead, or simply from Du′s personal income, generated by her sewing. Changes have taken place in regards to the understanding of women′s education throughout China with the Hui communities being no exception. At this point we turn to the modern variant of Islamic education in China, the Sino-Arabic school, and what this means for the education of Hui Women.

The Sino-Arabic School and the New Frontier of Hui Women′s Education.

The 1980s saw an explosion in the supply and demand of Islamic education in China . This was due to the immense change in the Chinese political landscape that was supposed to make up for wrongs committed during the Cultural Revolution. Another factor in the rise of Islamic education was the establishment of diplomatic ties and trade relations with predominantly Muslim countries, specifically the Gulf states. This combination of pragmatism and liberalization of government policy has resulted in both a widespread trend in minority (including Hui) re-affirmation of identity and in external funding for both Islamic schools and programs to study abroad. The funding for these schools comes principally from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Iran.

Even with the reputation these countries may have as Islamic ideological centers, the funding received is usually poor and most Hui look to their own communities for funding. With the exceptions of Xianjiang and Qinghai (where the Chinese Government fears separatist activities), Sino-Arabic schools are usually overlooked by the Chinese government and sometimes welcomed as a financial break for the large education budget. What exactly do these schools teach? Modernist movements in the Islamic world, according to Mazen Hashem, can be divided into roughly three catagories: the Salafi (Literalist) praxis the Mathhabi (legalist) praxis and the Eclectic praxis, which favors modernist reform and cultural relativism. These pan-national trends in Islamic thinking are reflected in ideological debates found in Hui religious publications, and Sino-Arabic school curriculum. Sino-Arabic school curriculum varies from isolationist, Saudi-inspired rhetoric that is limited to religious matters and Hui history and where only Arabic language is taught , to modern schools and colleges that, in addition to religion, teach various secular subjects, including math, Chinese language, and Chinese history and computer sciences. The aim of the latter is to produce educated “Chinese Muslims” who can write University entrance exams and even travel abroad to study.

A retired principal of the Dali Muslim Culture College in Yunnan, points to the “student led” May Fourth Movement (Wusi Yundong) of 1911, with its espousal of nationalism and incorporation of material sciences as his schools guiding ideology. , and women′s rights is one of the main platforms. The Hui were not exempt from this movement and advocacy for a “modernist” integrated Islam that promoted women′s education and continued well into the 1940′s. This period saw the birth g of the Hui women′s journal Yisilan Funu Zazhi (Islamic Women′s Magazine), put out by the Shanghi Islamic Women′s Association. This magazine appealed to Hui nationalism by calling upon Hui woman to reclaim their rights as Muslim women, yet, following larger Chinese sentiment, spoke out forcefully against Japanese Imperialism . This ideological basis is significant, still what does this mean for Hui women in

Sino Arabic schools today ?

The answer depends on a number of factors. Location within China dictates whether or not schools will be segregated. In Yunnan, in the South of China, four out of twelve Sino-Arabic schools are girls only (the remaining eight are mainly male, but allow for female enrollment), whereas in Ningxia, in the conservative North, schools are mainly segregated. Yet, even in conservative areas just as Ningxia, these schools offer opportunities for women to pursue a public career within a cultural setting in which such an opportunity would otherwise be non-existent. One such example is in the Northern city of Linxia, where an Ahong, Ma Zhixin, opened up a Sino-Arabic school for boys in the 1970′s and later girls in the 1980′s. The girls′ school was later put under the control of his daughter, Ma Xiulan, who expanded the school and even launched from it a Muslim women′s quarterly journal.

As Alle, points out, the formation of all female schools in this region is notable, for there is not a strong Nusi/Nuxe tradition here and Islamic (and Confucian) ideals of female segregation are still staunchly upheld. With the Cultural Revolution era closure of all same sex schools, Northern Hui women′s literacy rates were, to quote Michael Dillon, “severely affected .” The lift on same sex schools and a shared focus on secular and Islamic learning opens up doors for Hui women of Northern China, granting them a modern education while respecting the cultural sensitivities. In less conservative areas, such as South/Central China and the major cities, women in Sino-Arabic schools are trained in secular subjects and often do enroll at secular universities in various fields. Furthermore, many female graduates of these schools even travel overseas to study . This feat is quite remarkable, for the travel of young and unmarried women is equally contradictory to Islamic and Neo-Confucian traditions, as both place high priority on women′s filial obligations.

Travel to other parts of the world, Islamic or otherwise, also opens up young Hui women to global discourses on Islam, gender and human rights, and likewise, enables them to share the Chinese experience of said ideas. With the current multitude of Islamic praxis through the Islamic world, including a rapidly growing Islamic feminist movement, it is critical to broach the subject of how such ideological trends will influence the next generation of Hui women. Perhaps most importantly, Sino-Arabic schools present Hui girls with an atmosphere in which they can learn and be comfortable within their own identity. As one young student remarks of her experiences in a state run school: “If you are a Muslim, you come to school in a headscarf . . . everyone will . . . tease you by saying ′disgusting, in a head scarf!′ So nobody (wears it), all of us care for face (ai mianzi) . . . Muslims themselves will also certainly say so: ′what? Wearing a headscarf in the school, in the classroom? Are you mad?” Sino-Arabic schools give young girls (and boys) a sense of pride and solidarity in there ethno-religious identity.

Gender Inclusion or Gender Exclusion? Looking at Islamic Education Critically

Although Hui women often boast that, unlike Han (Chinese) women, they have a lengthy history of education and therefore more rights, when compared to the religious education of men, Hui women still face gendered discrepancy: the traditional curricula upholds a patriarchal Weltanschauung . As Shui points out, religion is something very much looked down upon is contemporary China: it is often dismissed as foolhardy and “superstitious” . Following this rationale, any womens ′ religious activism would only re-affirm antiquated patriarchal status quo. Women of faith (including the Hui) in China face a patriarchal double bind: they are constrained by sexist attitudes in the larger cultural context as well as sexist interpretations of faith. Although a supporter of the establishment of reformist Nusi and Islamic education, Shui admits that tradition plays a large role in the operation of many Nusi, which upholds a patriarchal status quo.

Financial concerns also play into concerns about the future of Nusis and Nu Ahongs. As Nu Ahong Sun Chengying states, the pay for a Nu Ahong is extremely low. Sun blames this for the fact she has not had new students for six years. Most young women look toward more affluent careers which they can provide better support for their families. An argument could be made from this assertion that the existence of the Nusi/Nuxe does more harm than good. As long as they are split off into separate communities, Ahongs will always be privileged in both Hui and the larger Chinese society simply by virtue of being men.

Although Islamic education could be looked to as one possible area, this presents points for concern as well. As Deniz Kandiyoti and Nadira Azimova state in their study on Uzbek women and their relationship with Islam after the fall of the communist government, women saw their role of preserving religion in the domestic sphere and in informal (and illegal) religious gatherings usurped by the again powerful male religious authority. This re-emergent ′ulama (scholarly class) espoused a more orthodox religious praxis, and often denounced women′s religious practice as heretical, as they are not grounded in textual modes of worship. Women who attended these male dominated madrassas were exposed to a heavily andocentric religious doctrine. Even if sufficiently educated, they would not be considered equal to men in traditional Islamic jurisprudence.

The situation in Uzbekistan makes for an interesting parallel with that of China: both countries have experienced recent periods of political liberalization surrounding religion, and both have experienced popular movements by Muslims to re-discover their religious past. When considering Hashem’s analysis of the financial resourcefulness and globalizing tendencies of traditional and literalist Islamist movements that are highly patriarchal, it is clear that there is validity to the concern that the growth of Islamic education in China may, by and large, not present Hui women with a new reading of Islamic texts, but may only serve to re-enforce a patriarchal reading of Islam, and reduce the Nusi/Nuxe to a heretical fringe movement, thereby robbing Hui women of their religious autonomy .


Islamic education in China has a very real potential to improve the lives of Hui women. It offers educational opportunities that have been often denied, either due to extreme poverty, life styles, poor government policy or a combination of all three. It is too soon to tell if the direction Islamic education will ultimately take in China with the greater funding and the passing of time will be, or what the implications will be for Hui women. Yet, as examples of educated Hui women moving into the career world and traveling abroad show, greater opportunities through Islamic education are already being realized. The actions of Chinese Muslim or Hui women in pursuing modern education and greater social mobility, while maintaining both their Chinese and Muslim identity in an often hostile Communist environment, is an example of what Meena Sharify-Funk calls “negotiating the self-other” : maintaining multiple identities (women, Chinese, Muslim) and negotiating the place they have in their lives. Sharify-Funk goes on to describe the transnational character of “othering,” or diminishing all identity and agency of Muslim women to a set of pre-conceived notions, from both within, and without, the global Muslim community.

Historically, Muslim women had little chance to define themselves (at least in broader social terms) and were defined my either the male ′ulama class or the male colonialist. Modern Muslim women′s activism represents a break with this precedent, allowing women to voice their own identities and develop an Islamic hermeneutic that is more reflective of women′s experiences. It is easy to see how this rhetoric applies to Hui women, who face discrimination as Muslim women, both within the religious framework and in the larger society: in the religious context they are relegated to secondary leadership roles, where as in the larger Han context, they are dismissed as “irrational” religious women or “backward” minorities. The question remains, how will (or can) Islamic education remedy this?

In her memoir A Border Passage: From Cairo to America-a Woman’s Journey, Leila Ahmed explores the power of male hegemony in Islamic societies and how, traditionally, women, owing both to wide spread illiteracy and personal choice, drew upon their own understandings of Islam, what Ahmed calls “women′s Islam”, to navigate their beliefs and practices. Widespread literacy, Ahmed maintains, is both a blessing and curse, as it does open up women to wider opportunities in scholarship and employment, yet it also diminishes their spiritual autonomy, that female- centric religious space and rituals offer.

For Hui women, at least, the Nusi/Nuxe serves this purpose of an independent space, especially as modern Nusis become more robust and independent of men′s mosques. Although one may think that these Sino-Arabic schools limit Hui women and girls religious agency by exposing them to male hegemony directly, it is important to remember how Sino-Arabic schools have either been inspired by, or sources of, Hui women′s publications and have presented Hui women exposure to global Islamic currents and debates, including those on matters of gender. The voice of the Hui woman, both as a Muslim and as a Chinese citizen, is rising. As women-only mosques are springing up in other parts of the world, the question is, what further influence will this voice have and how will it will be implemented and articulated .


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About the Author: Esther Reiser is a fourth year religious studies student considering the possibility of Graduate school. She has various interests in Chinese Islam, especially the modernist movements, the Xidaotang and the Yihewani, with particular interest in the Salafi turned nationalist reformer Hu Songshan. Esther visited China when she was seven years old, and judging by her interests, a part of her never left.