Saturday, August 13, 2005

Why the Hui?   posted by Razib @ 8/13/2005 09:53:00 PM

A friend asked me about my recent fixation on the Hui (see here, here and here). The simplest answer was that I get interested in topics on occassion. But upon second thought I realized that this was closest to the mark: "...they are a Muslim population of ancient lineage that has perpetuated itself in a profoundly non-Muslim milieu for at least 700 years." The key, for me, is that the Hui are profoundly and deeply Muslim and Chinese.

The vast western half of China which is inhabited by Uighers and Tibetans and a host of other assorted peoples was only recently integrated into the Chinese nation-state. During most of the Qing Dynasty they were separately administered as Manchu protectorates. Even during the earlier dynasties, like the Tang and Han, when the Tarim Basin oases came under Chinese suzerainty they were never part of the Chinese "system." An analogy would be the decades long coexistence of Great Britain and Hanover during the 18th century as possessions of the same monarch which still remained separate polities. Another analogy would be Scotland and England before the Act of Union which irrevocably unified the two nations as "Great Britain" (also including Wales). My point is that the relations between the Muslim Uighers and Han civilization can not give us deep insights because they have very shallow historical roots, and the difference is not limited to just religion, but includes political and linguistic gulfs. Though the Islamist sympathies of many Uighers are known, until the past generation pan-Turkish nationalism animated the separatist movements of "East Turkestan" as much as religious sentiments.

In contrast the Hui (whose name ironically is a garbling of "Uigher") are part of Han civilization as a long standing minority (until the 18th century they monopolized the astronomical corp of the palace functionaries). The intersection between the Han and the Hui in terms of language, physiognomy and shared history is profound. It is religion, and all of the concomitant traits that are implicated in that, which separate the Hui. To get to the root of it I suspect that the Hui and Han experience can tell us something of the future of Muslims in the United States. I specify the United States because it is in this nation that I think one is most likely to see a generic "Muslim American" identity emerge, and the reason is that unlike Europe the American Muslim community is not dominated by one particular ethnic group. In this way there might actually be a similarity to the Hui, who were themselves diverse in origin, Persian, Arab and Turk, not to mention local converts.1 The Hui are certainly very different from the majority Han, but they are integrated and have a stake in Chinese civilization, which they have been part of for at least 700 years. After all, the famous Chinese explorer, Zheng He (Cheng Ho) was a Muslim. The prologue to the Dao of Muhammad opens with a debate as to the morality of the raising of a Hui official to the status of governor between two Han scholars, with commentary (and defense of the act) from Musllim scholars. This is important, whereas in some nations there are debates among Muslims as to the religious validity of participation in the government of a non-Muslim polity, the Hui proactively argued that there was nothing untoward in their participation in the Chinese examination system and mandarinate.2 As I have noted in my previous post, the Hui intellectual class also justified their inclusion in the Chinese order primarily through the references to Confucianism, not through Islam (there was little quibbling about whether China was part of the "Dar-al-Harb," or whether Muslims were in "treaty" with the Chinese state, Muslim minority status within a non-Muslim polity was a given). Interestingly, a few years ago I remember watching an episode of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher where a young Muslim Republican declared that "Muhammad was a capitalist, he was a merchant, so he would have loved the United States."3 In many ways I think this is similar to the Hui declaration that Muhammad was a "sage," "scholar" and "righteous monarch." Unlike the Muslims of most of Europe the American Muslims are not disproportionately underclass, but scattered across the class spectrum. Similarly, the Hui do not seem particularly poor nor rich. This lack of explicit class tension eliminates an important confounding variable.

Of course, this is not to say that all has been well with the Hui-Han relationship. Last year Time reported on ethnic conflict in Henan between the Hui and the Han. In the 19th century the Hui rebelled against the Qing dynasty in the northwest and in Yunnan, and many were expelled and became the core of the Dunganpeople of Central Asia (as I have noted, the Hui have often been military enforcers for the Chinese state in places like Xinjiang or Yunnan, but this also means that they can be trouble makers). Nevertheless, I think the long residence of the Hui, and their prominence periodically as servants of the Chinese state, attest to the fact that the relationship has not been predominantly adversarial. Unfortunately, with the Hui contact with the outside world and an internalization of the normative Muslim discourse in relation to non-Muslims where conditions differ (ie; non-Muslims are traditionally conceived of as dhimmis) I do not know if their local adaptations will persist.

Addendum: To illustrate further why the Hui are an important exemplar of Muslim minority interaction with non-Muslims, consider Thailand. The vast majority of the Muslims in that nation are actually ethnic Malays whose sultanates were conquered by the Thai monarchy over the past few centuries. But, a minority of the Muslims are "Thai Muslims," in that they are ethnic Thai who usually live in the heart of the country and happen to practice the Muslim religion instead of the Buddhist one (it is plausible that these families have their origin amongst Muslims who settled in the north and were originally Malay, but assimilated Thai ethnic identity). When considering the conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of Thailand it is important to remember that there is a strong ethnic angle to the rebellion in the south, and to eliminate this variable one might examine how the Thai Muslims interact with the Buddhist populace.

1 - South Asia is another region where a small number of foreign Muslims were absorbed into the cultural substrate and far greater numbers converted. But there is a large difference between the Hui and the South Asian Muslims in that the latter are more intimately connected with the West Asian Muslim communities, and, they are a larger minority who also have a history of domination of the non-Muslim majority in the recent past.

2 - The Jews of Kaifeng also participated in the examination system, to the point where it was a serious issue because their cultivation of the Chinese literary canon resulted in their neglect of Torah and Talmud learning.

3 - It is true that Muhammad was a merchant, but that does not necessarily mean he was a "capitalist."