In post-Maoist China today, the Islamic faith seems to be not only surviving, but gradually reviving :
In Lanzhou, on the banks of the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese civilisation, a Muslim mosque and madrasah seminary stand side by side with Buddhist shrines in White Pagoda Park. And in the park each morning, hundreds of rhythmically twisting Buddhists do their daily Tai Ji workout - daily gymnastics - just as devout young Muslim clerics begin a day of study and prayer.
At Xi'an, formerly Ch'ang-an, "City of Eternal Peace" and capital of Imperial China for over a thousand years, the Great Mosque, the oldest and largest mosque in China, and also the oldest and largest Mosque outside Mecca, is proudly displayed to visitors as part of China's national heritage -along with the life-size terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang-Ti.
At Turpan oasis, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, teenagers turn their Mao-style peaked caps back-to-front to pray - foreheads to the ground, facing Mecca - in a mosque ressembling a Qing Dynasty pavilion.
This unusual mixture of Islamic religious practice, ancient Chinese culture and modern dedication to the PRC may seem incongruous at first. But Islam, in fact, has been practiced in China since the seventh century when Arabs, Persians and Turks riding the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean and treading the peaks of the Pamir Mountains, began to introduce the new faith in the major cities of Northern China where soon after there existed the second largest Muslim community in the world. In the course of the next 200 years, Islam spread throughout Southern China too as other Muslims travelled along the old Silk Road and the maritime trade routes. Today, it is the religion of 10 of China's 56 nationalities: the Uighur, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Uzbek, Tatar and Sala, all Turkic peoples; Tungxiang and Paoan, of Mongol origins; the Iranian Tajik; and the Han Chinese.
Official government statistics for the total Muslim population in China add up to about 200 million people - but many unofficial outside tallies put the Muslim population of China much higher at 450 million people. And while figures of all religious groups in Communist China are somewhat questionable, since they are usually computed based on ethnic origin rather than religious affiliation, there is no doubt that there is a substantial Muslim population in the Peoples Republic. Muslims, furthermore, along with other religious groups in China, seem to have regained a certain measure of religious and secular freedoms. Since 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, mosques were often defaced, destroyed or closed, but today mosques have not only been reopened, but also renovated or rebuilt - partly at government expense - and copies of the Koran once destroyed by the rampaging Red Guards who spearheaded the revolution, have been reprinted and distributed, also with government help.
Last summer, for example, in the northwest provincial capital of Urumqi, three of the city's 20 mosques were being painstakingly restored and copies of the Koran - old and new - were on sale at a stall in one of its main squares. Lanzhou today boasts two new mosques, while the Great Mosque in Xian - is currently undergoing major repairs, the first stage of which, renovation of the minbar, will cost about $2.179.000.
Under China's current leadership, in fact, Islam appears to be undergoing a very strong revival. Religious leaders report more worshippers now than before the Cultural Revolution, and a reawakening of interest in religion among the young.
Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin, for example, says that 5000 to 6000 worshipers attend Friday prayers at Niujie, the largest of the 40 grand mosques that serve Beijing's huge Muslim community. "At festivals we get multitudes of believers," he adds, proudly showing visitors around his recently repainted mosque - its ceiling decorated with pictures of fruit and flowers, its pillars lacquered in red and gold, and its walls covered with a mixture of Arabic and Chinese motifs.
Elsewhere, there are similar reports. Throughout China's vast Xinjiang region, the muezzin's call to prayer echoes in such desert oases as Kashi (Kashgar), Aksu, Kuga (Kucha), Hami, Turpan and Khotan (Khoton). Mosques too are well filled in the cities of the Gansu Corridor, once vital links in the old Silk Road between China and the West, while, in the walled city of Xian, Chinese guides respectfully detain tourists at the main gate of the much-visited Great Mosque until the numerous faithful finish one of the five daily prayer sessions.
Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin also elaborates that "more and more" people - over 14.000.000 since 1983 - are making the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, despite normally severe restrictions on overseas travel for individual Chinese in the past. He also reports a new influx of young men into the Islamic studies. At the Lanzhou madrasah, last summer, for example, all 2000 places were filled, and at an Islamic college attached to Beijing's Dong Si mosque another 17 high school graduates were studying to be imams.
The Muslims have also gained a measure of toleration from the Communist regime. The Muslim communities are allowed separate cemeteries; the Muslim couples may have their marriage consecrated by an imam; and all Muslim workers are permitted holidays during major religious festivals.
As well as religious gains, the Muslims have also won significant secular concessions from China's Communist rulers; they are, for example, playing an increasingly important role in regional and local administration. In the predominantly Muslim Northern provinces and Xinjiang region, which cover over 50 percent of the total land area of China, Han Chinese Muslims and Muslims of other nationalities now hold a majority of government posts; four of the seven members of the regional government and 26 of the 37 members of the Standing
Committee of the People's Congress of Xinjiang are those who mostly practice Islam. In the capital, Imam Dawud Shi Kunbin serves as a member of the Standing Committee of Beijing's Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference, and says "Muslims head all administrations in the street " where mosques are located.
Most Muslims are prospering economically too since the Chinese government introduced more liberal agricultural policies and stepped up industrial investment in the areas where they live. Capital investment by the central government in such autonomous regions including the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region - has totaled about $9,2 billion since 1978, and in 1983, when agricultural production peaked in China, farmers in the northwestern China produced 39., million tons of grain and 180 million head of livestock.
The result of this increased prosperity was dearly visible last summer at Turpan, where Muslim farmers acknowledged that they earned far more than the average city dweller and the sight of motorcycles parked in the vine shaded courtyards of their walled, mudbrick homes wrung looks of envy from visitors from Beijing.
Culturally too, the non-Han Chinese Muslims seem to have gained more freedom. Newspapers and books, television programs and films are being printed and produced in their own languages; the Xinjiang Daily, for example, is published in Uygur and Khazakh as well as in Chinese. All non-Han Chinese Muslim students are able to go to school in their mother tongue and are also allowed to take university entrance examinations in their own language. At the same time, the government is taking special pains to preserve and promote the colourful folk dances and songs of the Muslim Uygurs of Xinjiang.
Most of these already-practiced privileges were recently confirmed in the "Law of Regional Autonomy for non-Han Nationalities" adopted by the Sixth National People's Congress. The law stipulates that the administrative head of an autonomous region, prefecture or county - de facto, previously a member of the non-Muslim Han Chinese - may be picked from one of the nationalities or Muslim Han Chinese people exercising regional autonomy in the area.
The newly enacted legislation also allows autonomous areas to develop their economies independently - within the framework of state plans, of course - and formulate their own laws according to the characteristics and needs of their locality. It also gives all non-Han Chinese ethnic groups the freedom to use their own spoken and written languages, develop their own culture and education, and practice their own religion.
Such policies represent a dramatic reversal since the days of the "Great Leap Forward" and the Cultural Revolution, when, for example, the government attempted to dilute the Muslim population of Xinjiang, by settling masses of non-Muslim Han Chinese there, and by replacing Muslim leaders.
This turnaround in policies probably reflects a more realistic attitude by China's government towards the Han Chinese Muslims and the non-Han ethnic groups who may make up no more than 30 percent of the population, but who occupy over 60 percent of the land of China - much of it strategically important and rich in natural resources.
Predominantly Uygur Xinjiang, for example, borders the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan and is rich in minerals, including oil. While Yunnan on the southwest frontier, which has a substantial Muslim population with Turkic descent, borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam and has some of China's largest timber reserves. For the government, it may seem wiser to keep the Muslims there happily within the communist fold.
This, to be sure, may be a kind of tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the Chinese Muslims, but it cannot be denied that they are benefiting; whatever the motives, the new political realism translates into official tolerance. Those who lived through the repressive days of the Cultural Revolution are understandably skeptical about the future. But for the moment, at least, Islam is very much alive among peoples who have managed to practice their faith, sometimes against great odds, since the oppressive Qing Dynasty period.