Salafism, or Salafiyya, is a doctrinal-intellectual current within Islam that espouses a return to the ways of the Salaf As-Salih (the Pious Ancestors), the first three generations of Muslims who lived during and after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Often described as being rooted in the works of the medieval scholars Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah, Salafism seeks to establish a more “authentic” religious experience predicated on a presumably correct reading of the Quran and the sunnah (the sayings and practices of the Prophet) and away from the supposed bid’ah (innovations) and heretical practices that have “polluted” it.
This current moreover embraces to a certain extent a rejection of the madhhab (legal school) Sunni traditions that had emerged in Islam’s early centuries. As a relatively modern phenomenon building on the Sunni orthodox revivals of the 18th century, the failures of traditional Muslim authorities to contend with mounting internal and external challenges, as well as the spread of new modernistic discourses, Salafism found a popular following across many Muslim societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its growth was facilitated by Saudi Arabia – which embraced its own idiosyncratic brand of Salafism rooted in the mid-18th century religious revivalism that swept central Arabia (usually denoted by its detractors as Wahhabism after its “founder” Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab) – especially after its annexation of Mecca and Medina in 1924-25, and the subsequent influx of oil wealth, which endowed the country with the religious authority and means (universities, charities, organizations, preachers, and communicative mediums) to promote this current globally.
Among China’s Hui ethnic group, Saudi-influenced Salafism has been present for nearly a century. Aside from the intellectual residue influencing other sects and currents, its most obvious manifestation is to be found in the Salafi sect, which constitutes a small minority within the community of the faithful in China. Concentrated in small clusters across the Northwest and Yunnan, and identified by their “Saudi” clothes, Salafis have elicited fear and opposition from their ideological opponents within the wider Chinese Muslim community, leading at times to outright sectarian conflict.
Since the 1990s, and particularly following 9/11, the Chinese state has placed the Salafi community under close surveillance, fearing that its close connections with Saudi Arabia as well as presumed Uighur Salafi networks, not to mention the sect’s considerable growth over the past few years (attracting not only other Hui, but increasingly Han as well), might herald political and religious violence in the future. These security concerns have only abounded with the rising specter of the Islamic State and the appearance of a few Chinese fighters in the ranks of the contending Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Historical Roots of Chinese Salafism
Although relatively isolated since the 14th century with the disintegration of the Yuan dynasty, the Hui Muslim communities, and especially those in the Northwest of China, remained open to the religious and intellectual influences emanating from other parts of the Muslim world. The spread of the various Sufi tariqas (orders), such as the Naqshibandis, Kubrawis, and Qadiris, during the late Ming and early Qing in China in the 17th century, as well as the consolidation of Sufi tariqas with their own distinct lineages, tombs and practices (such as the Khuffiyya and Jahriyya), is indicative of this permeability, which endured primarily through the Hajj and overland trade networks via Central Asia and Yunnan. Unsurprisingly, the transmission of Salafism – or initially Wahhabi ideas – amongst the Hui follows this template in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wahhabism gained converts in China throughout the Republican era, primarily as a byproduct of the growing traffic of Muslim pilgrims going to the Hejaz, facilitated by the proliferation of new means of transportation such as the steamship. Between 1923 and 1934, hundreds of Hui Muslims made the Hajj. In 1937 – prior to the full-fledged Japanese invasion of the country – well over 170 Hui reportedly boarded a steamer in Shanghai bound for Mecca. The effects of this were palpable, ranging from a noticeable increase in the availability of Wahhabi literature across China in the 1930s, as observed by the scholar Ma Tong, to high-profile conversions of detractors of the movement, including Sufi Sheiks.
It is from within this context that the first pronounced Salafiyya sect emerged within China and mostly, interestingly enough, in reaction to the perceived “departure” of the Yihewani movement from its puritan and proto-Wahhabi ethos. The founding propagator of an explicit Salafism is usually identified as Ma Debao (1867-1977), originally a Yihewani adherent who officiated in various mosques across the Northwest. His earliest encounters with Salafism came through a visiting – presumably Arab – scholar who settled in Xining, Qinghai in 1934 to teach the Wahhabi doctrine. This exposure led him to reassess some of his views, although his major intellectual transformation would only come when he departed for the Hajj in 1936, a period during which he spent considerable time at the Salafi Dar Al-Hadith school.
On returning to China in 1937, Ma Debao became an enthusiastic promoter of the teachings, quickly gathering a following of his own centered in the Xinwang mosque in Linxia, Gansu and breaking away in turn from the Yihewani movement, whom he perceived to have compromised their beliefs. His Salafi group encountered strong opposition from the established Yihewani clergy and their warlord backers, forcing the movement to assume a more cautious and quietest attitude towards politics for the sake of its survival.
After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Salafis – now unfettered by the Muslim warlords – experienced a brief period of religious growth, with its leadership actively participating in a number of state organs as well as the newly created Islamic Association of China (IAC). This soon came to an end as the 1958 “Religious Reform Campaign,” followed by the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), forced the movement underground as many of its leaders and adherents were killed off or sent to concentration camps. It survived as remnants from the leadership settled in Xinjiang and Tibet during these difficult years.
Mohammed Al-Sudairi is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar (International Politics). He spent two years in Beijing studying Chinese and undertaking freelance research.