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Modern Islam: Central Asia and China

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Modern Islam: Central Asia and China

    THE LANDS from the Black Sea through the Caspian Sea to China have been linked since medieval times by trade routes: the fur route along the River Volga and the Silk Road to China. Islam expanded along these routes, occasionally through conquest but predominantly through trade and Sufi missionary activity. Initially, Islam in the region was characterized by slow conversion and adaptation to local customs. In modern times the common link between Muslims in this area has been political, as most countries were under Soviet or Chinese communist rule. Since 1991 , with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, there has been a revival of religious activities and new Muslim countries have emerged as independent states within the newly formed C.I.S.

    Islam and Russian Imperialism

    Between the seventh and the ninth centuries Islam spread to Central Asia and the Caucasus through conquest. It later expanded by peaceful means through commerce, and by the twelfth century stretched from the Urals to the areas now known as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and modern Xinjiang. By the sixteenth century Islam extended as far as the Russian steppes, to the north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Russian imperial expansion, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, led to the incorporation of Muslim territories. With the exception of Catherine the Great ( r. 1762– 96 ), Russian leaders denied Muslims religious rights. Sufi-inspired jihad movements, like that of the famous Naqshbandi imam Shamil ( r. 1834– 59 ) and Uzun Haji (d. 1920), were organized against the Russians in the northern Caucasus.

    With the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the ensuing anti-religious policy, overt religious rituals and practices were greatly reduced, mosques destroyed and legal and educational Muslim institutions outlawed. Anti-religious campaigns intensified during the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, diplomatic links had been established between the Soviet Union and Islamic countries, especially in the Arab Middle East, reflecting international cold-war politics. However, pro-Russian sentiments among Islamic countries suffered a heavy blow when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

    Gorbachev's glasnost policy marked the beginning of Muslim political revival. The Soviet census of 1989 identified 41 Muslim ethnic groups out of a total of about 56 million Muslims.

    Modern Islam: Central Asia and China

    2. Islam in Southern Russia

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    By 1991 , the Muslim states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan had emerged as independent republics which later joined the newly-formed Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.).

    Most Muslims of southern Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus are Sunnis following the Hanafi school of law, while most Daghestanis, Chechno-Ingush and some Kurds follow the Shafi‘i school. There are Shi‘i Muslims among the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Baluchis, the Azeris and the Tats. There are also Isma‘ilis, especially in the Pamirs in Central Asia, and some Baha'is in southern Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Sufi orders are particularly important in Central Asia and the northern Caucasus.

    The Case of Afghanistan

    Afghanistan, strategically located half way between India and Central Asia, had long been a focus of conflict between the British and the Russians. When the Soviet Union backed coups that changed Afghanistan from a monarchy to a communist republic, several Muslim resistance movements grew to oppose the communist regime. In December 1979 the Soviet army entered Afghanistan but was never able to control it because of resourceful and well-trained guerrilla groups, known as Mujahidin (‘jihad-warriors’). Almost ten years later, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan and internal disputes among differing Afghan groups contributed to marked instability. In 1992 the Mujahidin captured Kabul, but between 1994 and 2002 the Taliban (‘students’) movement, aiming to unite the country on the basis of their interpretation of an Islamic state based on ‘original Islam’, took control of the country until 2002 when their regime fell as a result of the Western coalition war in Afghanistan.

    Islam in China

    According to the Chinese National Census, there were over 26 million Muslims in China. However, because the census was based on nationality rather than religion, the exact number of Muslims is still unknown. The two most representative ethnic groups are the Hui, who speak Sino-Tibetan languages like Tibetan and Mongolian, and the Uighur who speak a Turkic language.

    Modern Islam: Central Asia and China

    1. Islam in Central Asia and China

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    The first Muslim settlers in China were merchants who arrived as early as the seventh century. Those coming by sea settled in the southeastern coastal region around modern-day Guangzhou (Canton). Those coming via the Silk Road reached Xinjiang; some headed to modern-day Xi'an (Chang'an), often stopping at Lanzhou. These early settlers were from various ethnic backgrounds: Arabs, Persians and Mongols. Further migrations to several parts of China took place under the Mongol Yüan dynasty ( 1279 – 1368 ), during which Muslims were successfully engaged in trade, especially with Central Asia, and employed in the administration. The establishment of the first Muslim community in Yunnan province can be traced back to this time. The Ming dynasty ( 1368 – 1644 ) was generally tolerant towards Muslims and encouraged assimilation – Chinese converts to Islam are known as Hui. Sufism entered China as a major force late in the seventeenth century, arriving from Central Asia along the main trade routes.

    When the Qing dynasty ( 1644 – 1911 ) expanded into Central Asia, discontent with their policies led Muslims to rebel, assert their identity and denounce any compromises with local religions. Two major nineteenth-century Muslim rebellions in Yunnan and the northwest were violently crushed by the Qing. The Muslims of the northwest were only granted autonomy ( 1911 – 49 ) after the fall of the dynasty, and in 1955 the Uighur Autonomous Region was created.

    The policy of the People's Republic towards Muslims has alternated between tolerance and radicalism; during the 1966 – 76 Cultural Revolution Muslims in Yunnan were persecuted by anti-ethnic and anti-religious policies. Recently, more moderate policies have benefited Muslim communities which, however, remain divided along ethnic lines. Islamic militancy, especially in the northwest, has prompted an increased Chinese military presence. This region is also becoming commercially and strategically important for China for its mineral resources and trade links with Central Asia, the Middle East and the West.

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