This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...


This article seeks to transcend the Sunni-centered narratives that often inform the discussions on Islamicate interactions with China.[1] Following a cursory historical view of Shi’ism’s influences on Chinese expressions of Islam, the article presents a rough sketch of the contemporary transnational Shi’ite communities that have emerged in southern China over the past few decades, most notably those of Guangzhou (Guangdong) and Yiwu (Zhejiang). It then considers the simultaneous and closely-linked phenomenon, dubbed “hawza diplomacy,” of the Chinese party-state’s growing engagement with the custodial authorities of the Shi’ite shrines of Iraq.

Although the historical records are fragmented and ambiguous, traces of Shi’i influences are noticeable in various contexts related to Islam’s dissemination within China. A Shi’ite presence can be discerned for example among the foreign merchants and communities that settled in coastal Guangdong, Fujian and even Hainan from as early as the seventh century and all the way to the mid-thirteenth century at the height of the Pax-Mongolica.[2] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sufi tariqas (orders), such as the Qadariyya and Kubrawiyya, succeeded in establishing footholds in Qinghai and Gansu, popularizing a da’wah (message) that was heavily informed by Persianate Shi’i mysticism and metaphysics.[3]

These varied legacies have underpinned the speculation, found within some strands of the academic scholarship on Islam in China, that sees Shi’ite influences, often subtle, in the different traditions found among Sinophone Muslim communities, such as the Gedimu (from the Arabic word qadim or “old”) majority and Sufi tariqas.[4] Suggestive Shi’ite practices presumably include showing a preference for the color green (associated with Fatimid aesthetics) in certain religious ceremonies; the widespread use of names inspired from the figures of the ahyl al-bayt (House of the Prophet), such as Ali, Hasan and Hussein; and the commemoration of events, such as ‘ashura and the passing of Fatimah al-Zahra (d. 632), the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.[5]

Beyond these points of natural diffusion, Shi’ite influences — and even communities — were brought wholesale into the boundaries of the Chinese world through colonial expansion. The Qing (1644-1911) eighteenth century conquests of Altishahr and the eastern Pamirs (constituting the area now known as Xinjiang) saw the inclusion of Nizari Isma’ili and Twelver Shi’ite communities into the imperial fold.[6] Within the broader context of the People’s Republic of China’s contemporary Muslim population however, (estimated at around 23-30 million), these Shi’ite confessional communities, annexed centuries ago, do not exceed more than 1% of the total, a drop in an ocean of Maturidi (and Ash’arite) Hanafi Sunni belts found across the northwest, southwest and eastern parts of the country. 

Following its takeover of Hong Kong in 1841-1842, the British empire also drew communities of South Asian Shi’ites, including Dawoodi Bohras, Nizari Isma’ilis and Twelvers into the city and other newly “opened” Qing treaty-ports. Some of these communities, such as the Dawoodi Bohras, due to their long-standing involvement in trade and shipping between Shanghai, Hong Kong and the rest of the British empire, became extremely wealthy, exercising considerable influence — for example, through the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong — that far outstripped their actual numerical size. In the post-1997 handover, many of these Shi’ite communities, embracing both resident Hong Kongers and foreign visitors, have succeeded in maintaining a vibrant religious and cultural life of their own in predominantly non-Muslim Hong Kong.

These various enclaves of Shi’ism, located on the Chinese periphery, have been joined by new transnational Shi’ite communities concentrated in the cosmopolitan southern Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Yiwu. Evocative of their (assumed) predecessors from the Tang-Song-Yuan dynastic eras, these communities, which largely coalesced in the 1990s, are made up of transitory sojourners and long-term settlers seeking business opportunities, education  and even refuge (with some fleeing to China in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and others in the course of Syria’s descent into civil war beginning in 2011). Numbering perhaps in the low-thousands, the transnational Shi’ite communities display considerable linguistic, cultural, confessional and national variation, including among their ranks Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Iranian, Pakistani and Azerbaijani nationals.

As with other religious groups, these communities have sought to carve out independent religious spaces of their own, a process that probably first began in the mid-2000s. In both Guangzhou and Yiwu, linguistically-divided (Arabic, Farsi and Urdu) private hussaynias were initially consecrated, enabling practitioners to hold their prayers and conduct their majalis (gatherings). Some of these hussaynias later transformed into self-standing and well-recognized institutions in their own right, assuming a central role in the lives of these religious communities. In Yiwu for instance, the “Abi al-Ahrar” (Father of the Free, a moniker for Imam Hussein) hussaynia emerged as a pivotal site for Shi’ite religious practice.

According to the hussaynia’s sheikh Ahmed al-Jadiri in an interview with the (Iraqi) al-Farqadayn TV channel, the space was initially established, through the support of Arab businessmen, as a special-use prayer room. With time, it evolved into a year-round institution, commemorating all major events on the Shi’ite religious calendar, holding daily religious activities, and providing private life-cycle related services for its members (including overseeing arrangements to repatriate the bodies of the dead back to their home countries, an important service for the community given existing Chinese government restrictions on foreign burial).

The “Abi al-Ahrar” hussaynia, indicative perhaps of the demographic configuration of foreign populations in Yiwu, is dominated by the Iraqi diaspora. This influence can be discerned not only from the national background of the current sheikh, but the content of its religious sermons, dating back to 2015, which praise the al-hashd al-sha’bi (popular mobilization forces) in its struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) during the heyday of the black “Caliphate.” Despite the Iraqi-tone, the hussaynia functions as a transnational space, open not only to Shi’ites of different confessional and national identities, but also — insofar as the sheikh himself asserts — to mustabsireen (open-minded or literally “enlightened”) non-Shi’ite visitors as well.

While similar private spaces developed in Guangzhou from the mid-2000s, Shi’ite religious life there has largely anchored itself around the Ming-era Haopan (濠畔寺) mosque, where commemorations for ‘ashura and other important events on the Shi’ite religious calendar have been held. The local Hui Imam and Haopan mosque management allocated space for foreign (largely Iranian) Shi’ite communal use, Iranian-dominated), a benefaction that remains vital in light of growing signs of the disappearance of other private religious sites or hussaynias across Guangzhou in recent years. These disappearances might be connected to a number of factors, including broader restrictive changes implemented by the Chinese party-state with respect to the management of religious affairs as well as efforts to limit the overall size of the foreign (non-Western) population in Guangzhou through more demanding visa measures, security sweeps, and the elimination of important diasporic institutions such as autonomous religious spaces.

By virtue of their presence and growing numbers, the transnational Shi’ite communities have succeeded in integrating southern China into global Shi’ite networks of religious circulation, piety and spiritual imagination. Over the past decade for example, hussaynias have regularly extended invitations to wu’ad (preachers) and radud (eulogy reciters) from Iraq, Iran and Pakistan to come serve their congregations during particularly important periods such as al-arba’een. In 2014, informal diasporic organizations in Guangzhou, for example, the hayat khudam ahyl al-bayt (Association for Servants of the Prophet’s House), invited Basim al-Karbalai, an internationally famous reciter for latmiyyas (eulogies) also connected to the Shirazi movement, as one such specialist.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Hasun at the Haopan mosque in Guangzhou[7]
Sheikh Muhammad al-Hasun at the Haopan mosque in Guangzhou[7]

 

These emerging linkages with the broader Shi’ite world have also involved exchanges between the hussaynias and the custodial authorities of the major shrines of Iraq (Karbala and Najaf) beginning in 2013-2014.[8] In 2016, for example, sheikh Muhammad al-Hasun, head of the “markaz al-abhath al-‘aqayidiyya” (Centre for Doctrinal Research), which is linked to the office of Ayatollah al-Sistani and the influential and philanthropic cleric Jawad al-Shahristani, made a tour of the transnational Shi’ite communities in southern China as a means of “communicating with Muslims more generally … examining their needs, and working towards helping them with all of one’s ability.” In Guangzhou, the tour encompassed visits to the provincial branch offices of the Islamic Association of China, the Haopan mosque (where al-Hasun gave an address) and the famous Sa’ad bin Abi Waqqas’ mausoleum-mosque complex. More interestingly, the itinerary also included a journey to Hainan Island. There, Sheikh al-Hasun visited a small Chinese hussaynia serving a converted community of local Shi’ites of about three hundred that was founded in 2009 by a Hui returnee who had graduated from a university connected to the Mashhad shrine in Iran.[9]

The Hainan hussaynia is particularly interesting as it constitutes one of the few examples of tashayu’ (Shi’ification) in China that exist today.[10] In the late 2000s and early 2010s, various Arabic-language sectarian websites and outlets  both Sunni and Shi’ite  produced and disseminated a narrative of successful Iranian-backed Shi’ite expansion that was presumably converting both Chinese (Sunni) Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the millions.[11] Much of this narrative, which galvanized the rise of Chinese-language missionary organizations in the Gulf as a response to this imagined threat, drew its strength from audio-visual materials as well as erroneous reports that showed Chinese individuals or groups situated within Shi’ite environments. Without proper contextualization, the Chinese presence in these materials was interpreted (both by advocates and opponents) as a sign of conversion to Shi’ism and an acceptance of the “civilization of Hussein,” to be consequently lauded or condemned. Interestingly, al-Hasun himself indulges in this narrative, noting  in the conclusion of his reflections on the visit  that China appears to be a fertile frontier for tableegh (preaching) and da’wah work.

The interest exhibited in China by the envoys of the custodial authorities of the Shi’ite shrines has also been encouraged and reciprocated by the officialdom of the Chinese party-state. Over the past few years, Chinese diplomats have accorded considerable attention to cultivating ties with the clerical and custodial authorities of the Iraqi-based Shi’ite shrines, initiating what appears to be a new pattern in their engagement with local societies on the ground in the Middle East. During his ambassadorship to Iraq, Chen Weiqing (陈伟庆), currently China’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was particularly active in visiting the Shi’ite religious-complexes and hawzas (clerical seminaries) of Najaf, Karbala, and elsewhere. Following a meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani in December 2016, Chen stated that “this is the first visit of a Chinese ambassador to Karbala in many years, and will not be the last, and will be the start of (continuous) communication (between the two sides).” Prominent figures, such as Sayyid ‘Ala al-Musawi, the caretaker of the Shi’ite awqaf (endowments), have also met with the ambassador during his tenure in 2015-2019.

Ambassador Chen Weiqing with Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi[12]
Ambassador Chen Weiqing with Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi[12]

 

China’s “hawza diplomacy” can be understood as growing out of multiple considerations and interests, all of which are linked at one level or the other, to the perceived political and spiritual power wielded by the custodial authorities of the major Shi’ite shrines. Globally, these actors have played a significant role in mobilizing regional actors in the war against ISIS and could have an impact in shaping China’s evolving counterterrorism approaches abroad. In addition, engaging these institutions might be critical for mitigating potential criticisms from global Shi’ite communities over the Chinese party-state’s internal religious policies. Domestically, the custodial authorities are important in creating political openings for China that could enable it to safeguard its existing economic interests in Iraq: the country, as of 2018, was the source of nearly 7.7% of China’s energy imports. Moreover, the authorities have helped produce new economic synergies in the context of Sino-Iraqi relations: in Karbala for example, the custodial authorities signed an agreement in 2016 with Chinese partners to build the new pilgrimage-focused Imam Hussein international airport. In the Najafi shrine, an official delegation from Huawei has sought to find a foothold for its services there  perhaps in the hope of emulating its successes in Mecca

This article has sought to shed light on other complex dimensions of Islamicate interaction with China that are, oftentimes, neglected in favor of Sunni-centered narratives. As was noted, since the 1980s, diasporic transnational communities have brought their rich religious traditions to southern China, creating institutions and new spaces for religious worship. These communities also succeeded in incorporating the region into global Shi’ite networks of religious circulation, piety and spiritual imagination, drawing in the attention and support of the custodial authorities of the Shi’ite sacred shrines of Iraq. This has catalyzed, and unfolded in parallel with, growing Chinese official interest and diplomatic engagement with these same authorities in what could be termed “hawza diplomacy.”

 


[1] I am grateful to the comments and feedback given to me by Dr. Jackie Armijo, Dr. Ahab Bdaiwi, and Dr. Wlodek Cieciura.
 

[2] John Chaffee, “Muslim Merchants and Quanzhou in the Late Yuan-Early Ming: Conjectures on the Ending of the Medieval Muslim Trade Diaspora,” in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), The East Asian ‘Mediterranean’: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008): 121-123.
 

[3] Dru Gladney, “Muslim Tombs and Ethnic Folklore: Charters for Hui Identity,” The Journal of Asian Studies 46, 3 (August 1987): 501-507.
 

[4] Certainly, these linkages between Shi’ism and certain groups, such as the Gedimu and Sufi tariqas, were not limited to present-day scholarly speculation alone: they were perceived and even condemned by early reformist Sinophone Muslim figures such as Ma Dexin (马德新, 1794-1874) of Yunnan. See Jianping Wang, “The Opposition of a Leading Akhund to Shi’a and Sufi Shaykhs in Mid-Nineteenth Century China,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review E-Journal 12 (September 2014): 68-87, https://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/e-journal/articles/wang.pdf.
 

[5] I am thankful to Dr. Bao Xiuping for his help in identifying various sources. See Raphael Israeli, “Is There Shi’a in Chinese Islam?” in Islam in China: Religion, ethnicity, culture, and politics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007): 147-168; Xue Wenbo “Shiyepai dui zhongguo yisilanjiao sunnipai de yingxiang. Qingdai zhongguo yisilanjiao lunji” (Yinchuan: Ningxia renmin chubanshe1981) 158-162, 166-169; and Yujie Wang and Chao Ma, “Zhongguo yisilanjiaozhong de shiyepai wenti tanxi,” Shijie zhongjiao yanjiu 3 (2018): 168-179; and Ma Tong, “Zhongguo yisilan jiaopai yu menhuan zhidu” (Yinchuan: Ningxia renmin chubanshe, 1999): 92.

[6] A few insightful sources on the Isma’ili communities of Tashkurgan can be found here: Amier Saidula, “The Nizari Ismailis of China in Modern Times” in Farhad Daftary (ed.), A Modern History of the Ismailis: Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2011): 77-92; Sand Amier Saidula, “Landscapes of Spirituality: The Topography of Ismaili Sacred Sites in Xinjiang, China,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford Online, 2016: 348-370, https://www.anthro.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/anthro/documents/media/jaso8_3_2016_348_371.pdf.
 

[7] From the Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hassoun website: http://www.alhasun.com/i/514.jpg.
 

[8] “Rayat amir al-mumineen (‘aleyhi al-salam) turafirf fi sama al-sin al-sha’biyya,” Alwelayh 71 (2013): 13.
 

[9] The Muslim communities of Hainan are complicated. While they are designated by the Chinese party-state as being part of the Sinophone Hui ethnicity (huizu 回族), many are Chamic-speaking Utsul peoples (huihuiren 回辉人) who hail from central Vietnam. See Keng-Fong Pang, “Being Hui, Huan-nang, and Utsat simultaneously: contextualizing history and identities of the Austronesian-speaking Hainan Muslims,” in Melissa Brown (ed.), Negotiating ethnicities in China and Taiwan (Berkeley: University of California, 1996): 183-207.  
 

[10] In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, Iran pursued a missionizing strategy across Central Asia and parts of northwest China in the late 1980s and early 1990s that were later halted due to pressures from Beijing. See John Garver, China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-imperial World (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006): 132.
 

[11] Among Sinophone Muslims, anti-Shi’ism gained currency from the 1980s and 1990s, as transnational links with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan deepened. The “Shi’ification” narrative was itself partially promoted on Arabic-language platforms by a few Chinese graduates of Saudi religious institutions, among whom some later joined Gulf-based Chinese-language missionary organizations. I examine this narrative and its impact in detail here: Mohammed Al-Sudairi, “China as the New Frontier for Islamic Daʿwah: The Emergence of a Saudi China-Oriented Missionary Impulse,” Journal of Arabian Studies 7, 2 (2017): 232-236.

[12] “Najafi authority calls on the world to stand firm and found to reduce the support of terrorism,” Hawza News Agency-Iran, May 2016, http://ar.hawzahnews.com/news/342460/المرجع-النجفي-يدعو-العالم-للوقوف-بحزم-وجد-للحد-من-دعم-الإرهاب.