An online symposium hosted by SHARIAsource, Islamic Legal Studies Program of Harvard Law School
Edited by Matthew S. Erie,
China Editor of SHARIAsource and Associate Professor at the University of Oxford
One of the outstanding features of Islam in China is the presence of Chinese Muslim (Hui) female clerics (nü ahong). Women have attained the position of cleric in mosques most prominently in central China, in provinces such as Henan (Jaschok and Shui 2000; Shui and Jaschok 2002), and, in very small numbers, they have also attained such authoritative status in the more traditional and patriarchal Hui stronghold of the northwest, specifically, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. They perform the same functions as their male counterparts who in China are the equivalent of imam (the one who leads prayer) as well as the khaṭīb (one who gives the Friday sermon), in addition to spreading teachings and mediating disputes (Erie 2015).
More often than not, the communities such female clerics lead are themselves predominantly female. These female mosques (nü si) operate just as the larger, mainly male mosques do, to which they are attached. They manage their own property and their finances, as well as take donations from followers and partake in religious observances such as Ramadan. Recently, the official media has touted the female clerics as an example of the unique contribution of China’s Islam—as progressive, inclusive, and modern—to global Islam (see e.g., Qi 2014). Female Muslim leaders from outside of China, such as in the United Kingdom, for example, have cited Hui female clerics as models of a moderate gender-balanced Islam (Gani 2016).
What is the legal basis of Hui female clerics? Neither the Qur’an nor the hadiths appear to provide a legal grounding specifically for female mosque leaders. Female clerics are much smaller in number than their male counterparts. There were approximately 934 registered female clerics, comprising approximately 3.4% of all “Islamic religious personnel” in China in 2013, according to one Chinese source (Musilin zai xian 2014). Further, certain doctrinal groups among Hui outright denounce female clerics. It is clear that the role of female clerics in Hui religious life is not a matter of consensus. Hui generally have limited means to develop their own fiqh due to the fact that state law is controlling in the People’s Republic of China. How then do Hui legitimize the role of female clerics in their communities?
This symposium examines the question of the legal basis for Hui female clerics through the opinions of leading clerics and scholars—female and male—from China, most of who are themselves Hui. The goal is to open up a space for reflection on and deliberation about an enduring feature of Muslim life in China and its connections to gender, culture, custom, and Islamic law. The symposium participants were asked to explain the legal basis of female clerics in China in 1,000 words or less. I provide English summaries of their responses below before including their commentaries in Chinese.
Mai Fenlian (买粉连), a former cleric who was educated in a female mosque and currently an Arabic instructor at the Xiajia Arabic class in Jiyuan City in Henan Province writes in her commentary “The Legal Basis and Value of the Existence of Female Clerics: My Opinion and Understanding” that there is a strong basis in the Qur’an for women’s equal footing in religious life among Muslims and hadith traditions authorize women’s activities in social activities from education to war. She makes a necessity argument stating that because Hui women know so little about Islamic law, female clerics in particular are needed to increase their legal knowledge, and smarter Hui women means more harmonious families and communities.
Ge Caixia (葛彩霞), the female cleric of Fuminli Female Mosque in Zhengzhou and who received her education both at Arabic schools and at female mosques, opines in her piece “The Legal and Social Bases for the Existence of China’s ‘Female Clerics” that there is evidence in both the Qur’an and the hadiths for gender equality. Based on hadiths, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha taught Islamic law, among other topics, to women. Moving well beyond classic Islamic sources and illustrating the dual register of “legal” as both that of Islam and the modern Chinese state, Ge Caixia cites a May 12, 2006 decision by the China Islamic Association that defines the requirements for an “Islamic staff member” as gender-blind.
Liu Xueqiang (刘学强), a male cleric based in Kaifeng City in Henan Province, writes in his commentary “Islam’s Gender Relations,” that the phenomenon of female clerics originates in the particular historical-cultural environs of the Central Plains of China (i.e., present day Henan Province). Although the Arabic word imam originally refers to “one who walks in front of others” and this can only be a man—not a woman—the role of the female cleric nevertheless developed out of traditions of scriptural education in the region. Thus, the position of the female cleric is a novelty among the four established schools of jurisprudence, and exists in tension with Islamic principles of gender complementarity.
Man Ke (满珂), a female professor at the Northwest Nationalities University, provides yet another perspective based on both her disciplinary background (anthropology) and her location (Lanzhou). In her untitled piece, Man Ke explains that the different “teaching schools” (jiaopai) and “Sufi solidarities” (menhuan) based in the northwest each have different views about female clerics and female mosques. Thus, doctrine colors views on gender. She interviewed Hui women from a number of different schools to elicit their views about the legality of female clerics and finds a range of views. Among non-Salafis, some respondents are ignorant of female mosques entirely whereas others yearn for such roles. Salafi women, on the other hand, consistently respond that there is no such role as “female cleric,” but only “female teachers,” the difference being that women, as Man Ke’s Salafi interlocutors believe, do not have the authority to lead religious exercises. Man Ke concludes that custom-based gender relations influence such thinking.
I gratefully acknowledge support for Mai Fenlian’s and Ge Caixia’s contributions from Shui Jingjun and Maria Jaschok.
Erie, Matthew S.
2015 Qadi Justice in Chinese Courts: Dispute Resolution in Chinese Muslim Communities. Law and Social Inquiry 40(4):1001-1030.
2016 “Meet Bana Gora, the woman planning Britain’s first female-managed mosque.” London: The Guardian. Accessed August 31, 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/31/bana-gora-muslim-womens-council-bradford-mosque
Jaschok, Maria, and Jingjun Shui
2000 The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of Their Own. Richmond: Curzon Press.
Musilin zai xian
2014 “Zhongguo nüxing teyou ahongzheng de you duoshao” [How many Chinese women are there that possess clerical certification?]. Beijing: Musilin zaixian [Muslim online]. Accessed December 15, 2015. Available at: http://www.muslimwww.com/html/2014/fengshang_0709/309.html
2014 “Qingzhensi li de nüahong” [Female clerics in the mosque]. Yinchuan: Ningxia Xinhuanet. Accessed December 13, 2015. Available at: http://www.nx.xinhuanet.com/2014-10/13/c_1112806117.htm
Shui, Jingjun , and Maria Jaschok
2002 Zhongguo qingzhen nüsi shi [A History of Chinese Female Mosques]. Beijing: Sanlian Bookstore.