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China and Islam (Review)

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Matthew S. Erie. 2016.
China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107053373

A unique and impressive set of qualifications came together in Matthew Erie’s China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. His experience as a lawyer, having practiced in China, combined with his training as an anthropologist with extensive field work in Linxia, China’s ‘Little Mecca’, add up to an impressive ethnographic account of the tensions between socialist and Islamic law in China. Given the focus of this book, it will appeal to researchers and students alike across a wide range of academic disciplines; beyond sociologists and anthropologists, those working in Chinese studies, comparative religion, political science, comparative legal studies, and Islamic studies may all find something useful in this book.

This book examines the broader relationship of Islam and the modern state with the goal of understanding how these seemingly incompatible sets of laws and practices can work toward the common good. China, with a socialist legal system that excludes any religious law, provides an interesting testing ground. How does a formally atheist state structure accommodate a large population of Muslim citizens? Erie’s focus is on Hui Muslims in China, an ethno-religious group of over 10.000.000. Much of the international focus of Islam in China focuses on the antagonistic relationship between the Chinese state and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Hui, described by Erie as being perceived as a model minority, have a more stable relationship with the Chinese state, even as the state’s intervention into the religious practices of Hui has increased under the Chinese Communist Party. According to Erie, their success in avoiding conflict with the party state is based on minjian (民間, literally ‘between people’), which refers to norms and practices that are not sanctioned by the state but not necessarily illegal; they are ‘social activities outside the reach of the state but that maintain the boundaries of the state’ (p. 13). It is an informal, unofficial, and flexible means of resolution that exists ‘beyond the four corners of the legal document’ (p. 353). This flexibility explains the relative success of Hui Chinese in navigating the tensions between guofa (國法, state law) and jiaofa (教法, religious law), as they ‘have sought to abide by the injunctions of Islam through minjian means, which are unofficial, nonconfrontational, and even symbolic, by which devotional aspects of law substitute for political ones’ (p. 129).

Erie begins his introduction chapter with an account of minjian in practice, as a cleric is visited by a police officer to advise on a dispute involving a traffic death involving a Han and Hui. Realizing that in these situations Hui prefer resolution through Islamic law, the police officer has come to the cleric for guidance, a common occurrence: ‘The municipal police, the traffic police, the judicial organs at the city and prefecture level – they all come’ (p. 3) The result is a compromise that does not necessarily accord with the letter of the law, but resolves the conflict. That is not to say the relationship between the Party and Hui is without difficulty; there are several facets of Hui social and religious practices that come into conflict with the state. However, Erie notes that, as in the traffic incident described above, there are several ‘back-door’ collaborations where cadres and officials rely on Hui leaders in a relationship that ‘is not necessarily antagonistic but rather one of mutual access, information gathering, and suspicion’ (p. 39).

Throughout the book, Erie describes frequent use of minjian as a means of resolving problems within the Hui community, rather than through official channels. In issues where religious law state law conflict, Hui must navigate this tension; Erie notes that ‘Hui work toward a middle ground through negotiation and collaboration with officials and cadres, translation, vernacularization, localization, and gendering Islamic law, as well as mediation of conflicts between state law and Islamic law’ (p. 7). Minjian is therefore a means of providing a degree of autonomy that allows Hui to practice their religious law. At the same time, Erie states that minjian provides the state with tangible benefits as well, as without the practice, ‘it would be more difficult for the Party-State to maintain the kind of rule it does over Muslim minorities’ (p. 349).

In his detailed account of this uneasy relationship between the state and religion, Erie has written a book that will resonate in discussions across disciplines. The subject of China’s relationship with Islam is one that is becoming increasingly important, not only as a domestic issue, but an international one, as its Belt and Road Initiative brings it into deeper and more frequent interactions with Muslim states and societies, making Erie’s book that much more relevant.

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