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Chinese Muslims join global Islamic market

They are forging economic ties with the Muslim world at a time when interest in Islam is also growing.

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The Tunisian embassy, for example, sent a team to the fair in search of Muslim tourists, while the Saudi Arabian stand offered dates and Chinese versions of the Koran.

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The Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank funded the construction of Ningxia's Islamic Scripture College and an Arabic language school, and China's policy of opening to the world has fostered other links. Ten thousand Chinese Muslims went on the hajj to Mecca last year, a record number. Others visit the Middle East for business or tourism, and some 250 religious students leave China each year to study in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Interest in Islam is clearly rising in Ningxia. New mosques are under construction (there are now 3,700 licensed mosques in the province, twice the number of a few decades ago), but even so the Scripture College is turning out imams, known locally as ahongs, faster than mosques can employ them.

Ordinary Muslims are turning in greater numbers to traditional Islamic dress, say local residents. "More and more people are wearing headgear, and more and more people are taking religious practice seriously," says Shami Ahmed, an Indian Muslim who came here five years ago to teach English. "Maybe it's because more are going on the hajj and see Muslims outside."

Ningxia's closer links with the rest of the Islamic world are a blessing for Wali Younla, an ahong at Yinchuan's main mosque. "Thanks to these trade relations more and more people get to know Islam," he says. "That's a good thing for religion and for society."

The Chinese government keeps a close eye on these developments, though. Mosques must be licensed, foreign imams are not allowed to preach in them, and youngsters are not allowed to pray in mosques.

"The government supports economic links, which it hopes will increase, but has a cautious attitude to cultural and religious links," with the Middle East explains Professor Ma. For the sake of trade, however, "they have put their concerns on the backburner," he believes. "The Ningxia authorities are confident they can minimize negative cultural influences and maximize economic influences."

Loose religious adherence

There are few signs that stricter strains of Islam, as practiced in parts of the Arab world, are having much impact on life in Ningxia at the moment. Female ahongs continue to flourish in a Hui tradition of women-only mosques where women lead the prayers, which would horrify mainstream Middle Eastern Muslims. Ramadan, the holy fasting month, does not appear to be widely observed.

Last Wednesday, as a few dozen men in white skullcaps filed out of the Xihuan mosque after noon prayers, the Jinxiuyuan Halal Sheep Entrails restaurant across the street was doing a roaring lunchtime trade in defiance of religious regulations.

"We Hui people keep our lifestyle and our religion and our beliefs, but we have to lead our normal lives," says Ms. Ma, the deputy mayor. "We practice our religion according to local conditions."

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