From Spiritual Precarity to Religious Authority: Female Ahong (Imam), Women’s Mosques and the History of Chinese Women

March 28, 2018


A more than 300-year history of women’s quest for a place of their own; a history of evolving professionalization of female authority figures representing the interests of their women constituencies; a history of coming-to-voice that is a collective rather than merely individual phenomenon and an assertive movement that lays claim to a well-founded place in history and builds on this continuity a claim to future relevance … much in this resonates with feminists elsewhere. Yet it is a history until recently unrecorded and even in these days barely known because excluded from the mainstream histories of Chinese women.


Who are these marginalized women? What beliefs and aspirations but also political classification have shaped their history and sustain their identities to this day? A recently completed research project which combined research, the recording of ‘lost’ traditions, oral history and widely-cast nets of researchers and members of central China’s Hui Muslim women’s mosque-based communities, offers an illustration of what ‘participatory ethnography’ can accomplish. It also provides an entry point into the elusive subjectivity of women whose claim to feminist identity, because predicated on religious faith, has perplexed not only Chinese secular feminists but also western feminist writers. Ursula King, a feminist authority on world religions, refers to this as feminism’s enduring religion-blindness (an inverted mirror image of the gender blindness of Religious Studies).


Before presenting a brief description of the Chinese Hui Muslim women’s SongBook project* here is a brief history of female-led institutions unique to Islam in China (See The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam, M. Jaschok and Shui JJ. Curzon/Routledge, 2000)


The work of investigation of origin, evolution and contemporary adaptations of female-led women’s mosques in central China’s Hui Muslim communities commenced in 1994, undertaken together with the Chinese Hui sociologist of religion, Shui Jingjun. The history of women’s mosques is a long one, its unique manifestation of independent institutions, women’s [Qur’anic] schools or women’s mosques, nüxue or nüsi (女学,女寺) goes back over 300 years, emerging from complex historical and socio-political negotiations over the nature of Muslim identity in Chinese diaspora and over means to keep faith alive and religio-ethnic identity intact. The incorporation of women into educational projects during late Ming and early Qing Islamic renaissance (16th/17th centuries), inspired by Hui Muslim intellectuals and religious practitioners, was born of the need to bring religious knowledge into families and families into mosques. The growth and consolidation of women’s own space of worship, education and congregation were only halted with the religious persecutions of the 1950s, and only hesitantly resumed in the course of less repressive government treatment of religions during the 1980s. The long period of persecution and silencing of religious expression scars the memories still. Women’s mosques have reopened, or, especially in the Muslim communities of central China, have been built anew, most especially since the late 1990s.  Government policies have changed from outright repression to more indirect methods of control. Mandatory registration of all religious sites, which commenced in 1994, was exploited by female-led religious organizations to assert their equality with men’s mosque in law and political representation, enabling useful access to public resources and creating opportunities for income-generating schemed. Better educated female ahong, especially among the younger generation of female leaders, and an incipient civil space have furthermore contributed to developments that allow for a widening scope of influence by the most capable female ahong beyond mosque gates into social, economic and even political spheres.                                                                                       

The history of an oral tradition of worship and learning, of a diversity of Islamic chants, traditionally known as jingge经歌and more recent as zansheng赞圣, is inseparable from the history of Muslim women in central China, and from the spaces they came to occupy as belonging to them, where to seek solace, receive counsel, and find strength in the collective rituals of recitation of prayer and spiritual celebration. It is, importantly, a history of women’s voices. Voices which are engaging with Islamic injunctions on unbecoming conduct, xiuti 羞体 (awrah), engaging with dominant societal assumptions about criteria by which to measure paradigmatic female modernity, not infrequently on the back of religion (by definition backwards, luohou 落后), and moreover engaging with national narratives which to this day deny ‘minority’ women the right to be stakeholder of their history.


In 2016, a collaborative project commenced which involved researchers (Shui Jingjun and Maria Jaschok) and women’s mosque congregations in Henan. The purpose: to commit to paper and archive hitherto unrecorded chants transmitted by generations of ahong as a life-line of faith and knowledge for largely illiterate women. Recently completed, and already used by ahong to teach their congregations, it is a book of women’s voices which speaks of faith, of religious belief, of the impact of determined women, and of the meaningfulness of lives lived with integrity and devotion to family, community and nation. At the heart of the book is an unshakable belief in God and in women’s capacity to bring justice and equality into the world around them. These convictions caused leading women ahong to share in concerted effort of producing a richly annotated compilation of historical and contemporary Islamic chants. They meant for this SongBook to constitute a source of knowledge for the benefit of future generations of women (and men) who want to raise their voices in age-old traditions of worship, praise and celebration. The volume speaks thus of a collective effort by many women who together brought to life this rich and diverse oral tradition. Through a process of tireless, year-long consultations, discussions and conversations, through personal meetings and virtual interactions via social media such as WeChat, leading ahong and ordinary Muslim women created a window into their past and a resource for future generations.


The culturally diverse influences that may be noted in the chants derive from ancient Persian, Arabic and Chinese, thus at times making it difficult to trace the origins of a given chant. Yet it is this linguistic/cultural mosaic which provides a fascinating intimation of the varied ways by which Islam arrived in China and settled into a diversity of Islamic traditions and Muslim cultures, so characteristic of Chinese Islam. When considering the multiple functions of these chants – serving worship, education, ritual celebration, and the collective affirmation of belonging to the Umma of believers – we realize the important part that women played in a most distinct and noteworthy history of Islam.


*SongBook refers to 《中原穆斯林妇女 赞圣与 经歌汇编》赞圣与经歌汇编编写组。中原回族文化资料。妇女文化。河南郑州。2017年8月郑州第一版。(内部交流资料)

Maria Jaschok is a Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall and Director of the International Gender Studies Centre (IGS) at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), University of Oxford. Her research interests are in the areas of religion, gender and agency; gendered constructions of memory; feminist ethnographic practice; marginality and identity in contemporary China. Image credit: Maria Jaschok. Caption: women ahong (imams), meeting on the occasion of students’ graduation day (Arabic and Islamic knowledge), Henan.




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