x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sufism in China, an example of traditions respected

Sufism in China has a long history and some of its most crucial figures – including a descendant of the Prophet – are memorialised by beautiful and well-maintained shrines.

Jiuzhaoting Gongbei, the Shrine of Khawja Abdullah. Courtesy Qing Chen
Jiuzhaoting Gongbei, the Shrine of Khawja Abdullah. Courtesy Qing Chen

Several years ago, I became interested in the practice of Sufism in China while I was visiting Linxia in the north-western province of Gansu. Known as “China’s Mecca” to Chinese Muslims, Linxia is a centre of Sufi practices in China. Adherents of the Qadiriyya and Kubrawiyya orders are found there, as well as those of the two main Chinese Sufi sects of the Naqshbandi order, Naqshbandi Khufiyya and Naqshbandi Jahriyya, amid many highly decorated Sufi shrines. These are known as “gongbei” in the local Chinese dialect, this name being thought to originate from the Arabic qubba or Persian gonbad.

During a visit to the Great Gongbei of Linxia, the shrine of the Sufi master Qi Jingyi (1656-1719), I learnt about the history of the Qadiriyya Sufi in China, the country’s oldest Sufi order. It is said to have been introduced by Khawja Abdullah, a 29th generation descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Arriving by sea at Canton in 1674, he travelled inland, preaching in both the north-western and south-western regions of China. On his death, he was buried in Langzhong in today’s south-western province of Sichuan. His shrine, the Jiuzhaoting Gongbei, is one of the three most holy places of the Qadiriyya Sufi in China, revered by adherents throughout the country.

On a visit to China last year, I had the opportunity of visiting Langzhong and the shrine of Khawja Abdullah. An old city that is rich in Three Kingdom culture, Langzhong is well-known as a feng shui city, laid out in line with the Chinese philosophical system of harmonising the human existence with the surrounding environment. Surrounded by waters and mountains that are associated with legends of the two greatest feng shui masters of the Tang Dynasty, Yuan Tiangang and Li Chengfeng, the historic town is preserved as a heritage site and is a popular tourist attraction. Khawja Abdullah’s shrine, also known locally as Baba Shrine, is, however, not open to the public.

Located at the foot of Panlong Hill by the River Jialing, the shrine compound covers an area of 23,000 square metres, with the shrine itself surrounded by woods and bamboo forests. Although within the territory of Langzhong, it is not subject to the local authority, but is administered by the Qadiriyya Sufi community to which it belongs. Since 1998, it has been managed by the administrators of the Great Gongbei of Linxia, who appoint the keepers of the shrine in accordance with the norms and values of the Qadiriyya Sufi.

At the time of my visit, a young clergyman from Linxia had recently taken up the post of keeper of the shrine. Although he was reluctant to let me, a non-Muslim, enter the building, he provided me with much useful information both about the shrine and about the stories related to it and also allowed me to take photographs of the exterior.

The keeper is normally appointed for a three-year period and leads a team of five to 10 people, who handle maintenance and administration as well as carry out religious functions. This has been the case ever since the shrine was built, apart from a short interruption during China’s Cultural Revolution.

During the latter part of his life, Khawja Abdullah spent much time preaching in Langzhong, thanks to his close relationship with one of his followers, Ma Ziyun, the military governor of North Sichuan. One day, according to legend, Khawja Abdullah was walking with Ma on the slopes of Panlong Hill when he pointed to an area of land at the foot of the hill and said that he would like to be buried there. He died the next day, and Ma and other local Sufis laid him to rest in the place he had indicated.

Upon hearing the news of his death, his greatest disciple Qi Jingyi, generally regarded as the founder of the Chinese Qadiriyya Sufi order, immediately came to Langzhong and set about building a shrine above the grave. Completed in 1691, the shrine was given by Qi Jingyi the name of Jiuzhaoting, which means “Pavilion of Ever-Lasting Light”.

Local Qadiriyya Sufis associate many miraculous legends with the presence of Khawja Abdullah in Langzhong, an indication of their deep respect for him. It is clear, however, that he had a major impact on the spiritual life of people in the region. He is portrayed as a man of great personality, with a good command of the Chinese language and knowledge of Chinese religions and philosophies. Before his arrival in Langzhong, there were already groups of Muslims in the area. They were followers of Qadim, a Hanafi school of the Sunni tradition, the oldest school of Islam in China, which was first introduced by Muslim traders to coastal China in the early centuries of Islam, and has remained a dominant Islamic school in China.

His preaching is said to have attracted large numbers of people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who became followers of the Qadiriyya Sufi. Several thousand Muslims still live in a nearby village, while a mosque dating to the Qing period in the old quarter of Langzhong town still serves the Muslim community there. The mosque’s imam, like the keeper of the Jiuzhaoting Gongbei, is also from Linxia, and provided me with much information on the current status of the local Muslim community.

The layout of the Jiuzhaoting Gongbei follows the tradition of Chinese courtyard architecture but with Islamic ritual requirements incorporated. It is orientated south-north, with the main entrance gateway at the south, approached along a path through the woods. This then leads to a second gateway, beyond which there is a screen in front of the entrance into the enclosure of the shrine itself. Here, an imposing wooden archway leads to the main hall with the tomb of Khawja Abdullah at its northern end.

While the orientation of the shrine emphasises the south-north axis, a characteristic of the Chinese architectural tradition, the builders also had to address the issue of orientation towards the qibla, as required in Islamic architecture, which in southern China lies to the west. To take account of this, gateways orientated to the east and west were also built, this long having been the architectural practice of Hui Muslims across China.

I entered into the shrine compound through the eastern gate, the main southern gate being closed. Having passed an elegant, well-maintained Qing building which now functions as an office, I walked westward through the bamboo forests to reach the enclosure of the shrine itself. This has two gates. One, on the south axis between the spiritual screen and the wooden archway, appeared not to be in use, so I entered through the east gateway. It was here that I met the keeper of the shrine.

Apart from the main gateway in the south, which is a new addition, the main structures of the shrine are mostly from the Qing period. The local north Sichuan architectural tradition is reflected in the use of building materials and in the decorative elements. The bricks of which the shrine is built are mainly of local manufacture, while the decorative tiles and the elaborate wood and brick carvings are fine examples of local craftsmanship. It is noteworthy that the figurative motifs generally favoured in Chinese architectural decorations are carefully avoided, demonstrating the way in which Chinese Muslims adjust to Islamic requirements.

The multi-tiered pavilion which dominates the roofline of the main hall marks the grave of Khawja Abdullah. Visible from afar, it is a characteristic of gongbei architecture, especially as seen in the north-west regions of China. Well-preserved and well-maintained, the Jiuzhaoting Gongbei is evidence of the long history and of the firm roots of the Qadiriyya Sufi order since it first reached China more than three centuries ago.

Qing Chen is completing her PhD thesis at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on the history and architecture of the early mosques of southern China.