Answering the call to prayer

Updated: 2014-04-04 07:26

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)


African Muslims find gathering spot to worship in Guangzhou, Zhao Xu reports.

For Chinese residents living near narrow, tree-lined Jinrong Street in the center of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Friday is the day when they are treated to a spectacle - a weekly event they can almost set their clocks by.

Building a culture far from home

Religion plays a crucial role in the life of African Muslims overseas, and the Guangzhou authorities should make greater efforts to embrace the distinct cultural traditions, said Adams Bodomo, a professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna.

"Africans in the diaspora form communities at several levels, and one of them is at the level of religion or religious affiliation. That's why there are both Muslim and Christian communities in Guangzhou," said Bodomo, who published a book on Africans in China in 2012.

He said the African community is normally perceived as a homogenous entity by Guangzhou locals, but the Muslims have formed a cohesive society whose members rarely mix with non-Muslim Africans. However, just like other Africans in the city, Muslims regard trade and the search for business opportunities as their main priorities.

They face a number of challenges in Guangzhou, one of which is attending daily prayers, he said. "Muslims pray five times a day, but many in Guangzhou find it difficult to travel to the Central Mosque five times a day from wherever they are based," he said. "You can't just pray anywhere you want in Guangzhou. One has to pray at approved places."

In that sense the situation is different from Western countries where Muslims and Christians can attend numerous small venues for worship, he said. However, in terms of their function as a social safety network, the overseas Muslim communities in China and the West are virtually identical.

According to Bodomo, a deeper understanding of the Muslim and other African communities is essential in terms of communications between them and the natives of Guangzhou, and both sides need to make greater efforts to promote peaceful coexistence.

"To achieve that, I would suggest that they engage constructively in local politics because they have become a significant part of the city. One of the ways to do this would be to involve them in consultative council meetings, as in Yiwu in Zhejiang province. In this respect, Guangzhou lags behind Yiwu," he said.

Because China is not a traditional destination for immigrants and therefore has scant experience of the phenomenon, the central government should formulate an immigration policy that more clearly defines permanent residence and citizenship status, he said.

He added that all China's expat communities should be free to worship as they please, as long as their religion is not used to subvert the State and its followers obey the country's laws and regulations.

Everything begins at noon. As if on cue, a group of men appear - some wearing flowing, ankle-length cotton gowns in a variety of hues. As much as their clothes, the men's dark skin tones immediately distinguish them from the locals. They linger briefly near the opening of a side street that leads to a byroad, which in turn leads to their meeting place.

As the clock ticks toward 1 pm, a growing number of people arrive, with some appearing to be in a great hurry, jumping out of taxis before ducking directly into the stone-covered, well-trodden byroad.

At the end of a 30-meter footpath, sandwiched between a number of slightly dilapidated six- and seven-story residential buildings that rise on both sides, is a humble gate. It's so understated that it would be easy to miss were it not for a line of gilded words carved in stone above the Moorish style arch that read "Xiao Dong-ying Mosque" in Chinese and Arabic.

"For the city's African Muslims, especially those from West Africa, this is where they come for Jumu'ah, the prayer meetings held every Friday," said Bai Lin, the imam of the mosque who regularly leads the prayers and whose life has been intertwined with the 530-year-old building for the past 11 years.

"I came to Guangzhou in 2003, after graduating from Beijing's China Islamic Institute, two years before the official reopening of the mosque in 2005 - it had been closed to the public since 1949," he said. "It didn't take long for this ancient house of prayer to win a place in the hearts of modern-day believers. Since mid-2006, the worshipping masses have regularly overflowed onto the streets and the nearby residential square."

Finding a foothold

The worshippers have returned every Friday since to kneel and pray, and the weekly gatherings are now a popular fixture of the local scene.

"The city's current African Muslim population began to arrive in the early 2000s. They came mainly from West and North Africa to conduct business during China's opening-up and reform drive. They were following in the footsteps of their Muslim brothers from the Middle East and Southeast Asia," said Wang Wenjie, a long-serving imam who is president of the Guangzhou Islamic Association.

"Their numbers have almost doubled during the past five years. Today, of the city's estimated 55,000 foreign Muslim residents, one-third come from Africa," said the 50-year-old. "This effectively makes Guangzhou the Chinese city with the largest African Muslim population."

Inside Xiaodongying Mosque, the worshippers from Africa greatly outnumber their Chinese fellow Muslims. Outside of it, they've found a foothold nearby in the bustling, mildly chaotic Xiaobei and Xiatangxi roads, lined with stores and halal restaurants.

Punctuated by shop signs in swirling Arabic characters rendered in a seemingly unbroken flow, the area is in constant flux: In the early days, the newcomers could often be seen pulling heavy suitcases and waiting anxiously for the traffic lights to change. Eventually, many of them settled down, rented rooms from the locals and brought in members of their extended families in Africa. Although a solid presence nowadays, many of these enterprising traders started from modest bases, such as hotel rooms.

Feng Yun, a Chinese Muslim who owns a halal restaurant on the second floor of the Baixun Hostel on Xiatangxi Road, has befriended many of the guests who frequent his small business.

"Of the 200 or so people living in this building, 90 percent are from Africa and most of them are Muslims. Basically, they trade in everything they would sell in Africa, from clothing to closets. Some send containers home, others just send giant parcels," said the 33-year-old, who spent a decade living in Egypt before returning to China in October. "Cairo is known as 'The City of a Thousand Minarets', which means there is always a mosque within a five-minute walk. Here, we only have four mosques, but the Muslims still feel very much connected with Allah, especially in this part of town," he said.

The prayer corner

Feng pointed to a corner of the restaurant hidden behind a curtain, the floor covered by yellow carpets bedecked with minarets and laid from east to west. "Five times a day, at set hours, Muslims are required by the Quran to kneel facing west toward Mecca and pray. That's what that corner is for," he said.

His customers appreciate the gesture, especially newcomers such as Mamadou Sillah, a 32-year-old Gambian who arrived in Guangzhou last year. "The prayer corner is a feature of almost all the halal restaurants in the vicinity. For a foreign Muslim new to the city, this is very reassuring," said the 32-year-old, who works for a trading company founded by a compatriot.

Sillah is a devoted attendee of Friday prayers at Xiaodongying Mosque. "Before we begin the prayers, the imam reads a little Arabic from the Quran, and then explains it in Chinese," he said. "I don't understand Chinese, but it isn't a big deal because I can roughly guess what he's talking about - same message, different language."

Answering the call to prayer

Amadou Ndiaye, a 54-year-old Malian businessman in Guangzhou 
Bai, the imam at Xiaodongying Mosque, is fully aware of the emotional distance that can be created by a foreign language and has sought to lessen it. "The power of every single word in the Quran resides as much in its spoken form - the intonation and intrinsic musicality - as the written one," he said. "I've always tried to intersperse my preaching, which is in Chinese, with recitals from the holy book, to guide the ears and hearts of all believers."

The 34-year-old was grateful to the Africans who attend the mosque. "In the early days of my imamship, I was able to draw confidence from the respect and trust they placed in me," he said.

"Unlike some Muslims from Middle Eastern countries, who tend to see themselves or their way of worshipping as the paradigm for all followers of Islam, African Muslims are generally very humble and down-to-earth," he said. "Despite their occasional stubbornness, they are the most genuine people I've ever met."

Over the years, Bai has not only offered help to Africans who have lost their money or passports, but also presided over their wedding ceremonies - sometimes to Chinese women who have converted to Islam - and has played the peacemaker during periods of family tension. Occasionally, he has also intervened when serious issues arose.

"Some of the Africans I know don't encourage their wives to go to the hospital for regular checkups during pregnancy and would prefer to have the babies delivered at home. They are also extremely reluctant to let their wives undergo cesarean sections, even when not doing so would expose the women to considerable risk. I have to say this has more to do with the conventional beliefs of their African societies back home than with the teachings of Islam," he said. "But in cases such as these, I do my best to mediate, but of course with due sensitivity."

However, there have also been times when Bai and his nine fellow imams in Guangzhou have felt inadequate, usually when the issue concerns one of the most sacred and subtle aspects of Muslim life: burial of the dead.

"Muslims believe in inhumation - cremation is never an option," said Wang Guanxue, who has been an imam in Guangzhou for 17 years. "The municipal government arranged for the Chinese Muslim population to perform burials in the city's Muslim cemetery. But because of a severe shortage of land, foreign Muslims who die in Guangzhou don't enjoy the same rights: Their remains have to be flown to their home country for burial."

"The procedure is smooth, but one needs to pay around 20,000 yuan ($3,220) for a coffin and then another 80,000 for the flight. Keeping in mind that most of the African Muslims in Guangzhou are engaged in small-scale trade that yields only a moderate profit, the sum sounds crazy. However, the people I know have always managed to pay in the end," he said.

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