Matthew S. Erie sheds light on the practice of shari'a by Muslim minorities in China

Given the recent and not-so-recent tensions in the Middle East, Matthew Erie's current research on the study of Islamic and Chinese law proves relevant and insightful.  His talk on Monday, October 21st gave a glimpse into his extensive study on the issue.  Focusing on the Hui (Chinese Muslim) communities in northwest China, Erie conducted extensive fieldwork and documented over 200 interviews, delving into the relationship between shari'a (the rules of everyday life for Muslims) and Chinese legal development and policies.

“In China there are approximately 20 million Muslims,” Erie states, “and there is a history of conflict between the Hui and the Chinese, particularly in the Northwest region.” 

Erie began with a look to the history of Chinese-Muslim interactions: “In the 1880s Ma family warlords took root…and really dominated most of the northwest. A lot of the common perception was that this warlord period was a lawless period, this lawless violence but actually the Ma family warlords were instrumental in introducing the Yihewani teaching school…and were very much focused on scripturalist reform of Chinese Islam.”

In discussing the difficulties of the shari’a and Chinese law as they intersect in daily life,, Erie states that “there are two main ways the contemporary Chinese state deals with this issue. One is the discursive approach and the other is the institutional approach.”

One of the main difficulties, Erie claims, is that “in China officially there is no such thing as shari’a, it does not exist. What there is is something called customary law…and basically it is a sterilized version of the ritual and devotional aspects of shari’a…which doesn’t really go to the heart of the law social issues of marriage, divorce, property, and so on.”

Based on this need for Chinese legal acknowledgment of shari’a, Erie offered two examples from his field interviews to illustrate the functionality and complicated nature of shari’a in China today. Erie’s two examples juxtaposed the “unofficial bureaucracy of an incredibly literate and talented ahong that cannot be publicly recognized” against the “hyper-official bureaucracy which is largely devoid of substance which offers highly-publicized performances for the non-elite Hui.”

Erie concludes that “neither bureaucratization nor Islamization is fully complete, the process is not marked by top-down, one-way rationalization but rather the uncertainty and paradox. There 

is no small amount of anxiety in these collaborations.”

He posits the question “Where do you divide the local state from Islamic society?”

Erie states “lawyers work through their contacts in local government…and these contacts are mutually beneficial. However I would say that these connections are not one-hundred percent beneficial…they also constrain.”

Even considering the difficulties of the interaction between shari’a and contemporary Chinese law, Erie still believes the “relationship between Chinese law and Islamic law and their mutual recognition and misrecognitions may open new terrain for the comparative study of law.”

Matthew S. Erie is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.  His talk on Monday was a brief introduction to his working paper, "Qadi Justice in Chinese Courts: The Bureaucratization of Islamic Law in the People's Republic of China."  For more information about Matthew S. Erie or his work, visit his webpage here.

The event was sponsored by the East Asian Legal Studies Center, with special thanks for John Ohnesorge, EALSC Director.  

Submitted by EALSC News on November 4, 2013

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