Generation of new imams preach peace

Updated: 2016-05-13 08:27

By Cui Jia(China Daily Europe)

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Generation of new imams preach peace

Young graduates of institutes across the country have become a major force in driving Islam in China forward, helping young Muslims to identify and reject extremism.

Ma, from Shihezi, a city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, came to Beijing to study at his "dream school" in 2011. Last year, he was one of the first 26 students to be awarded a bachelor's degree in Islamic studies by the institute, which had only awarded certificates of graduation before then.

A member of the Hui ethnic group, he says he loves to speak in a loud voice, which he believes is characteristic of men from China's northwestern regions, and that helps when he's leading prayers.

His father and grandfather are both imams in Xinjiang, and he learned about Islam from older religious leaders in the local mosques. Although religious leaders have traditionally been trained that way, Ma said younger imams are concerned that the system can promote a narrow perception of religion.

"It has flaws. For example, the students learn from only one imam and are easily influenced by his views, so they think they are the only correct ones to hold," he says, dressed in a white robe and matching taqiyah, the prayer skullcap worn by many Muslim men. "My family always wanted me to go to the institute to master the knowledge they never had the opportunity to learn and to develop my own perspective during the process."

Despite his short time at the mosque, Ma has already developed his own style of leading the congregation: "I want people to feel I am easy to talk with, or just have a laugh with. I don't want or need to appear serious all the time just to show my authority."

His appointment was initially greeted with skepticism by worshippers at the mosque, which opened in 2013. They initially felt Ma's youth would prevent him from fulfilling his responsibilities, but they have gradually been won over by his cheerful nature and deep religious knowledge.

Liu Qingli, who owns a restaurant beside the mosque, says he enjoys Ma's addresses during jumah, the Friday prayer meeting that's the most important gathering of the week. About 100 worshippers, including Muslims from overseas, usually attend the session, and some members of the congregation visit Doudian just to participate in Ma's services.

"He's young, but he is very capable of leading the mosque," says a 46-year-old Hui man who gave his name only as Liu. "It's great to see new blood in the mosques around China. They (the young imams) are like a breath of fresh air.

"Ma gets on well with the older believers because he respects them, and young people like to talk to him because of his down-to-earth attitude."

Ma says: "I'm much younger than most of the followers who come to the mosque. I always say that I'm their child, because they can teach me so many lessons, but in our religious lives I am their leader."

He says mosques are built to promote religion, respect and kindness. "An imam who encourages violent behavior is not an imam anymore, but simply a wolf in sheep's clothing. Those who recite the prayers five times a day and then commit violent acts will cause great damage because people will believe these atrocities are being carried out by devout Muslims. But are these people really devout Muslims?

"People must ensure they make the right decisions, especially if someone praises Allah and then encourages people to pick up a weapon and kill," he says, adding that he often discusses issues such as this with the faithful and encourages them to learn more.

"In addition to learning about Islam, my studies at the institute gave me a broader view of Muslim life in China and the world outside; even my father is learning from me now," he adds, saying that he teaches his father how to pronounce Arabic words correctly when the older man recites the Quran in his heavy Xinjiang accent.

Founded in 1955, the China Islamic Institute is in Niu Street, the spiritual home of about 10,000 Muslims in Beijing.

Generation of new imams preach peace

"About 70 percent of our lessons are about religion, while 30 percent focus on other topics such as Chinese literature and history," says Cong Enlin, vice-president of the institute, which has seen about 20 percent of its graduates become imams.

"I believe Islamic institutes will gradually become the mainstream of China's Islamic education, which is traditionally conducted in mosques," says the 51-year-old Hui man, also a graduate of the institute. "The knowledge acquired by many older imams is no longer enough to answer many new questions, especially those posed by younger people."

To meet the rising demand for graduates, the institute plans to double enrollment to 50 in September. At the moment, most of the students are Hui, but the college will open a class specifically for students from Xinjiang. A new campus has already been built, Cong says. In addition to awarding bachelor's degrees, the center plans to offer postgraduate and doctoral courses, too.