Oded Abt

Dr. Oded Abt

Associate Fellow
Oded Abt

Research Abstract:

"Muslim Memories and Chinese Identity"
This research project explores the social and religious history and current conditions of communities of Muslims' descendants in Southeast China and Taiwan, and the mechanisms they apply to shape their own identity. It examines the role of ethnic politics, descent group organization and religion in identity formation and explores the ways history, memory, and current conditions shape one another.

The members of the lineages to be examined in this work are not practicing Muslims but are rather descendants of Muslim sojourners who settled in Southeast China between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Since the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), many of the Muslims gradually assimilated into the local Han Chinese population. Today, while their descendants resemble their Han neighbors almost completely, many still preserve family traditions and ritual practices aimed at commemorating their forefathers' foreign origin. Prominent among these practices are oral traditions, compilation of genealogical records and ancestral worship rituals which are central to the religious environment of Southeast China. Like their Han neighbors, Muslims' descendants perform these rituals meticulously. Nevertheless, their worship bears unique features, such as the taboo on offering pork to the ancestors.

So far scholars have tended to approach these communities in ethnic terms. Under current government policies, some Muslims’ descendants seek to create a distinct identity, and to obtain official recognition as members of the Chinese-Muslim minority (Hui). Therefore, most sources define these communities through parameters of a separate ethnic-Hui identity and affinity to Islam. This research offers an alternative approach. It studies their self-perceived identity as part of the Chinese environment, not from an ethnic perspective. It demonstrates that while the extent of Muslim religious faith has but marginal significance for establishing their identity, it is rather the Chinese religion and culture that play the central role.

This work demonstrates how, even as they mark their foreign ancestry, the rituals conducted by Muslims’ descendants are performed by wider Chinese society. Rather than concentrating on characteristics with affinity to Islam, the research focuses on the worship system into which these “Islamic” traits were incorporated. Hence, more than a study of descendants of Muslims, this work will shed light on Chinese social history in general: kinship organization, popular religion and ethnic identity. Moreover, it will tackle long-debated questions of assimilation, acculturation and sinicization, offering new insights into the continuously changing interpretations of the very meaning of becoming Chinese.

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