Chinese Muslims forge isolated path
By Louisa Lim
Against a desert backdrop, surrounded by parched yellow-earth hills, an army of worshippers sing devotional chants as they march through a compound to the central mosque.
Ningxia province is the heartland of Islam in China - and the base of Hong Yang, a Muslim leader who commands a million Chinese followers.
Islam with Chinese characteristics, in Ningxia province
Religious freedom is laid down in the Chinese constitution, but Hong Yang admits there are limits.
"It depends on how you interpret the word freedom. Our religious freedom cannot compare with other countries. We're only free to practice within the boundaries set by Chinese law and policy," he said.
"But we don't want to overstep those limits, as that might create conflict and instability for the whole society."
Spreading the faith is a duty for Muslims, but for the 20 million Muslims in China, it is only allowed within the confines of a mosque.
China's atheist leadership distrust all whose loyalties might be split, especially those for whom religion is a higher calling.
Its strategy is to bind religious leaders into the communist hierarchy.
Hong Yang commands a million Chinese followers.
Hong Yang is a government advisor, as well as a spiritual leader, and he is often torn between religion and politics.
"Of course it would be ideal to be a purely religious figure. That's what I strive for. But this is China," he said.
"If I can serve as a bridge between the government and the people, then that's a good thing for everyone."
Arriving at a funeral, the devotion which Hong Yang inspires is palpable.
Men, young and old, mob him to exchange greetings, and the hillside around swarms with the white hats worn by Muslims in the region.
Religious rituals only resurfaced in the 1980s after years of communist suppression, when all religious activity was banned.
These days an Islamic resurgence is taking place, but China's leaders fear the fervour of faith.
In the past, rebellions brewed in Ningxia province, as Muslims chafed against the yoke of central control.
Mindful of that, China's communist rulers keep careful control over their flock.
Female imams are an exclusively Chinese development
But Muslims in the province are pushing forward the barriers of faith - with unique results.
Jin Meihua is at the forefront of those changes. Her head covered with a lilac scarf, she teaches passages from the Koran to other women.
The 40-year-old wife and mother is one of a handful of Chinese female imams.
"I felt I couldn't be a true Muslim if I didn't understand Islam. I craved knowledge, so I went to the imam and asked his permission to study in the mosque," she said.
"There were only men there, and no mosque for the women. He said it would be hard but after about a year of study, I got support from the other imams and the community."
Jin Meihua runs a mosque exclusively for women. While hers is attached to a male mosque, some female Muslims have set up their own completely independent mosques.
"These are sites led by women for women, not overseen by male religious leaders," said Maria Jaschok from Oxford University.
"They're independent, even autonomous. This is simply not the case anywhere else in Muslim countries."
Beijing's tight control over religious practice means Chinese Muslims have been isolated from trends sweeping through the rest of the Islamic world.
According to Dr Khaled Abou el Fadl from the University of California in Los Angeles, that means that ancient traditions like female jurists - which have been stamped out elsewhere - have been able to continue in China.
"The Wahhabi and Salafis have not been able to penetrate areas like China and establish their puritanical creed there," said Dr Khaled Abou el Fadl.
"That's a good thing, as it means that perhaps from the margins of Islam the great tradition of women jurists might be rekindled."
It may be controversial, but the women who come here do not care.
Ma Hongmei, a 30-year-old mother, says that what she has learned in the women's mosque has helped her become a better Muslim.
"It opened my eyes and broadened my horizons. It helped my family and gives me a moral framework for educating my children," she said.
"Surely they have female imams in other countries?" she replied, when told that China's system was unusual.
Her licence to practice is issued by a government body, the Islamic Association of China.
Hong Yang's base is in a virtual desert landscape
Ma Ziyuan, an official at the association, said female imams were allowed because it was the "wish of the masses".
"They gave us this power. We are here to fulfil the demands of the religious believers. People want to learn and women should have the same rights as men," he said.
This is socialist Islam with Chinese characteristics.
Believers are hobbled and co-opted by the state, encouraged to push forward changes which divide them from fellow worshippers elsewhere.
For Muslims in China, the path ahead is an isolated one, and that is exactly what the Chinese government wants.