How a Chinese cleric trained in Lucknow lit the first fire of Jihad in Xinjiang

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J2,000,500 kilometers from his home in rural China, approaching adolescence, Hai Weiliang stood on the docks of Calcutta. The light of his faith had led him there, abandoning his return journey from the Haj pilgrimage, but now he had no idea which direction to take. Finally, a benevolent clergyman found him a cheap room in an inn near a mosque. Arming himself with a Chinese-English conversation book for travelers, Hai began conversing with the students of the local seminary.

Fires would be lit across Central Asia as his speech became less hesitant.

Late last month, new evidence emerged of the brutal incarceration of thousands of Xinjiang residents in Chinese internment centers, set up to root out secessionism fueled by religion. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have felt compelled to use repression against the resurgence of Islamist networks, whose deadly reach stretches from the Ferghana Valley to the heart of Europe.

The extraordinary story of the Chinese Muslim teenager who arrived in Calcutta shows how India a century ago provided the intellectual breeding ground from which this global jihadist movement grew.

Ethnic Turkic Muslims, Hai wrote in a 1934 essay, “could have an Islamic state not limited to Kashgar and its vicinity, but extending from the eastern borders of Afghanistan to the Great Wall of China.” Islamic nations, he urged, should help them and “cut off the Chinese pagans living there, whether merchants or laborers, and refuse Chinese consulates unless they are staffed with Chinese Muslims.”

The crucible in which this manifesto was forged was the Hindu-Muslim communal conflict.


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The student from Hunan

Only fragments of Hai’s life have survived; in English there is only one significant biographical account, by scholar John Chen. Hai was born in 1912, in the village of Zhimushan in Hunan, close, curiously, in space and time to a certain Mao Zedong. Early in life, his impoverished mother sent him to study at a local madrasa. A talent for the language earned him admission to the Peach Orchard seminary in Shanghai. In the mid-1920s, Hai was selected for the Haj pilgrimage and the unscheduled stop in Kolkata.

Impressed by Hai’s prodigious intellect, Zakir Husain, the founder of New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia, allowed him to attend classes at the now famous institution. Later, he joined Aligarh Muslim University, writing a thesis on Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen.

Then, just after his late teens – and having mastered Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English – Hai moved to Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwat-ul-Ullema Seminary in Lucknow.

Late-century ideologues in China had begun the process of importing ideas of Islamic purity through Haj journeys. Imam Ma Wanfu, historian Jonathan Lipman, proselytized to replace local Muslim cultures in northwest China with a new normative Islam. For Hai’s generation, however, the issue was different: the relationship between faith, power and Muslim political aspirations.

Probably, Hai first encountered the ideas of the poet Muhammad Iqbal in Lucknow. The early theologians of Nadwat-ul-Ulama, the scholar Mashal Saif has noted, were enamored with Iqbal and his praise of the glories of Islam. Hai translated Iqbal’s famous speech in 1930 in Allahabad – the moment the Pakistani movement was born – and argued for the wider relevance of his ideas.

To his audience, Hai explained his project as follows: “To bring all Muslim peoples to remove the borders imposed on Muslim countries and to advocate the restoration of the caliphate.

As in India, Muslims in China were a significant minority, with enclaves of demographic dominance but scattered across the country. As in India, Hai seemed to suggest, they had reason to fear a centralized state controlled by the religious majority.

Then, in 1934, Hai moved to Cairo, to study at the major seminary of al-Azhar, attracting the attention of right-wing anti-colonial theologians like Rashid Rida. Along with his contemporaries, Hai had brought China to the center of the pan-Islamic movement.


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Fires in Ferghana

At the turn of the last century, Hai Weilang was not the only Turkish student to engage in new ideas in Indian seminaries. The Kokand-born preacher, Muhammad Rustamov, arrived at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom Seminary in Deoband around 1925, after studying at religious institutions in Bukhara and Ajmer. According to the work of historian Michael Fredholm, it is likely that he was recruited by Deoband missionaries who had begun to visit Central Asia from 1925.

The religious message that Rustamov brought from Deoband did not impress the KGB. He was arrested several times and finally sent to a prison camp in Siberia.

Emerged in 1943 to fight as a soldier in the Soviet army, Rustamov then moved to Tajikistan. He worked as a state-employed clergyman, then at the Tajik Academy of Sciences.

From the mid-1970s, however, Rustamov began to create underground preaching groups. Its students would form the vanguard of the jihadist movement in Central Asia. Inspired by ideologues like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Abul Ala’ Maududi, wrote Vitaly Naumkin, they sought Islamic revolutions. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan provided military might for these ideas – sparking savage insurgencies, wrote journalist Ahmad Rashid, across Central Asia.

Xinjiang jihadists also cut their teeth in Afghanistan. From the mid-1980s, the economic development of Xinjiang brought a flood of migrants. Population pressure, noted scholar Graham Fuller, led many Uyghurs to conclude that progress was “living their very existence as a threatened people.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, communal violence erupted, leading China to crack down on religious revivalists. This, in turn, fueled jihadist recruitment.

Ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and their Central Asian counterparts remain active on the jihadist battlegrounds of Syria, as well as northwest Pakistan. Hai’s vision of an Islamic state stretching across Central Asia, from Afghanistan to the Great Wall, is still alive – in the minds of jihadists who have never read his work.


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Ideology and politics

Like all revolutionary ideologies, jihadism involves intellectual traditions. The work of historian Ayesha Jalal shows that jihadism had deep roots in pre-colonial India. Rai Barelvi’s Syed Ahmad waged wars against the Sikh empire, which still pierce the jihadist imagination. The leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad, Masood Azhar Alvi, retreated to the site of his last battle, Balakote, to seek inspiration for a dissertation on the Koran. The 18th century jihadists, whom Stephen Dale recorded, staged suicide bombings against colonial powers in southern India.

Few ideologies, however, survive contact with the real world intact.

Long ruled by ethnic Han warlords, Xinjiang’s rulers – many of whom draw inspiration from pan-Islamism – established the independent East Turkestan Republic in 1933. The rebellion was crushed by Ma Zhongying, a cousin of the family of Chinese Ma warlords and commander of the nationalist Kuomintang. It is estimated that several thousand civilians were massacred by Kuomintang forces. Hai was heartbroken.

The poet Iqbal’s engagement with Hindu-Muslim tensions led him to advocate the division of India into “one or more states, without which the imposition of Sharia’t is impossible.” “The only alternative,” he wrote grimly, “is civil war.” Xinjiang had seen such a war break out, but both sides were Muslim. According to Yufeng Mao, China’s Muslim elites came to the opposite conclusion to Iqbal’s: the best hope for security, they concluded, was to become entangled in a strong central state.

Hai had planned to stay in Cairo and only return after gaining new theological qualifications. In early 1940, however, he was recruited by Muslims affiliated with the Kuomintang, eager to demonstrate their community’s contribution to the war against Japan. In 1942 Hai was assigned to the Chinese mission in Tehran and transferred to New Delhi five years later. After the revolution in China, he served Kuomintang-ruled Taiwan for three decades.

“To the most sublime Emir,” reads the dedication of Hai’s latest book: A Salute to Warlord Ma Bufeng, the Butcher of Xinjiang. Exiled by revolutionary China, Ma eventually befriends Hai; the scholar was teaching Arabic to the warlord’s children. Until the end, Hai hoped that the warlords and rebels who formed the Republic of East Turkestan would unite to form an Islamic state.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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