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  • China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law by Matthew S. Erie
  • Jonathan N. Lipman
Matthew S. Erie. China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 447pp. $140.00 (cloth).

Islamic law, sharia, has not been central to studies of Islam in China—indeed, it often receives no mention at all, despite its import for scholars of other parts of the Muslim world and its undoubted importance to Muslims everywhere. Matthew S. Erie, an anthropologist-lawyer, has written a pioneering study based on extensive primary sources and 18 months of field-work in Linxia (临夏; formerly 河州 Hezhou), known as “Little Mecca,” an important Islamic center in Gansu Province. Given the sensitivity of Islamic subjects in China—related to perceived or claimed separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism in Xinjiang—Erie deserves praise for his decade of persistent navigation of the constraints and obstacles of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beyond the already impressive task of doing this investigation, he has produced a volume of considerable subtlety and breadth, contributing both general claims and detailed ethnography, answering many questions, and successfully setting a baseline for further research.

Erie self-consciously places his study within the established field of “law and society,” carefully elucidating the categories used in China—such as jiaofa (教法 religious law) and xiguanfa (习惯法 customary law)—and the changing relationship between state and nonstate legal systems under Qing, Republican, and Communist rule. He writes, “My use of ‘law’ is shorthand for what would otherwise be an enumeration (i.e., ‘law’ plus ‘ethics’ plus ‘morals’ plus ‘customs’)” (18). He thus opens the way to exploration not only of statutes and religious dicta but also of everyday ethics, perceptions of self and of other, and negotiation between state and nonstate actors over how to produce and maintain a “harmonious society” for Muslims and their neighbors.

The substantive chapters of China and Islam focus on areas of potential contradiction and disorder, narrating both structural, institutional histories and personal tales of community life and conflict resolution. To keep the research manageable in scope, Erie avoids deep consideration of the Turkic-speaking Muslims of Xinjiang, which also provides him a necessary shield against some state interference, and restricts himself to the Chinese-speaking Muslims called Huizu (回族) by the PRC. The Uyghurs sometimes appear as a carefully worded comparison case, often to stress their difference from the Huizu in the eyes of official China but sometimes to explain why Islam itself has become so suspect. This wariness has deep roots in Qing and Republican official and social perceptions of Muslims—Uyghurs, Hui, and others—as inherently violent people, an assessment sustained in the PRC.

The introduction, “The Party-State Enters the Mosque,” provides an overview of current conditions for Muslims in the PRC, a brief anthropology of China’s “normatively diverse” legal systems (including Islamic sharia law and fiqh jurisprudence), and a discussion of the relationship between law and ethics. From the beginning, Erie establishes the importance of the minjian (民间 popular, folk, unofficial, unregistered) sphere, a crucial intermediary between Muslims and the atheistic state, with its chronic aversion to voluntary association. Distinguishing the minjian accurately from the “public sphere,” which has been the subject of hot debate both in China and abroad, he places it between state and nonstate legal structures and ideas, where it gives Muslims scope for negotiation and [End Page E-18] compromise. Since Linxia is a minority autonomous prefecture assigned to the Chinese-speaking Muslims, a Huizu zizhi zhou (回族自治州), Erie here defines “autonomy” as it is understood in the PRC—that is, radically different from “sovereignty” and intimately related to the minjian.

Chapter 1 presents an abbreviated history of Muslims and Islamic law in China, from the Tang to the present, focusing on modern governments’ efforts to domesticate Islamic law as “customary law” (习惯法 xiguanfa) in the late Qing and Republic and then as “ethnic habits and customs” (民族风俗习惯 minzu fengsu xiguan) since the 1950s. Here, as later in the book, Erie’s training as a lawyer took him to the statute books, the official regulations, and the institutional history of the China Islamic Association (中国伊斯兰教协会 Zhongguo yisilanjiao xiehui), all of which he...


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