Two thousand, five hundred kilometres from his home in rural China, just edging into his teens, Hai Weiliang stood on the docks of Kolkata. The light of his faith had led him there, abandoning his voyage home from the Haj pilgrimage, but now he had no idea which way to turn. Finally, a kindly cleric found him a cheap room at an inn near a mosque. Arming himself with a Chinese-to-English conversation book for travellers, Hai began conversing with local seminary students.
Fires would be lit across central Asia as his speech grew less hesitant.
Late last month, new evidence emerged on the brutal incarceration of thousands of Xinjiang residents at China’s internment centres, set up to stamp out religion-fuelled secessionism. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan felt compelled to use repression against resurgent Islamist networks, whose lethal reach extends from the Ferghana valley to Europe’s heartlands.
The extraordinary story of the Chinese Muslim teenager who arrived in Kolkata shows how India, a century ago, provided the intellectual 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 environs, but extending from the eastern borders of Afghanistan all the way to the Great Wall of China.” Islamic nations, he exhorted, ought to help them, and “cut off the Chinese heathens living there, be they merchants or workers, and refuse Chinese consulates unless they are staffed by Chinese Muslims.”
The crucible in which this manifesto was forged was Hindu-Muslim communal conflict.
The student from Hunan
Little but fragments of Hai’s life have survived; in English, there is but one significant biographical account, by scholar John Chen. Hai was born in 1912, in Hunan’s Zhimushan village—close, interestingly, in both 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 language gained him admission to Peach Orchard seminary in Shanghai. In the mid-1920s, Hai was selected for the Haj pilgrimage, and the unplanned 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 the Aligarh Muslim University, writing a thesis on the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen.
Then, just after his teens ended—and having mastered Arabic, Persian, Urdu, as well as English—Hai moved to the Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwat-ul-Ullema seminary in Lucknow.
Fin de siècle ideologues in China had begun the process of importing ideas of Islamic purity through Haj journeys. Imam Ma Wanfu, historian Jonathan Lipman has recorded, proselytised to replace local Muslim cultures in north-western China with a new, normative Islam. For Hai’s generation, though, the question was different: The relationship between faith, power and Muslim political aspiration.
Likely, Hai first encountered the ideas of poet Muhammad Iqbal in Lucknow. Early theologians at Nadwat-ul-Ulama, scholar Mashal Saif has noted, were infatuated with Iqbal and his peans on Islam’s glories. Hai translated Iqbal’s famous 1930 address in Allahabad—the Pakistan movement’s moment of birth—and advocated for the wider relevance of his ideas.
To his audience, Hai explained his project thus: “To lead all Muslim peoples in doing away with the bounds placed on Muslim countries and advocating the re-establishment of the caliphate.”
Like in India, Muslims in China were a sizeable minority, with enclaves of demographic dominance but scattered across the country. Like in India, Hai seemed to suggest, they had reason to fear a centralised State controlled by the religious majority.
Then, in 1934, Hai moved to Cairo, to study at the great seminary of al-Azhar—drawing the attention of anti-colonial Right-wing theologians like Rashid Rida. Along with his contemporaries, Hai had brought China to the centre of the pan-Islamic movement.
Fires in Ferghana
Early in the last century, Hai Weilang wasn’t the only Turkic student engaging with new ideas in India’s seminaries. The Kokand-born preacher Muhammad Rustamov arrived at the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband around 1925, having earlier studied at religious institutions in Bukhara and Ajmer. Likely, the work of historian Michael Fredholm suggests, he was recruited by Deoband missionaries who had begun visiting central Asia from 1925.
The religious message Rustamov brought from Deoband did not impress the KGB. He was arrested several times and eventually sent to a prison camp in Siberia.
Emerging in 1943, to fight as a soldier in the Soviet army, Rustamov went on to settle in Tajikistan. He worked as a State-employed cleric, and then at the Tajik Academy of Sciences.
From the mid-1970s, though, Rustamov began setting up clandestine preaching groups. His students would form the vanguard of the jihadist movement in central Asia. Inspired by ideologues like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Pakistani Abul Ala’ Maududi, Vitaly Naumkin has written, they sought Islamic revolutions. The Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan provided military muscle for these ideas—sparking off savage insurgencies, journalist Ahmad Rashid has written, across central Asia.
Xinjiang’s jihadists, too, cut their military teeth in Afghanistan. From the mid-1980s, economic development in Xinjiang, brought in a flood of migrants. The demographic pressure, scholar Graham Fuller has noted, led many Uighurs to conclude that progress was “placing their very existence as a people under threat.” From the mid-1990s, communal violence broke out, leading China to crack down on revivalist clerics. That, in turn, fuelled jihadist recruitment.
Ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, and their counterparts from central Asia remain active in jihadist battlefields from Syria, as well as Pakistan’s north-west. 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 never read his work.
Ideology and politics
Like all revolutionary ideologies, jihadism involves intellectual traditions. Historian Ayesha Jalal’s work shows jihadism had deep roots in pre-colonial India. Syed Ahmad of Rai Barelvi fought wars against the Sikh empire, which still transfix the jihadist imagination. Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar Alvi retreated to the site of his last battle, Balakote, to seek inspiration for a disquisition on the Quran. Eighteenth-century jihadists, Stephen Dale has recorded, staged suicide attacks on colonial powers in south India.
Few ideologies, though, survive contact with the real world untainted.
Long ruled by ethnic-Han warlords, Xinjiang’s leaders—many inspired by pan-Islamism—created the independent East Turkestan Republic in 1933. The rebellion was crushed by Ma Zhongying, a cousin of the Chinese Ma warlord family and commander of the nationalist Guomindang. There are estimates that several thousand civilians were slaughtered by Guomindang forces. Hai was heartbroken.
Poet Iqbal’s engagement with Hindu-Muslim tensions led him to advocate dividing India into “one or more states, without which the imposition of sharia’t is impossible.” “The only alternative,” he grimly wrote, “is civil war.” Xinjiang had seen just such a war break out—but both sides were Muslims. Elite Muslims in China, Yufeng Mao has argued, came to the opposite conclusion of Iqbal: The best hope of security, they concluded, lay in enmeshing themselves in a strong central State.
Hai had planned to remain in Cairo, and return only after acquiring further theological qualifications. Early in 1940, though, he was recruited by Guomindang-affiliated Muslims, eager to demonstrate their community’s contribution to the war against Japan. In 1942, Hai was posted to China’s mission in Tehran, and transferred to New Delhi five years later. Following the revolution in China, he served Guomindang-ruled Taiwan for three decades.
“To the most sublime Emir,” reads the dedication of Hai’s last work: A bow to the warlord Ma Bufeng, the butcher of Xinjiang. Exiled by revolutionary China, Ma ended up making friends with Hai; the scholar tutored the warlord’s children in Arabic. Till the end, Hai hoped the warlords and the rebels who formed the East Turkestan Republic would unite to form an Islamic State.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)