How Hui Muslims Waged Holy War for China in World War II

Their patriotic loyalty was based on centuries of tradition, a history that is now largely forgotten

How Hui Muslims Waged Holy War for China in World War II
Hui Muslim clerics gather in Beijing prior to Eid al-Fitr prayers. Chinese Muslims have existed for around a millennium. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

By the mid-1930s, a storm was brewing over China. For years, the Empire of Japan had pursued a policy of colonial intervention when it came to Chinese affairs. By 1934, it sought full control, declaring its larger neighbor a “preserve” incapable of self-rule. Japanese troops invaded and occupied much of the country, overcoming successive regional forces in a fractured post-imperial landscape.

This forced a newfound unity among the Chinese. The Nationalist Party of China, or Kuomintang, then led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong — enemies in a bitter Chinese civil war — set aside their differences to form a united anti-Japanese alliance. An all-out confrontation with Japan, now known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, commenced in 1937 and took center stage in World War II’s bloody Pacific theater.

In 1939, the United Front launched its first major counterattack, dubbed the Winter Offensive, a string of actions that slowed the Japanese advance down to a stalemate. One turning point was China’s victory at the Battle of West Suiyuan, in an area populated by several of China’s minority groups and now part of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

At West Suiyan, the Japanese lost at the hands of Chinese generals who identified as Hui Muslims, a significant ethno-religious minority in China, numbering over 8 million people today. The Hui generals helped write a now-forgotten chapter in Chinese history — highlighting the role of China’s Muslim minority when the country’s future was decided in the crucible of war.

During this anti-Japanese resistance, Chinese Muslim leaders galvanized support for the fight by pushing it as a religiously sanctioned holy war against a ruthless foreign invader. But the Hui also saw their fight for China as part of a broader national struggle. They saw the strengthening of their own community as an aspect of building a stronger China in the modern era.

This serves as a reminder that Chinese Muslims have long played a significant role in the country’s history. Their presence in China dates back hundreds of years, into the medieval era. China has been the Hui homeland for countless generations, and their devotion was clear at a moment when the country came under unprecedented threat.

Japanese strategists at the time were also familiar with the Hui. They spent years wooing Chinese Muslim leaders with promises of independent self-rule under Japanese patronage. Yet Hui generals and leaders rebuffed such advances, choosing loyalty to the land of their origins. A closer look into Hui history and thought reveals that this fealty goes well beyond simple nationalism or momentary convenience during a time of war.

The anti-Japanese resistance is perhaps the most formative episode in Chinese national memory. Hui participation in it was grounded in philosophies of coexistence, survival and social harmony that went back centuries and helped solidify the enduring Hui presence in China. These philosophies were shaped by a wide range of influences, from the spiritual ideas of the Andalusian Muslim philosopher and mystic Ibn Arabi to the modernizing trends of Islamic Revivalism that swept the late Ottoman Empire.

Hui leaders appropriated these ideas to help identify religious and communal progress with love of one’s country, in this case China, particularly during the war with Japan. These leaders, or “ah hongs” (from the Persian “akhund,” a scholarly Islamic honorific), drummed up support for the anti-Japanese resistance by framing it in terms that went beyond practical self-preservation. They openly referred to the war effort against Japan as a noble “jihad” to protect their homeland and lay the foundation of future Hui presence in modern China. This Sino-Islamic identity, rooted deeply in Chinese history and tradition, persists to this day in the face of ongoing antagonism from the authoritarian regime in Beijing.

The Hui Muslim population covers all of China’s provinces and regions. A high concentration can be found in the northwest provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai. The origins of the Hui presence in China are disputed, but the most common narrative, backed by significant scholarly consensus, is that they are descendants of Muslims from Central Asia, Persia and beyond who migrated eastward during the Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. The latter formed when the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) took over as China’s first foreign ruler. By then, large Muslim populations were already integrating into their Chinese localities through intermarriage. Soon enough they were participating in all aspects of life, including during times of war.

According to the historian of Chinese Islam Matsumoto Masumi, Muslim thinkers framing their presence in China had to grapple with how to reconcile Islamic devotion toward God with loyalty toward a non-Muslim emperor. The Chinese Empire had been ruled since the ancient Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) under the Confucian framework of the “mandate of heaven.” In this system, heaven itself conferred the right to rule on the emperor, the “Son of Heaven.” The emperor was thus an extension of divinity. Muslims in China had to reconcile devotion to Allah, the one true God, with loyalty toward an emperor who considered himself a living demigod.

Today, Muslims living as minorities within secular nation-states, including democracies, generally face no major contradictions between being a citizen and practicing Islam. Following the laws of a country usually poses no serious threat (with some exceptions that can be debated in an open society) to maintaining loyalty to God. But in ancient China, the emperor claimed a supernatural dimension that cemented his royal position far above commoners. He was heaven’s single representative, ruling according to its mandate and order. This framework differed from the Islamic one, which stresses one God without peers of any kind, let alone demigods. Chinese Muslim theologians had to find a way to mediate between these two visions.

As Masumi points out, inspiration for this task came from a source quite distant from China. Centuries ago, Muslims migrating to China from Central Asia and beyond were influenced by the ideas of the medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn Arabi, commonly referred to as “reviver of the faith.” The ideas of this Andalusian mystic, with his famous metaphysical concept of the “unity of being,” or “wahdat al-wujud,” would help Muslims in China maintain good relations with their non-Muslim neighbors and loyalty toward non-Muslim rulers, all while remaining devotees of the one God.

Ibn Arabi’s “unity of being” held that all existence and phenomena are emanations of the one and only ultimate and supreme existence: God. Only he possesses “being in himself” and a being that is also his very essence. Humans and all other living things, from the king to the pauper to the animals, do not possess independent being. They depend on God for their existence. All actions and phenomena flow from God. Everything in the universe, according to one description, is thus a “manifestation and disclosure” of God’s divine essence.

When genuinely absorbed and practiced, this appeal to oneness should promote cordial relations and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims — the same sense of “harmony” that features centrally in much of Chinese political thought. By the 17th century, Muslim scholars like Wang Daiyu, Liu Zhi and Ma Zhu used Confucian terminology to argue that, according to the unity of being, the Chinese emperor, as well as the system through which he ruled, was also, like everything else, just another worldly emanation of God.

According to Masumi, these Muslim scholars “recognized non-Muslim masters, including the Mandate of Heaven, as the outflows of God, and considered them to be entrusted as the ruling power of God.” By obeying the rules of social order and harmony within the mandate of heaven, one was also fulfilling God’s will in the social realm of imperial China. Thus, saying the emperor’s mandate to rule came from heaven was just another way of saying that it came from God himself.

This became known as the “theory of double faith.” If a Muslim lived a good life under the mandate of heaven, he was also fulfilling Allah’s demands, all the while contributing to coexistence and harmony in Chinese society. This stabilizing idea laid the foundation of what would become a much more intense form of Hui nationalism during World War II, when the pressures of war saw calls to defend the homeland blended with calls for a holy war.

The mandate of heaven came to an end in 1911, when imperial China finally collapsed and modern nationalism emerged in its place. A combination of political turmoil, foreign meddling and modern ideological upheavals fatally shocked the old system under which Chinese Muslims had lived for centuries.

The emperor was gone. The bureaucracy that ran the empire was dismantled. Western imperialism, republican nationalism, communism, warlordism and other forces now sought to outmaneuver one another in the struggle for hegemony. Hui scholars and leaders, the ah hongs, had to find a new framework through which to pursue their community’s interests amid such chaotic change.

In a move that pinned the future of Hui Muslims on sustained fealty toward China, the ah hongs simply exchanged loyalty to the mandate of heaven for loyalty to China’s burgeoning nation-state. Within this framing, the strengthening of Muslim communities could only fuel China’s national rejuvenation in a world dominated by Western powers. This became known as the “Islamic Revival” period in modern Chinese history.

In pursuit of Islamically informed responses to the new challenges, several ah hongs traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the 1920s, including to Cairo’s famous Al-Azhar University. This experience helped shape their increasing nationalism and patriotism, particularly as they encountered the idea of “hubb al-watan min al-iman” (”love of one’s country is an article of faith”) from Muslim nationalists in Egypt.

Egyptian nationalism was growing in the early 20th century as the Ottoman Empire, in which Egypt was a province for centuries, began to fall apart. Muslim reformers in famous Egyptian universities like Al-Azhar and elsewhere were formulating their own ideas of how to reshape Islamic belief in the face of a rapidly changing world. Specifically, in the wake of European encroachment, particularly after World War I (in which the Ottomans took the losing side), Muslim intellectuals focused on how to make their respective homelands stronger in the new world of nation-states, but through the lens of their own “Islamic revival.” Love of one’s country, and defense of its autonomy, were gradually framed as something close to an article of faith. This melding of nationalism and politically motivated Islam also made its way into China through the words of the Hui ah hongs.

According to Masumi, the Chinese Muslim scholar Wang Jingzhai was the first ah hong to popularize the idea of “hubb al-watan min al-iman” in Chinese. Translated loosely into the slogan “ai guo ai jiao,” or “love of nation, love of faith,” it became a ubiquitous call drumming up Hui Chinese patriotism. The Arabic phrase, according to Masumi, was erroneously portrayed in these years as an authentic hadith — a saying or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad — giving it scriptural credibility. The slogan was repeated often during the Friday prayer, signifying how Muslim leaders saw their religious revivalism as a necessary pillar for China’s success.

This nationalistic urge became even more intense during the war of resistance against Japan. The latter’s invasion and occupation meant that Hui leaders had to put their “ai guo ai jiao” ethic into action. If they wanted to contribute, they had to mobilize their people. So over time, “ai guo ai jiao” gave birth to “jiu guo jiu jiao,” or “save the nation, save the faith.” From the Chinese Muslims’ perspective, this wasn’t just a national war of salvation. China was the Hui people’s homeland; the responsibility to defend it amounted to holy war, or “jihad.”

China’s Muslim literati spread this call widely in their communities. Masumi points out that these leaders saw their own challenges reflected in those of Muslim communities across the Islamic world, including in Egypt and other previously Ottoman territories. These were challenges like foreign control, political instability, educational reform and the general onset of industrial modernity. They also saw how Islamic periodicals — outlets like Al-Manar, founded by the scholar Rashid Rida, or the Majallat al-Azhar published by the famous Egyptian university — served as platforms for new reform-centered arguments and ideas.

Soon, Chinese Muslims took to starting their own publications. A slew of periodicals began to circulate, sometimes in the thousands, during the war effort. From 1910 until 1949, more than 60 new periodicals for Muslims were printed and distributed in China. They touched on religious subjects like Quranic exegesis but also honed in on the role of Chinese Muslim communities when it came to more immediate societal topics like war, education and nation-building.

The most prominent journal was Yue Hua magazine, which started in 1929 as a regular bulletin for the Chengda Normal School for Hui youth. Masumi’s extensive studies on the journal show that, after 1931, the periodical took on a more formal structure and became the closest thing to an agenda-setting intellectual outlet for China’s Muslims. Its purpose was to promote Islam in China by fostering a stronger Hui identity based on nationalism and reform, thus helping to improve China’s position as a nation.

Unsurprisingly, Yue Hua soon became a major outlet for Muslim leaders in China to galvanize support for the anti-Japanese effort as the noble holy war of “ai guo ai jiao” and “jiu guo jiu jiao” that had to be pursued to protect the Hui homeland. Xue Wenbo, a leading ah hong at the Chengda school, wrote a verse in 1938 called “Zhongguo Huizu Kangzhange,” or “Song of the Hui Resistance,” which frames the war effort in poetic terms as a holy obligation:

Enemy steeds drink the Yellow River, the sacred jihad rises in angry waves;
The Hui people are full of courage, a vain life is shameful — ’tis noble to fight;
The temple of worship is now a scorched earth, innocent women and children are stained with blood.

This emotive push by the Hui literati for their people to support the war effort worked. It came to be matched by pivotal contributions on the battlefield. Entire divisions of the Chinese army were made up almost exclusively of Muslims, while Hui generals led some of the most important battles in the anti-Japanese war.

For China, World War II started long before September 1939. By then, the united resistance to the Japanese invasion was already in its third year. Imperial Japan had itself been pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy in China’s vast territory since as early as 1931. The idea was to splinter a struggling post-imperial China into compliant territories and enclaves, each answering ultimately to Tokyo.

A central aspect of this vision was the stoking of anti-Chinese sentiment among the country’s minorities, including Muslims. According to the noted scholar of Hui history Wan Lei, the Japanese invasion’s treatment of Chinese Muslims varied throughout the 1930s and ’40s, from outright violence like that of the infamous Nanjing Massacre, in which mosques were filled with corpses, to systemic economic disenfranchisement and Islamophobic humiliation like rubbing pork fat on mosques.

But there were also overt strategies to co-opt Hui communities and leaders. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to undermine Hui loyalty to China was the now-forgotten proposal to implement a separate “Hui state” in northwestern China — an independent polity for Hui Muslims, run ultimately under Japanese patronage and control.

Wan situates this strategy alongside Japan’s successful implementation of the Manchukuo puppet state in northeastern China, a model that they tried to replicate to the west. By 1937, Japan had also established (in today’s Inner Mongolia region) the “Mongolian Federated Government of Mengjiang,” a puppet state led by the figurehead Mongol Prince Demchugdongrub. There was also the notorious “National Government” in Nanjing, a Chinese Vichy headed by former Republic of China Premier Wang Jingwei, the Marshall Petain of Chinese history.

Japanese strategists tried to convince Hui leaders to give up the province of Ningxia to form a large part of the future Muslim state, promising them a future untethered to the Han majority. The Japanese first set their sights on Ma Hongkui, a Hui general who served as governor of Ningxia under the Kuomintang. Ma Hongkui was part of the famous “Ma Clique,” a large group of three Hui Muslim families (all using the surname Ma) constituting one of post-imperial China’s most powerful warlord clans. It was Ma Hongkui’s influential father, Ma Fuxiang, who financed the Yue Hua journal at the Chengda Hui school.

The Ma Clique was just one group of warlords among many that ruled independent fiefdoms in the chaotic years after imperial China’s final collapse. The vast empire subsequently fractured, with these powerful regional rulers operating their independent armies. These warlords were loosely organized into “cliques,” each vying for position and power as China faced failure as a cohesive entity. The Ma Clique warlords ruled the northwestern provinces of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai. Ma is the Chinese character many Muslims in China use as a rendering for the name Mohammed.

The Ma Clique formed an important segment of the anti-Japanese resistance, subordinating itself to the Kuomintang leadership. Ma Hongkui was one of its most important generals. According to Wan, in October 1937 Japanese officials invited him to become the head of a Japan-controlled group called the Northwest Huijiao Society (Northwest Hui Religion Society). Ma refused. The following year, Japanese officials tried sending one of their Chinese agents into Ningxia to sell Ma on the idea of a Hui state. The general didn’t even let the messenger inside Ningxia. The Japanese also tried to convince one of Ma’s relatives, Ma Hongbin, a fellow warlord and general, by offering him a position in the future puppet state. They were rebuffed.

And so the Japanese stopped dangling carrots and turned to further invasion. They attacked the province of Suiyuan in 1940, right below Ningxia. The Battle of West Suiyuan was led by both Ma Hongbin and Ma Hongkui, who defeated the Japanese in a few weeks. A month later, the Japanese vision of a Hui state took a final blow as their forces lost the Battle of Wuyuan, also in the Suiyuan area. These successful defenses of Suiyuan and Ningxia formed a bulwark against any plans to build a Muslim puppet state in China.

For their prowess on the battlefield against the Japanese invaders, Ma Hongbin, Ma Hongkui and another general named Ma Fubang were dubbed the “Xi Bei San Ma,” or the “Three Mas of the Northwest.”

As World War II ended, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party resumed their civil war, with the communists winning out in 1949 to establish today’s People’s Republic of China. What followed were decades of chaos, including massive famines, land reforms and political fanaticism during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The Hui weathered it all to remain a significant part of China’s social fabric.

Yet alongside the repression of the Uyghurs in Western China, today’s Hui communities face their own challenges from an increasingly hostile Beijing. While they have not been the primary target of the government’s crackdown on Islam, they have suffered increasing suspicion nonetheless. This scrutiny is now unfolding in material ways. A Financial Times analysis of over 2,300 mosques across China showed that around three-quarters of them have either been stripped of “non-Chinese” features or even totally destroyed.

Islamic symbolism has been deemed a threat to China by the current regime. Yet the history of Hui integration has been one of seeking coexistence through justifying loyalty to imperial and national leadership. The Chinese Muslim presence has existed for roughly a millennium — immeasurably longer than the reign of the Chinese Communist Party. This history includes the sacrifice of Hui lives during the anti-Japanese resistance, in which religious arguments were aggressively deployed by Chinese Muslim leaders to promote Hui participation against the Japanese.

All this appears to be forgotten in today’s China, where majoritarian ethno-nationalism rules. It wasn’t so long ago that a strong Muslim community was seen as an important part of nation-building in China. Now an intensifying wave of repression pits China’s Han majority against the country’s Muslim “peripheries,” whose loyalty is deemed suspect. The future of China’s Muslim minorities, including the Hui, looks increasingly uncertain. But the lessons of the recent past, filled with episodes of their loyalty and sacrifice for China, remain plain for all who wish to see them.

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