Ma Yiping is an imam. For over two decades he has prayed, counseled, and worked for the Muslims of Xi’an’s Hui (sino-muslim) community. Like many of the Xi’an Hui, he does business. But his business is a little different, his tiny store in filled, literally bursting, with his own Arabic calligraphy.
Ma Imam was born in 1964 and by the time he was “able to understand things” in the early seventies, religious devotion had been replaced by the fervor of the Cultural Revolution. Mao earned lip service while Ma was taught Koranic verse in secret. Since Xi’an’s mosques were sealed, Ma wandered through the twisting, closed allies of the Hui quarter to the house of a politically disgraced Imam. There were no books, instead, the Imam wrote a section of the Koran in Arabic. He explained its meaning, and helped Ma by holding his hand as they rewrote the verse.
This is where, according to Ma Yiping, his interest in Arabic calligraphy began. His initial learning occurred furtively, desperately avoiding the watchful eyes of Red Guards and other would-be informers. In the 80’s, when the Cultural Revolution was a distant abstraction, Ma entered the Beijing Koranic Studies University. Then he began to take his calligraphy more seriously. Later he studied in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, gaining limited fame as one of the rare Sino-Muslims who represented their combined cultural traditions.
Which brings me to yesterday. Lately I’ve been spending a great deal of time with Ma Imam (A-hong as they say in Persian derived Chinese). My friend D. Wang and I have been making a short film on the Xi’an Muslim district, and since I can talk the Sino-Muslim talk, Ma Imam has graciously given us the opportunity to harass him. Yesterday, Malaysia TV 1 came to Xi’an to film the Imam (He has also appeared on Al-
Jazzera a few times). In his excitement, he invited me to come by and observe the proceedings.
Why, you may ask, does Malaysia TV 1 care about a Hui calligrapher in Xi’an? There are a few reasons: 1) Due to his perceived orthodoxy (good Koranic Arabic, calligraphy, etc.) Ma Yiping is a charismatic representative of the Hui community to the wider Dar al-islam. 2) He is ideally located in Xi’an, a city as symbolically Chinese as Mecca is Muslim, and is an Imam at the city’s most famous mosque. 3) It is of interest to Malaysians, who are neither Arab nor Persian, to promulgate Islamic alterns. 4) He has been on Malaysia TV before.
This post is more of an awkward beginning than concrete introduction. Ma Yiping and his community are worthy of our attention for a number of reasons, which will be explored in future posts. I hope you’re ready for some Islam.
(Here he is on Al Jazeera http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/hajj/2009/11/2009111565134985669.html)