BEIJING -- Could an old religious tradition from China help solve one of the world's most pressing problems -- violence committed in the name of Islam?
The irony of an officially atheist country possibly offering a way out of an international religious problem is intense. Yet that is what some Islamic scholars in China and elsewhere hope may happen as they point to a quietly liberal tradition among China's 10 million Hui Muslims, where female imams and mosques for women are flourishing in a globally unique phenomenon.
Female imams and women's mosques are important because their endurance in China offers a vision of an older form of Islam that has inclusiveness and tolerance, not marginalization and extremism, at its core, the scholars say.
Exact numbers are not available, but Shui Jingjun, a leading scholar of women in Hui Islam (the Hui are scattered across China and are distinct from the Uighur Muslims of the far western region of Xinjiang) estimates there are hundreds of female imams leading mosques around the country, educating boys and girls, and organizing social services in their communities.
Female imams and women's mosques are not "a new thing here. It's just a cultural tradition that was never interfered with," Ms. Shui, an author and researcher at the Henan Academy of Social Sciences in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, said in an interview.
That is what makes it so important, said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a prominent Islamic legal scholar.
"The Chinese tradition of women's mosques is rooted in Islamic history. It is not novel, a corruption or innovation or some type of heretical practice," Mr. Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a recorded interview.
China's liberal Hui tradition therefore challenges the power of Wahhabism, a puritanical, patriarchal sect dominant in Saudi Arabia today that is behind much Islamic extremism, he said.
"The Chinese example preserves and reminds Muslims of an important jurisprudential and historical phenomenon that Wahhabism tried to wipe out," he said.
"Contemporary fundamentalist movements use the space provided by the mosque to affirm all types of patriarchy and male power over women," he said. "When you have something like the Chinese example, which ultimately empowers women to work within their own space and lead prayer and manage that space on their own, it's a significant form of women asserting themselves in the Islamic tradition, helping in constructing it and perpetuating it."
"I always see Islam in places in China as reminding Muslims of their authentic tradition before it was impacted by petrol dollars and this very gruff and dry form of Bedouin Islam that came out of Saudi Arabia," said Mr. Abou El Fadl. "So the point is there's an old, historically rooted tradition, and the Chinese, if they tap into this tradition, they can effectively provide resistance or examples of resistance to puritanical Islam."
Muslims arrived in China during the Tang dynasty, more than 1,000 years ago, and their numbers swelled during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. Mostly from Persia and Central Asia, though some were Arabs, they brought with them traditions that had always emphasized women's education, said Ms. Shui. But women's status really took off in the early Qing dynasty, more than 300 years ago, when the numbers of Hui declined as they were absorbed into the majority Han Chinese culture, she said.
By then, she said, "most Muslims couldn't read or speak Arabic. So they relied on women to spread the word, to educate. It wasn't possible to rely just on the men. There weren't enough of them."
Far away, in the Arab world, Wahhabism began spreading.
"About 300 years ago, there were changes in Islamic education" in the Middle East, said Ms. Shui. "In other Islamic nations, what men said was decisive. But that wasn't going to work here."
Over the past decade, Hui Muslim women's role in offering both religious and secular education in their communities has grown, said Jackie Armijo, a professor at Qatar University.
Young Hui women, seeing the need for education among their people, are choosing to travel far from home to teach, often in small villages, she said. While conducting doctoral research in China, "I was continually struck by these young women," Ms. Armijo said.
"They know instinctively, and they say it: 'To teach a man is to teach one person. To teach a woman is to teach everyone,"' she said.
Slowly, awareness is spreading in China of how valuable this tradition might be.
During a recent meeting in Gansu Province of mostly female Muslim educators, researchers, writers and local Han Chinese officials -- there were also some non-Chinese Muslims from Pakistan and Taiwan, according to online reports -- "some people argued privately that China should 'go out into the world' with this good tradition," spreading the word, said Ms. Shui, who was among the participants.
That, Ms. Armijo said, would resonate among women elsewhere in the Muslim world, who are increasingly gathering to study texts independently of men.
At the meeting, many people said they wanted the biennial event, happening for just the second time, to become a permanent research facility in Gansu. "We talked about turning it into an international meeting for all Muslim women," said Ms. Shui. "Everyone was in favor of that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.