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The Humanities Conference 2003

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The Role of Food in the Muslim World: Food and Identity Amongst the Hui of North-east China

Alexandra Bain.

The need to acquire, prepare and consume food is basic to humanity. The details: food preferences, taboos, etc. vary widely from culture to culture. For many faith traditions, food and the rituals surrounding its preparation and consumption are the cornerstone upon which religious identity is based. In the Islamic world, the consumption of HALAL, or permitted food, often serves to differentiate between insiders and outsiders. However, some Muslim food rituals, such as the feeding of the poor, or visitors at the shrine of a Sufi saint, serve to extend the boundaries of the DAR AL_ISLAM and include Muslims as well as non-Muslims as the recipients of BARAKA, or Divine grace.
My current research examines the role of food in the Muslim world. A key question for this study is, under what conditions is food used negatively to differentiate and exclude the other, and when and how is it used as an offering of inclusion and universality? This paper will examine the extent to which and reasons why food restrictions and preferences have become the defining feature of Chinese Muslim identity.
In the spring of 2002 I conducted research in the cities of Changchun (in the north-eastern province of Jilin), Tongliao (in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia), and Beijing. I interviewed and watched Muslims cooking and eating in their homes, mosques, restaurants and university cafeterias and was struck by the extent to which, as a marker of identity, food choices continue to set Muslims apart from the rest of Chinese society. Under Communism, religious beliefs were rejected, but “cultural practices” such as the Muslim prohibition of pork, were encouraged and even celebrated as part of the Chinese government’s effort to maintain and guard the rights of China’s minorities. With the resurgence of interest in religion in general in capitalist China, food is certain to play an important role in defining the nature of any Islamic revival.


Alexandra Bain  (Canada)
Assistant Professor
Religious Studies
St. Thomas University

Dr. Bain teaches in the Religious Studies department of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Her current research examines the relationship between religion, art and politics in the Muslim world.

  • Food and Islam
  • Food and Religious Identity
  • Islam in China

(Virtual Presentation, English)