On 2 July 2013, the IIS and AKU-ISMC were visited by a delegation from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) of China. The two organisations were specifically chosen by the delegation as part of a programme that included visits in Paris and in the U.K. to organisations such as the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and the Houses of Parliament.
The Co-Director of the IIS, Dr Farhad Daftary gave a talk which situated the Ismaili community within the Shi‘a branch of Islam and the hereditary role of His Highness the Aga Khan. He explained that the IIS was an academic – and not a religious – institution, explaining its non-theological approach. Dr Omar Ali-de-Unzaga, Head of Qur’anic Studies and Acting Head Librarian, gave an overview of the IIS’ research, teaching and publications activities, giving examples of organisations with which the IIS has affiliations. He also described the types of manuscripts in the IIS collection.
Dr David Taylor, Director of AKU-ISMC, situated the university within the AKDN, and highlighted the diversity of its student body, describing the university's mandate as covering teaching, research, publications and outreach.
Speaking on behalf of SARA, Vice Minister Zhang Lebin, acknowledged the work of the two organisations (IIS and AKU-ISMC) in promoting academic research and in espousing an open-minded and multidisciplinary approach. Mr Zhang Lebin said he felt that it was important for Islam to be correctly understood and commended both the organisations for “building a healthy environment for Islam, especially in the UK.” He observed that the work of these institutions would be helpful in enabling UK Muslims to play an active role in UK society. Research undertaken by the two institutions would, he believed, help integrate Muslims better into Western societies.
He explained that SARA is an entity under the State Council (cabinet) that oversees religious affairs in China. It serves followers of all faiths and promotes inter-faith relations, while protecting religious freedom and putting policies regarding religious freedom into practice. Mr Zhang Lebin said that SARA helps Chinese Muslims contribute towards the social, economic and cultural development of China.
He also provided valuable insights into “Chinese Islam”, recalling that Islam traces its origins in China to the 7th century. He said that there were some 23 million Muslims in China and that ten of the country’s 56 minorities are Muslim (e.g. Hui, Uighur, Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc.). He described three defining characteristics of the Muslim population in China. First, that Muslims are present all over the country; second that there are concentrations in the north-west and south-west of the country; and finally, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Republic represents a special case in that more than 50% of its population is Muslim, with more than 50% of Chinese Muslims living in the region and that the region contains two-thirds of all mosques in China.
He also mentioned that in large cities, Muslim populations were scattered although there were concentrations in the north-west of China. He stated that SARA oversaw some 550 Islamic associations across the country and ten religious institutions (one national and nine regional) where imams were trained and which had produced 5000 graduates.
Delegation members were presented copies of the Mandarin translation of Dr Daftary’s A Short History of the Ismailis and copies of The Illustrated History of the Ismailis, Fortresses of the Intellect and Living Cairo for the SARA library.