Early twentieth century debates

In early 20th century, a Dongxiang Imam Ma Wanfu (1849–1934) initiated his religious reform movement after returning from Mecca in 1892. The movement eventually developed into a sect, later known as Ikhwan (see the description of Muslim sects in China above). Inspired by the reformist movement in Saudi Arabia, Ma Wanfu launched a campaign against all Chinese influences on Islam. The Ihkwan did not reject Sufism in theory, but they strongly opposed practices of Menhuan, (see the description of Muslim sects in China above) on several issues:

Authority of Murshid (guide/teacher): The Ikhwan believed there were no “real” murshids (Sufi teachers) in China. In case, there were any, their role should be confined to the giving of religious instruction to the masses. The Menhuan, on the other hand, believed that their masters were “real” Murshids. They were true guides who could lead their disciples to paradise and should be obeyed unconditionally. The Ikhwan criticized this position as shirk (associating God with human beings).

Building shrines: Similar to Sufis elsewhere, the Menhuan built shrines and frequently visited them. One of such shrines is the"Gong Bai" (after the Arabic word “qobb” which means “arched building”). When the Menhuan faced hardships, they would visit "Gong Bai". At the shrine, they would pray to God for relief. Some people would also wrongly pray to their masters who had passed on. The Ikhwan saw this practice as contradicting the teachings of Islam. The Ikhwan criticized the idea of building shrines and visiting them, and they accused the Sufis of associating God with spiritual masters.

Reciting the Qur'an for a price: As a general practice, Chinese Muslims invited imams or ahongs (religious scholars or clerics) to their homes for the purposes of reciting the Holy Quran on different occasions. (Common Muslims could not recite the Qur'an in Arabic.) The recitation of the Qur'an was traditionally followed by refreshments or a fest. At the end, some amount of money was typically presented to the reciters as charity, and this became a main source of income for the Imams and Ahonhs in China. However, the Ikhwan saw this practice as forbidden in the Qur'an, which says: "nor sell My signs for a small price" (Q. 2:41). The Ikhwan Ahongs, on the other hand, when invited to festive occasions would eat food only, without pronouncing a single verse from the Quran for the fear of "selling it for a small price". The Ikhwan put forth the catchphrase "either eating or reciting".

Celebration of the birthday of the Prophet:  As is a common practice across Muslim communities more globally, Chinese Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. This is done by reciting the Qur'an and chanting praise to the Prophet as followed by feasts and celebrations. The day is considered the third festival of Islam after Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adhha.  The Ikhwan saw this as a new ritual, since it never happened in the time of the Prophet nor the time of the early Caliphs. (The practice is thought to have started with Fatimids in the 10th century.) Moreover, the Ikhwan saw the social interactions of men and women at the occasion of the celebration as unlawful. They also considered the excess of food as a waste, which is forbidden.

Controversies over Chinese custom: Chinese Muslim over centuries assimilated many Chinese traditions and customs in their daily lives. For instance, according to Chinese tradition, in a funeral ceremony the relatives of the dead should wear a white cap, a white coat, and a black tape on the arm to show sorrow. Chinese Muslims adopted this practice widely, assuming that it was merely a custom and had nothing to do with religious belief.  However, the Ikhwan strongly opposed this custom and criticized it as an alteration of religion. The Ikhwan rejected many such adoptions of Chinese customs related to marriage, clothing, and daily life.

Chanting the praise to the prophet: Menhuan adopted the practices of South and Central Asian Sufis of chanting praise to the prophet. There are two main books of poetry and prose namely Maulad Nabi and Mada'iha to praise the prophet and his merits. The Menhuan believed that reciting these two books had great rewards and the praise should be chanted openly in a laud voice, collectively or individually, in order to announce the greatness and glory of the Prophet. On the other hand, the Ikhwan viewed the collective praise as another alteration of religion. They believed praising should be done in private to avoid showing off. The Ikhwan held that the best way to praise the Prophet is to recite the words with which God praised the prophet in the Qur'an. Further, the two books used by Menhuan were written by humans and were not sacred. Therefore, the Ikhwan held that reciting from the two books had no religious merit.