By ZongXian Eugene Ang
Interestingly, it was only through reading an essay calling for the construction of a viable Muslim American culture that I got interested in the issue of Chinese Islam. Although this selection of cultural traditions might seem somewhat schizophrenic, I do believe that the essay—by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, chairman of the Nawawi Foundation—made a worthwhile point regarding the intricate dance between cultural unity and cultural diversity from the perspective of Islam.
Asserting that “the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places,” Dr. Abd-Allah brought up the Chinese and East African Muslims as examples of how Islamic culture managed to balance “regional diversity within the overriding framework of the revealed law’s transcendental unity.” It is to this first example that I shall now turn to; if not to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity borne perhaps from my own affiliation with Chinese culture, then to take a potshot at our tendency to conceive of culture through neatly-defined boundaries and categories.
The presence of Islam in China dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty, when Arab and Persian merchants became the first Muslim settlers in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. The Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century that established the Yuan dynasty also brought many Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia into China. Over the course of the succeeding centuries (and dynasties) in Chinese history, many of these Muslims and their descendants would gradually integrate into Chinese culture. This process of assimilation was occasionally punctuated by conflict, with some Chinese Muslims going on to instigate rebellions, especially during the Qing dynasty between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
That said, by the time of the Qing period, the literature produced by Chinese Muslim intellectuals already reflected the deep extent of the cultural cross-pollination between Chinese and Islamic cultures in China. This corpus of literature is known as the Han Kitāb, a combination of the Mandarin word for the Chinese language, hàn, with the Arabic word for book, kitāb. According to James Frankel, a scholar on the history of Islam in China, the Han Kitāb was concerned with educating both the Chinese Muslim and non-Muslim literati about Islam and they did so through in the language of Confucianism—one of the most dominant schools of ethical and philosophical thought in Chinese history. Frankel also asserted that the Chinese Muslim intellectuals who were behind the Han Kitāb regarded themselves as “simultaneously Chinese and Muslim” and were thus able to integrate Islamic and Confucian religious and philosophic concepts seamlessly in their work.
In order to understand how this synthesis of Islamic and Confucian thought was achieved, I shall first briefly describe the key tenets of Confucianism. Central to Confucian thought is the notion of the Way (dào), which refers to the ultimate reality that permeates all aspects of the universe. Adherence to the Way is the highest ethical ideal and this can only be realized through the individual cultivation of virtue (dé). According to the Confucians, respect for tradition, embodied within the rituals (lǐ) of the ancient Chinese sage-kings, is the principal means of cultivating virtue. Similarly, learning is also highly prized as well. Sages (shèngrén) are those who are able to cultivate their virtue to the highest possible degree and thus play the role of moral exemplars, whose actions ought to be emulated.
The Han Kitāb situates Islam within the Confucian tradition by portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a sage. For instance, the Chinese Muslim scholar, Liu Zhi—the most prolific of the Han Kitāb scholars—asserted in his biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Tiānfāng zhìshèng shílǜ) that the Prophet is the “most sagely” of all types of sages. In doing so, as the historian Zvi Ben-Dor Benite wrote in his book, The Dao of Muhammad, “the quintessential category of the Muslim world—the prophet—is in the Chinese Muslim instance converted into the quintessential category of China’s intellectual elite—the sage.”
This portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as a sage is important because it effectively legitimized the study of Islam within the Chinese intellectual landscape. If the Prophet Muhammad is indeed a sage, then his teachings—Islam—becomes a valid component of the Way that forms the primary subject of Confucian discourse, and more broadly, Chinese intellectual discourse. According to Benite, this is why the Chinese Muslim scholars have never invoked the hadith—the collection of the reported teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet—as the basis for one’s conduct. Instead, the Prophet Muhammad should be emulated simply because he is a sage.
Another point of convergence in the Han Kitāb between the Islamic and Confucian tradition is in the claim that Islamic rituals and practices are completely in line with those of the ancient Chinese sage-kings. Liu Zhi, in another book on Islamic ritual practice (Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ), stated that “observing and practicing the proprieties of Islam is like observing and practicing the teachings of the ancient sages and kings,” as Sachiko Murata, William Chittick, and Tu Weiming pointed out in their book, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. Not surprisingly, given that the various proprieties of Islam are codified under sharia law and that the teachings of the ancient sage-kings form the foundation of Confucian rituals, Liu Zhi also managed to link sharia law to Confucian ritual propriety. As Frankel highlighted, in the Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ, Liu Zhi called sharia the “Vehicle of Ritual […] for the one who is diligent in cultivating virtue.”
On the whole, the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as the “most sagely” sage and Islam as part of the Way, as well as the framing of sharia as ritual to cultivate virtue, are some examples to showcase how the Han Kitāb could incorporate Islam with Confucianism. Obviously, since the Han Kitāb was the work of “a large group of Chinese Muslim literati” as Benite indicated, there are many more ways in which the synthesis between Islam and Confucianism was undertaken. Nonetheless, the ways that I have indicated above in this essay does provide a good sense of how the broad parameters of each tradition can be aligned with each other.
At a broader level, I would also posit that knowledge about the Han Kitāb and how Chinese Muslims have tried to indigenize Islam does have relevance beyond just trying to impress someone else with esoteric factoids. Learning about the intersections between the Islamic and Chinese cultural traditions and their synthesis provides us with yet another example of the malleability of our cultural traditions. In the same vein, it should also caution us against essentializing any culture—be it Islam, Confucianism, or something else altogether.
Indeed, the story of Islam and Confucianism, and how they came together, forms just a single trajectory in the very messy bundle of histories that make up the human condition. By considering—even just for a little bit—the myriad ways in which cultural traditions have been integrated, dissected, or even invented, we might perhaps better appreciate the remarkable messiness that underlies the human condition. After all, the fact that we each draw upon different bits of this gigantic mess to make sense of our lives does make this world a little more fun to learn about, doesn’t it?