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(Chinese Muslim calligraphy: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.


Seek Knowledge In China

Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box

A Nawawi Foundation Paper

by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D.

he mere mention of “Chinese Muslims” draws an astonished
blank from many people: “You mean there are Muslims in
China?” Even those familiar with the Islamic world and conscious
of the existence of Chinese Muslims are often aware only of the Turkic
Uighurs of Xinjiang, China’s vast northwestern province in Central Asia.
This paper focuses exclusively on the history and cultural formation of the
largest population of Muslims in the People’s Republic of China, the Hui
people. Unlike the Uighurs, the Hui are culturally Chinese and virtually
indistinguishable from the Han community, who make up China’s billion-
strong majority. The Hui have lived for centuries within the borders of the
Great Wall in eastern China where the major cities are located, and they
constitute the Chinese Muslims proper.

©2006. All rights reserved.


On occasion, the Hui express frustration at be- fore Columbus. During 2005, the six-hundredth an-
ing largely unknown or confused with their Uighur niversary of the first sailing of Zheng He’s fleet was
co-religionists. Élisabeth Allès quotes a Western visi- commemorated throughout the Chinese-speaking
tor to China who observed a Chinese-looking man in world.
a white skullcap outside the city’s principal mosque The Prophet Muhammad reportedly drew atten-
and said to him: “This building has the look of a pa- tion to China’s uniqueness as a source of knowledge.
goda yet is a mosque. How strange! The Muslims in A number of well-regarded Islamic sources relate
China are the Turkic populations of Xinjiang!” The that he said: “Seek knowledge even if in China, for
man replied: “Look at me. I am not a Uighur and the seeking of knowledge is incumbent upon every
do not belong to any Turkic-speaking population. I Muslim.” Traditional Muslim scholars questioned
speak Chinese. I am from Beijing. I am a Muslim. I the report’s authenticity, but it has long occupied
am a Hui.” a central place in the Muslim consciousness and
The Hui are among the largest of China’s many remains one of the most well known sayings of the
religious and ethnic minorities. Their exact numbers Prophet, there being hardly a Muslim anywhere who
are difficult to determine and greatly disputed. Of does not know it.
all Chinese minorities, they are indisputably the most Most Muslims have regarded this Hadith as a
widely dispersed. They live in every province of Chi- figure of speech urging them to seek knowledge in
na, even the coastal islands, and are almost evenly earnest even if it leads to the ends of the earth. For
divided between urban and rural areas. They tend to the Muslims in China, who literally lived at the ends
concentrate around local mosques, giving rise to the of the earth, the Prophet’s saying took on special sig-
popular Hui saying: “[We] are widely scattered in nificance. It was regarded as immeasurable homage
small concentrations.” For centuries, the Hui enjoyed to their homeland as a unique wellspring of knowl-
considerable independence and economic strength, edge and wisdom.
reinforced by a self-confident indigenous Islamic cul- Despite Islam’s importance in China for more
ture, social solidarity, and a profound sense of being than a millennium, few scholars, whether Muslim
simultaneously Muslim and Chinese. or not, devoted attention to its study before modern
The Muslims of China have played an impor- times. Nineteenth-century Christian missionaries
tant role in the country’s history, contributing to were among the first to undertake serious academic
military, administrative, and economic life. The most study of the Hui and to bring them to the attention
celebrated Hui in Chinese history is probably Zheng of Western scholarship. Christianity had first entered
He, the renowned admiral of China’s Imperial Star China shortly after the advent of Christ. It ultimately
Fleet from 1405 to 1433. With more than one hun- died out, hardly leaving a trace. The missionaries de-
dred massive ships and thirty thousand men under sired better results. The Hui intrigued them because
his command, he sailed to over forty lands. With they had thrived in China for more than a millen-
good reason, many Chinese regard Zheng He as the nium. Recognizing Islam as a kindred faith, the mis-
epitome of good luck. Gavin Menzies argues in his sionaries believed that study of the Hui experience
controversial best seller, 1421: The Year China Dis- might reveal the secret of their continuity.
covered America, that Zheng He’s voyages brought Recent scholarship has also focused on the his-
him to the New World more than seventy years be- torical capacity of the Hui Muslims to flourish in a


distinctively non-Muslim civilization. Dru Gladney Military service was not, however, the sole ve-
asserts that the Hui experience is a standing refu- hicle by which Muslims came to China. During the
tation of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash first centuries, commerce and trade were the primary
of civilizations. From Huntington’s point of view, avenues by which Islam entered China. Early Muslim
there is little room for diverse civilizations to live in merchants played a vital role in the Chinese econo-
harmony and seek a common future. Although the my. Their status in China was based on formal pacts
Hui and Han have not always lived in harmony, the between the Chinese emperor and Muslim rulers
greater part of the history of Islam in China provides abroad. Thus, like Muslim soldiers in the emperor’s
a notable exception to Huntington’s theory. service, Muslim merchants enjoyed official legitimacy
and considerable prestige and could travel freely.
The Development of Islam in China Muslim merchants in China were not free to live
The history of Islam in China stretches over five ma- wherever they chose. Instead, they were restricted
jor imperial dynasties to the foundation of the mod- to special conclaves, where they enjoyed consider-
ern Chinese nation-state. Early Muslim tombstones able autonomy. Their communities were generally
and Chinese historical archives bear witness to a affluent, reflecting the prosperity of Muslim trade.
Muslim presence in China from the seventh century, Houses were centered around large central mosques,
shortly after the advent of Islam. Muslim diplomatic constructed with official permission. Chinese au-
contact with China may have begun as early as the thorities appointed special governing committees of
caliphate of Uthman, shortly after the death of the elders, who were usually Muslims and bore honor-
Prophet. Official contacts between the Muslim world able official titles. In addition to overseeing the inter-
and China continued on and off during the heyday nal affairs of the Muslim community, the governing
of the early Islamic (Umayyad and Abbasid) empires committees served as liaisons between the Muslims
from the seventh century to roughly the eleventh. and state authorities.
In 755, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur sent Mus- In the early period, Muslims in China were clas-
lim soldiers to China to help the Tang emperor sup- sified as “foreign guests.” The status could last for
press a rebellion. Afterwards, the emperor encouraged generations. Early records speak of Muslim “China-
the soldiers to remain in his service, settle in China, born guests” even after the fifth generation. Despite
and take Chinese wives. This decision began a cen- the fact that Muslims intermarried with Chinese
turies-long tradition of Muslim soldiers serving the women and became proficient in local dialects, com-
Chinese emperor. In the Hui collective memory, Chi- munal segregation preserved their foreign identity
nese Islam owes its origins to this imperial policy. The and retarded the development of a fully indigenous
actual history of Islam’s development in China is mul- Chinese Muslim culture.
tifaceted, but the early association of Chinese Muslims In the early thirteenth century, the Mongols
with imperial service was an important part of the pro- conquered China, established the Mongol (Yuan)
cess and gave the Hui a profound sense of legitimacy Dynasty, and altered forever the situation of Chi-
and self-esteem. In the process of cultural genesis, the nese Muslims. During their conquests in the Muslim
orientation of the first generations often defines future world, the Mongol hordes razed many great centers
generations. To this day, military service remains a of Islamic civilization in Central Asia, Iran, and the
preferred profession among Chinese Muslims. eastern Arab world. Although they massacred en-


tire populations, the Mongols spared select groups In the fourteenth century, the Ming Dynasty,
of Muslim craftsmen, young women, and children, which was ethnically Chinese, supplanted Mongol
many of whom were forcefully marched to China. rule. The Ming period constitutes one of the great-
This practice brought about massive demographic est epochs of Chinese history. In reaction to Mongol
changes in China and increased the Chinese Muslim rule, the Ming rulers were generally hostile to for-
population by possibly as much as two or three mil- eigners and vigorously asserted Chinese supremacy.
lion. Ironically, the Mongol invasions that devastated To the good fortune of China’s Muslim population,
Muslim populations in much of the traditional Islamic which had taken on a distinctively Chinese character
world engineered an unprecedented expansion of the under the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty did not look
Muslim presence in China. upon them as foreigners and continued the policy of
In China, the Mongols pursued a conciliatory utilizing Muslims to consolidate and buttress imperial
policy toward their captive Muslim population and power. Muslims played their traditional role as of-
won their loyalty. Even more than earlier Chinese ficers, soldiers, and administrators. They also partook
emperors, the Mongol overlords helped consolidate actively in higher Chinese culture, including literature
their rule in China by relying on Muslims as auxiliary and philosophy.
troops, employing them as governmental officials, The Ming gave Chinese Muslim culture a thor-
and using them in other capacities. Sai Dianji (al- oughly indigenous stamp. It was under their rule
Sayyid al-Ajall), who was originally from Bukhara in that “Hui” became the standard appellation for
Central Asia, became one of the most highly regarded Chinese Muslims. The actual meaning of the name
Muslim officials. When Marco Polo visited China in is open to debate; it is not unlikely, however, that
the thirteenth century, Sai Dianji was the imperial “Hui” initially designated the Central Asian region of
Minister of Finance. Later, Sai Dianji was appointed Khawarezm, from which an exceptionally large num-
Governor of Yunnan Province, where he promoted ber of the ancestral Hui originated. Chinese surnames
Confucianist culture and introduced the Islamic were a state honor and symbol of status. They were
religion. conferred officially and could not be taken merely by
Under Mongol rule, imperial intervention fos- personal choice. During the Ming period, Chinese
tered an unparalleled cultural presence for Muslims names became the rule among the Hui. The Hui had
in China. In contrast to earlier dynasties, the Mongol ceased to be Muslims in China and now became
emperors sought the full incorporation of Muslims Chinese Muslims.
into Chinese society. In order to uphold the dynasty, Ming rule lasted almost three hundred years. In
Muslims were dispersed throughout China and settled 1644, it was brought to an end by the Manchurians,
in strategic areas, rendering the earlier policy of com- a warlike, nomadic people from China’s northeast-
munal segregation obsolete. The Mongols encouraged ern expanses. The Manchurians established the Qing
Muslim migration to China, which led to an influx of (pronounced “ching”) Dynasty, which lasted until
notables, scientists, and scholars. The vibrant com- 1912. Hui culture flourished during the early Man-
munity of Chinese Muslims that emerged helped to churian period. The dynasty espoused a benign policy
link China to the outside world, ultimately creating of “equal benevolence” toward the Hui and the Han
intercontinental networks of trade and commerce that majority. Hui officers and soldiers continued to serve
prefigured present-day globalism. in the military, and Chinese Muslims were appointed,


as before, to significant positions in the imperial bu- the Han and the Hui, especially in the northwestern
reaucracy. and southwestern provinces. Members of both groups
But the period of Manchurian rule, especially its lived in insecurity and constant fear. The Hui were
final decades, was among the most difficult periods not passive victims but retaliated in kind. As the
of Hui history. Peaceful coexistence between the Han clashes spread, they took on the semblance of civil
and the Hui was replaced by communal violence in war and may be compared to the Hindu-Muslim
many parts of China. The bloodshed peaked in the communal violence that followed the partition of
middle nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The India in 1947.
conflict has yet to be adequately studied and is not Han-Hui carnage peaked between 1855 and
sufficiently understood. The discord ran mostly along 1878. The Hui suffered the greatest losses and, in some
Han-Hui ethnic and religious fault lines, but there regions, faced the threat of genocide. One of the worst
were also new ideological divisions within the Hui bloodbaths took place between 1862 and 1878 in Gan-
community itself, which repeatedly pitted the Hui su, a northern province with a large Hui population.
against each other. The entire region was depopulated; its original popula-
The Manchurian dynasty is often seen as the ma- tion of fifteen million was decimated to one million.
jor instigator of the Han-Hui conflict. Officially, the One person in every ten was killed, two-thirds of them
Manchurians were seldom stringently anti-Hui, but, Hui; almost everyone else fled as refugees.
in practice, discrimination against the Hui predomi- The Nationalist Party overthrew the Manchu-
nated under their rule. Relationships between the Hui rians in 1912 and established the Republic of China
and Han were strained, ultimately leading to commu- under Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-Sen), “the father of
nal strife and open rebellion. Blame for the communal modern China.” The first years of the Republic were
trouble does not seem to rest primarily on the central chaotic, and Sun Yixian did not win effective control
government but on poor provincial administration for twelve years. Although Sun Yixian ultimately ad-
and the breakdown of central authority, which left opted a benevolent policy toward the Hui, occasional
large numbers of the Hui at the mercy of local Han outbreaks of Han-Hui violence lasted until the 1930s,
officials and landholders, who often flouted the direc- when the Republic finally consolidated central au-
tives of the emperor. thority, which was soon disrupted by the invasion of
As a rule, the bloodshed sprang from local con- imperialist Japan and renewed civil war.
flicts of interest that were ignited by disputes over In 1949, Communist Party Chairman Mao Ze-
matters like land ownership and intermarriage. Para- dong (Mao Tse-Tung) established the People’s Repub-
doxically, the discord came at a time when the Hui lic of China, a Marxist state antagonistic to all reli-
had become an integral element of Chinese culture. gion, whether indigenous Chinese, Islamic, or Chris-
According to some, the fact that the Han and Hui had tian. Mao made early concessions to the Hui and
come to have a similar socio-economic status was a designated them as one of China’s principal minori-
major reason for the conflict, since it put both com- ties. Like other religious communities, the Hui suf-
munities in direct competition with each other, which fered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, which
generally had not been the case before. began in 1966 and ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
From the 1780s until the 1930s, there were The Red Guards, the backbone of the Cultural Revo-
repeated outbreaks of communal violence between lution, destroyed temples, mosques, and churches.


There were also attacks against the Hui themselves, ity. Hopefully, the political stability of modern China
whose continued existence in China as a distinctive is a good omen and bodes a better future for the Hui.
religious minority became precarious.
The Cultural Revolution consolidated Mao’s per- Interpretive Control and Hui Self-Definition
sonal power vis-à-vis political rivals in the Commu- Historically, China was called the “Middle King-
nist Party but weakened central authority and spread dom.” The name reflected more than the Chinese
political chaos. After Mao’s death, moderates within conception of geography. It expressed belief that
the Chinese Communist Party took control of the the Chinese tradition was based on harmony with
People’s Republic, abandoned Mao’s radical policies Heaven and Earth—the two great metaphysical reali-
and improved relations with the Hui. The primary ties—making China the Sacred Land and placing it at
concern of the central government became economic the center of the cosmos.
development, and the Communist Party recognized Islam could not flourish in China without tem-
the potential value of the Hui, especially in foreign re- pering its Semitic character and creating a respectful
lations with the Muslim world. Mosques were rebuilt, relationship toward China’s ancient civilization. The
and permission was given to construct new ones and Chinese regarded their society as the epitome of hu-
establish Islamic schools. The People’s Republic gave man development. Foreign peoples were looked upon
extensive publicity to its accommodation of the Hui, as barbarians, and the Chinese were not readily open
which attracted international delegations from the to alien values and beliefs. It was hardly to Islam’s ad-
Muslim world and strengthened diplomatic ties. vantage to present itself as an alien faith. To succeed
The history of Islam in China began under auspi- in the Sacred Land, Muslims had to demonstrate their
cious conditions and flourished for nearly a thousand compatibility with the Chinese ethos.
years. Will the legacy of Chinese Islam return to its Hui scholars delved into the Islamic tradition,
former course or end in tragedy? Nothing is more found resources that enabled them to think beyond
traumatic than irrational violence. It not only affects the Abrahamic box, and discovered common ground
individuals but may also disrupt the social-psycho- with Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism.
logical balance of entire peoples. Protracted internal Dual mastery of the Islamic and Chinese traditions
discord can alter or destroy earlier cultural forma- permitted Muslim scholars to take interpretative
tions and entire collective mind-sets. One of the dan- control over how they and their religion would be
gers that the Hui face today in the aftermath of the defined in China. Their accomplishment laid the foun-
communal violence of the last two centuries and the dation of a lasting indigenous Muslim culture, which
Cultural Revolution is the weakening of their former fostered self-esteem and a dynamic spirit for the Hui
cultural synthesis, which made them an integral part as a Muslim people in the context of an ancient non-
of China. Islamic civilization.
Over the centuries, strong central authority in There is a long-standing convention in Western
China repeatedly supported the interests of the Hui scholarship to speak of Chinese Islam as a “siniciza-
and played an active role in the cultivation of sym- tion” [making Chinese] of “orthodox” Islamic faith
biotic relationships that fostered mutual benefit. The and practice. This convention creates a hegemonic
darker episodes of Hui history coincided with poor discourse that reinforces assumptions about Islam as
administration and the breakdown of central author- a monolithic cultural system. It also marginalizes the


value of the Hui cultural genius. A “heterodox, sini- tion. The Prophet taught: “Honor people according
cizised” Islam is questionable even in Hui eyes and to the eminence of their stations.” Imam Ali, the
has little instructive value for others. Prophet’s cousin and the fourth caliph of Islam, said:
The notion of the sinicization of Islam in China “Speak to people in terms familiar to them. Would
is based on a false preconception of Islam and its at- you like to cause falsehood to be attributed to God
titude toward indigenous cultures. It presumes that and His Messenger?” Ibn Mas‘ud, a close Com-
the only valid (“orthodox”) expression of Islam is panion of the Prophet, echoed the same sentiment:
Middle Eastern. In reality, neither Muslim societies “Never will you speak words to people that their
in history nor classical Islamic law produced uni- intellects fail to understand but that it will be a trial
form patterns of cultural expression. Muslims have for some among them.” The Hui cultural synthesis
always formulated distinctive indigenous forms of enabled Muslims in China to honor the eminence of
Islamic cultural expression wherever they went, and the Chinese tradition at its best and speak in words
the process was encouraged by Islam’s religious law. that were readily intelligible and reputable within the
Regional cultural receptivity produced a marvelous Chinese worldview.
mosaic of unity in diversity still in evidence today. To communicate effectively with the non-
Islam’s inherent cultural genius created a global Muslim Chinese, it was necessary for the Hui to
Islamic civilization, which spread its peacock’s tail acknowledge Chinese cultural conventions and
from China to the Atlantic. reach beyond the customary expressions of Semitic
Mosque architecture is one of the most con- religion. In doing this, the Hui discovered a new
spicuous pieces of the great cultural mosaic, and the symbolic universe rooted both in Islam and Eastern
traditional Chinese mosque beautifully illustrates religion and philosophy that was readily intelligible
Islam’s capacity for expressing unity in diversity, to the Chinese. The idea of a personal God, resur-
namely, the overarching unity of Islamic belief in the rection, and Day of Judgment, for example, were
regional diversity of Chinese culture. An Imam of the alien to Chinese thought. Hui scholarship cultivated
Beijing central mosque said of the Hui people: “Hui a concise and sophisticated idiom and carefully
Muslims are just like this mosque. On the outside, chose suitable Chinese analogies to bridge the gap
we look altogether Chinese. On the inside, we are between the two very different mind-sets. Effective
[Muslims], Pure and Real.” The Hui cultivated both cross-cultural communication was not only essential
Chinese and Arabic calligraphy. What they wrote in for communicating with the non-Muslim Chinese,
Arabic was translated into Chinese and written in it was necessary for reaching many members of
traditional styles of Chinese calligraphy. Often, the the Hui community who had been schooled in the
Hui used Chinese calligraphy by itself. Upon entering Chinese tradition and were unfamiliar with custom-
a Chinese mosque, it is common to find a prominent ary Islamic discourse. Had the Hui failed in the task
wall with the bold Chinese words: The Primordial of building cross-cultural bridges, they would have
Religion from the Foundation of Heaven (Kai Tian relegated themselves and their faith to obscurity.
Gu Jiao). Radically different worldviews were not the
The Hui use of the Chinese language and indige- only obstacle the Hui faced. The Chinese script cre-
nous cultural forms to find a common ground of un- ated problems of its own. To begin with, the trans-
derstanding has ample support in the Islamic tradi- literation of Arabic words was virtually impossible.


The Chinese writing system is not phonetic and uses source. By this, you too may take hold of the cor-
word pictures, symbolic ideograms. Pronunciation of rect doctrine of [Islam], the Pure and the Real.

the ideograms varies from one region to another. It The Hui referred to the Prophet Muhammad not
was possible to select ideograms that might generally by an awkward transliteration of his Arabic name but
be read with sounds approximating Arabic words, as the Chief Servant, the Sage, the Utmost Sage, and
but such transliterations were rarely adequate, for the Human Ultimate. They called the unicity of God
Chinese sounds rarely correspond to those of Arabic. (tawhid) Practicing One and Returning to the One.
The most acceptable transliteration of “Muhammad,” The Qur’an was referred to as the Classic, which
for example, required four ideograms and was pro- put it in the same category as the revered and sacred
nounced Mu Han Me De. The use of so many ideo- books (called “classics”) of ancient China. It was also
grams for a single word was inelegant and cumber- known as the Heavenly Classic and the Real Classic
some. There was an additional risk that the ideograms of the True Mandate. The direction of prayer toward
chosen, however much they approximated the desired Mecca (qibla) was called the Direction of Heaven.
Arabic sounds, might have inappropriate symbolic The sensory world (‘alam al-shahada) was termed
associations in Chinese. the Color World; its counterpart, the world of the
The Hui circumvented the problem of translit- unseen (al-ghayb) was given the name of the Color-
eration by innovating meaningful Chinese renditions less World. The Garden was referred to as the Heaven
of Arabic words. They referred to God as the One, Country and the Ultimate Happiness. Hell was Earth
the Real, the Real One, the Real Lord, and the Real Prison and Earth Prohibited. (Both terms were based

Ruler. The expressions corresponded to Islamic names on the Chinese conception of Heaven and Earth as

of the Abrahamic personal God but did not clash higher and lower metaphysical realities.)
It would have been culturally problematic to
with Chinese tradition, which regarded references to
call Islam “submission” or to transliterate it, produc-
a personal God as anthropomorphic. Ancient Chinese
ing the awkward form Yi Si Lan Jiao [the religion
tradition had once affirmed a personal God, who
14 of Islam]. Hui scholarship chose to call Islam the
was called the Supreme and the Supreme Sovereign.
Religion of the Pure and the Real [Qing Zhen Jiao].
Later Chinese thought, however, preferred non-per-
The words expressed the essence of Islam, avoided
sonal names such as the Highest Principle. A noted
foreign associations, and emphasized core Chinese
Hui scholar acknowledged the earlier ancient Chinese
values, declaring Islam to be a cognate faith. The tes-
tradition of a personal God, which he regarded as a
timony of faith (kalimat al-shahada) was called the
remnant of primordial Prophetic religion, but used
Very Words of the Pure and Real.
language for God that would not clash with the un-
The Pure and the Real were ancient Chinese
derstanding of his contemporaries:
symbols of the sacred. An early Chinese etymologi-
Our Pure and Real religion [Islam], the true faith,
cal dictionary traces their meaning to the expression:
arose in the West [the Middle East] and came to
“The Pure and the Real lacks desire. It is everything
China over the years, beginning from the time of
the Tang Dynasty. Our recognition of the Real
that cannot change.” The Pure (qing; pronounced
Lord and Creator, which came from the first hu- “ching”) stood for inward and outward purity. It
man being, had not yet been lost in China. In- connoted lucidity of belief and thought and the lack
vestigate the essence of this matter. Return to the of selfish motives. The Real (zhen) was a name for the


Creative Principle (God) and corresponded to Chinese Wang Daiyu and was determined that Liu Zhi follow
notions of the eternal truths that underlie the cosmic in his footsteps. Liu Zhi’s father made arrangements
order (sunnat Allah fi al-khalq). for his son’s simultaneous education in the Islamic
As Dru Gladney observes, by calling Islam the and Chinese traditions from an early age.
Pure and the Real faith, the Hui successfully appro- The work of Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi was not
priated for themselves the indigenous symbols of the apologetic. Its purpose was simply to explain the
sacred, which placed them strategically at the center nature of Islam, not to convince Chinese society of
of the Chinese symbolic universe and “turned the its truths or defend it from their criticisms. Their pri-
tables of Chinese society.” Calling Islam the Pure and mary audience was not non-Muslims but fellow Hui
the Real is an illustration of interpretative control Muslims who were trained in the classical Chinese
at its best. The Pure and Real became the bedrock tradition and lacked direct access to Arabic or Persian
of indigenous Chinese Muslim culture. It played a mediums. This class of the Hui was substantially large
fundamental role in forming a reciprocal Chinese- and had imbibed a thoroughly Chinese worldview.
Islamic identity and enabled the Hui to gain the best Ordinary Hui scholars who lacked training in the
of two religious traditions and the civilizations they Chinese tradition could hardly understand them and
inspired. had little hope of having a positive effect on them.
The imagery, analogies, and modes of argu-
Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box mentation that Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi used were
Two Hui scholars of the early Manchurian period— carefully chosen and finely honed. By speaking in
Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi—are widely regarded as the words that the Chinese-educated Hui could read-
culmination of Chinese Muslim thought. Both were ily understand, the two scholars indirectly attracted
trained in Arabic and Persian and studied classical a second audience among the Chinese intelligentsia
Islamic curricula. They memorized the Qur’an at early and religious scholars. Their books were printed and
ages and mastered the Hanafi school of law, which widely distributed among Muslims and non-Muslims
Chinese Muslims almost invariably follow. They were alike. On one occasion, the abbot of the Iron Moun-
also trained in Islamic theology, philosophy, and tain Buddhist Monastery came to question Wang
metaphysical Sufism. Daiyu and engaged him in debate for several days. In
Wang Daiyu was born in the late sixteenth cen- the end, the abbot acknowledged the superiority of
tury and received an exclusively Islamic education Wang’s thought and became his disciple. Once Liu
in his youth but was not tutored in the Chinese clas- Zhi was asked about the nature of life and death from
sics. Once he had attained full manhood and good an Islamic point of view, he responded in a classi-
standing as a Muslim scholar, he came to regard his cally Chinese manner: “Life is also not life, and death
ignorance of the Chinese tradition as “stupidity and is also not death.” The questioner requested further
smallness,” because it was impossible for him to reach clarification: “Please give me one more word.” Liu
those around him who were educated in the Chinese Zhi replied: “Life is also not life, because it has death.
tradition. He set to work earnestly to remedy this Death is also not death, because it returns to life.”
deficiency and did so after years of intense study. Liu Both scholars acknowledged the integrity and es-
Zhi belonged to the subsequent generation. His fa- sential truth of the Chinese tradition. As Tu Weiming
ther, Liu Sanjie, also a noted Muslim scholar, admired stresses, they offered a vision of Islam that could be


“concretely realized in Confucian China.” They did between “the Real Lord and the Chief Servant” (the
not conceive of their faith as diametrically opposed to Prophet). Only on this basis, can human beings truly
the Chinese tradition, rather they set out to explore witness “the Unique One and the Numerical One.”
both legacies in a “mutually beneficial joint venture” The first exists utterly without dependence on phe-
and “seamlessly” interwove core Islamic teachings in a nomenal reality, and the second is utterly dependent
“richly textured exposition of Confucian learning.” on the first. The moral metaphysics of Islam, Wang
In keeping with Hui tradition, Wang Daiyu and explained, could only become the “fountainhead of
Liu Zhi did not question the fundamental conceptions clear virtue” once such a distinction was made. He
of Chinese thought and accepted them as self-evi- asserted:
dently true. But neither of them hesitated to find fault When clear virtue is clarified, there will be real
with the Chinese tradition wherever they believed it to knowledge. When there is real knowledge, the self
be mistaken, and both confidently insisted on the su- will be known. When the self is known, the heart
will be made true. When the heart is made true,
periority of Islamic teaching. Their criticisms were re-
intentions will be sincere. When intentions are sin-
spectful and measured and never as stringent as those
cere, words will be firm. When words are firm, the
of dissenting Chinese schools of religion and phi- body will be cultivated. When the body is cultivat-
losophy against each other. Most importantly, Wang ed, the family will be regulated. When the family is
Daiyu and Liu Zhi did not set out to deconstruct regulated, the country will be governed.
Chinese thought but to build upon it and demonstrate Both Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi regarded Confu-
its harmony with core Islamic teachings. They based cianism, the official religion of China, as closer to the
their synthesis of Islamic and Chinese thought on the Islamic ethos than Daoism or Buddhism, although
core paradigm of Chinese metaphysics, the ontologi- they readily acknowledged the universal truths in
cal unity of Heaven, Earth, and the Ten Thousand all traditions. Islam and Confucianism in their view,
Things (the world of phenomena). however, constituted a common culture. In a work
Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi elaborated a moral entitled The Philosophy of Arabia, Liu Zhi offered
metaphysics meticulously rooted in both the Islamic a critique of the Daoist and Buddhist traditions that
and Chinese worldviews. In contrast to customary won the approval of the Confucianist vice-minister of
Chinese thought, they emphasized that only the Chinese Board of Propriety. The latter remarked
the unicity of the Creator could account for the in his preface to the work that Liu Zhi had brought to
uniformity of Heaven, Earth, and the Ten Thousand light the way of the ancient Chinese sages. The vice-
Things. They explained that to conceive only of the minister insisted: “Thus, although his book explains
manifestations of the Dao (the inherent nature of Islam, in truth it illuminates our Confucianism.”
things; sunnat Allah) as the sole force behind creation Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi focused on five central
was like mistaking the painting for the painter or the principles at the core of the Islamic and Chinese views
mirror for the beautiful woman gazing into it. of reality that made up the essential common ground
In explaining the Islamic testimony of faith— between the two traditions. The scholars argued that
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his each of the principles was implicit in the Islamic tes-
Messenger”—they explained that the two phrases timony of faith—“There is no god but God, and Mu-
“clarify the difference between the Real One and the hammad is the Messenger of God”—beginning with
Numerical One.” Thus, it also makes a distinction the affirmation of the one Absolute (God) and the


Perfect Human (the Prophet). Each of the five truths nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can
derived from this central truth and was a corollary of form the third essential element in unison with
Heaven and Earth.
the others.
The first principle asserted that the oneness of
God (the Absolute) confirmed that all existence is Conclusion: The Hui Legacy
governed by a single, supreme Reality. The second & Learning To Be Human
principle affirmed the continuity of nature and the Emphasis on the art of learning to be human as an
equilibrium and perfect harmony of Heaven, Earth, essential part of religion is one of the greatest lega-
and the Ten Thousand Things. The third principle cies of Hui Muslim culture for the world today. The
was that of the Middle Way (Prophetic law and the advance of modern civilization, as Sachiko Murata
Sunna), which eliminated extremism and laid the stresses, has occurred at the expense of our humanity.
foundation of a healthy individual and social life. The legacy of Islam in China emphasizes the impor-
Fourth was the primary humanistic component of tance of remembering what it means to be a human
the Middle Way: realization of the Perfect Human being. To paraphrase the words of Liu Zhi: We can
as the embodiment of the Middle Way. Although only realize the true nature of things if we nourish our
the Prophets (the Ultimate Sages) were the supreme humanity, and only when we realize the true nature
embodiment of human perfection, the sages of old of things can we become part of the transformative
and the saints (awliya’) shared in this perfection and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth.
and were also exemplary models. The final principle The quest toward becoming truly human re-
was the universal humanistic component of human quires awareness of and sympathy with the human-
perfection in general, the highest objective of both ity of others. Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi illustrate the
Islam and the Chinese tradition. It required adherence possibility of escaping one’s cultural limitations and
to the Middle Way, emulation of the Ultimate Sages, fully discovering the self and the other. To accomplish
and reliance upon the intrinsic goodness (fitra) of the their task, they mastered the Abrahamic tradition and
human soul. unlocked its resources. With equal earnestness, they
The five shared principles and their implications delved into the non-Abrahamic traditions of China
for general well-being are alluded to in the words of and discovered extensive common ground. In this
Liu Zhi: feat, as Murata observes, Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi
Only those who are Pure and Real can fully realize anticipated the course of action we must follow today
their nature. if we are to discover our humanity and the humanity
Fully able to realize their nature, they can fully re-
of others. Although we live in the information age,
alize the nature of humanity. our knowledge of ourselves and others tends to be
ill-informed and superficial. We too must cultivate
Fully able to realize the nature of humanity, they
knowledge of the human tradition—within and with-
can fully realize the nature of things.
out the Abrahamic box—in the same earnestness and
Fully able to realize the nature of things, they can
partake in the transformative and nourishing pro-
As noted from the outset, the Hui experience in
cess of Heaven and Earth.
history provides a valuable example of long-lasting
Being able to partake in the transformative and harmony between two very different civilizations. The


bleaker episodes of the Hui record are an exceptional The Muslims who first came to China were ethnically
break in more than a millennium of harmony. But diverse, but the diversity of Muslim minorities in the
Hui-Han communal violence took place at times of West is unparalleled in any previous Muslim society,
political disarray and the breakdown of central au- and Western Muslim communities are dangerously
thority. The outbreaks emanated not from a clash of divided along class and ethnic lines. There is also the
ideals and values but from regional conflicts of inter- factor of time. Hui culture developed over more than
est that were often inflamed by petty squabbles. The a millennium; Muslims in the West have little time to
trouble occurred at a time when the Hui had become create a viable indigenous culture.
an integral part of Chinese culture at all class levels, In assessing the realities of the Muslim diaspora
yet, for that very reason, had come into direct socio- and East-West relations, there are reasons for hope as
economic competition with the Han majority. well as despair. The two possibilities should motivate
Han-Hui discord is a reminder that the internal disciplined work in the tradition of Wang Daiyu and
harmony of civilizations cannot be taken for granted. Liu Zhi, without giving in to excessive enthusiasm or
The violence followed almost a millennium of peaceful loss of hope. The universal law of opposites, which
coexistence and prefigured the domestic conflicts that lies at the foundation of the Chinese (and Islamic)
have ripped apart nation-states and regional cultures worldviews, requires sobriety and wisdom in con-
in our time. In recent decades, many of the bloodiest fronting challenges. The Book of Changes (Yi Jing/I
clashes have not been between civilizations but within Ching), an ancient Chinese classic, focuses on the law
them as evidenced in the Rwanda genocide and inter- of opposites, which it expresses in the well-known
Muslim violence along ethnic and sectarian lines in Af- symbol of the primal binaries, Yin and Yang ([). The
ghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. The strife runs along “fault figure indicates that opposites (including hope and
lines” of class, ethnicity, and sectarian difference, hopelessness) are forever interlinked and mixed by
which are accentuated and exploited for political gain their very nature. They can never occur in complete
but, as in the Han-Hui tragedy, results from the inter- isolation, and each binary necessarily gives birth to
nal failures of civilizations, not their inherent natures.
21 its opposite. What gives us hope brings the potential

The history of Islam in China is especially rel- of hopelessness; what leads to our despair is also a
reason for hope. Above all, as Abdal Hakim Murad
evant to the large and growing Muslim diasporas of
affirms, we must always rest assured that “history is
the West. The humanistic traditions and democratic 23
in good hands.”
values of the West have allowed these communities
It would seem that finding common ground be-
to coexist in the United States, Canada, and Europe
tween Western and Islamic civilizations should come
with the promise of a hopeful future. At the same
more naturally than the synthesis that the Hui created
time there are great obstacles to their sustained de-
between Islam and the non-Abrahamic legacies of
velopment. The geopolitical crisis between the West
China. Unlike China, Islam was never far away from
and the Islamic world over conflicting interests—es-
the West. It was just to the south and east of Europe
pecially oil—and growing antagonism between the
and, in general, as much a part of the geographic
two camps constitute, perhaps, the most serious of
west as its European counterpart. Both Western and
these problems. Unless the crisis is defused, it has the
Islamic civilizations were rooted in Abrahamic val-
potential to revive old fears and irrational hatreds
ues and beliefs. They shared parallel histories and
possibly leading to the destruction of the diaspora.


were equally indebted to Greco-Roman civilization. a remedy for their historical amnesia, and overcome
Both civilizations cultivated science, mathematics, the reciprocal incoherence that keeps them apart. Per-
and philosophy. Even humanism—the central idea haps, in this light, they can finally achieve a harmoni-
of modern Western civilization—emerged first in the ous coexistence as profound as that of China and its
Islamic world, as did the university system, the doc- indigenous Muslims.
toral degree, and academic freedom. As Richard
Eaton observes, geographically and in terms of beliefs
and values, Islam was never alien to the West but too Sources
close for comfort. It was proximity, similarity, and Umar F. Abd-Allah, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative.” [On-
line]: USA: Available:
conflicting geo-political interests—not irreconcilable
index_reading_room.html. Accessed June 2006.
differences—that turned the two sister civilizations
25 Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod, “The World System in the Thir-
into rivals. teenth Century: Dead-End or Precursor?” in Michael
Islam in China has left a unique legacy of cultural Adas, Islamic and European Expansion, 75-102
accomplishment that is as valuable today as ever. It Michael Adas, ed., Islamic and European Expansion: The
demonstrates the potential resourcefulness of Islam to Forging of a Global Order (Philadelphia: Temple Uni-
versity Press, 1993).
live in harmony with widely divergent civilizations. It
Élisabeth Allès, Musulmans de Chine: Une anthropologie des
sets a standard of excellence in a globalistic world in
Hui du Henan (Paris: Éditions de l’École desHautes
the quest for true pluralism based on mutual under- Études en Science Sociales, 2000).
standing and interests. As in the past, Chinese civiliza-
James Atherton, Tools: Theory of theory. [Online]: UK: Avail-
tion remains a valuable destination in this search, and able: Ac-
the historical legacy of the Hui people constitutes an cessed: 23 July 2006
instructive example of the unique wisdom still to be Cary F. Baynes, trans. from German, The I Ching or Book of
found in China. Changes, Richard Wilhelm, German trans., “Foreword”
by Carl G. Jung (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
George Makdisi hoped it would be possible in 1984).
the context of the modern world for the West and the
Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization
Muslim world to discover their common values and (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
draw on the best parts of our shared history and not -------, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia
the worst: University Press, 1994).
From “borrower” in the Middle Ages, the West W. A. Cornaby, “God (Chinese),” The Encyclopaedia of Reli-
became “lender” in modern times, lending to gion and Ethics [ERE], 6: 272-274.
Islam what the latter had long forgotten as its own Michael Dillon, China’s Muslim Hui Community: Migration,
home-grown product….Thus not only have the Settlement and Sects (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999).
East and West “met”; they have acted, reacted Gai Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (London: Allen &
and interacted, in the past, as in the present, and, Unwin, 1985).
with mutual understanding and goodwill, may well
Richard M. Eaton, “Islamic History as Global History,” in Mi-
continue to do so far into the future with benefit to
chael Adas, Islamic and European Expansion, 1-36.
both sides.
Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims,
China’s successful relationship with Islam for Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects (Chicago: Uni-
more than a millennium should inspire the Western versity of Chicago Press, 2004).

and Islamic worlds to overcome their differences, find -------, Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Mi-


nority Nationality (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1998). is open to questions, its reference to the obligation of
seeking knowledge is not. Al-Bayhaqi, a famous trans-
-------, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s
mitter of Prophetic Traditions (Hadith), transmits the re-
Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
port on the authority of the Companion Anas ibn Malik
Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study in the form cited. Famous Hadith scholars like al-Khatib
of Key Philosophical Concepts (Berkeley: University of al-Baghdadi and Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr also transmit it. Tradi-
California Press, 1983). tional Muslim scholars generally regarded the Tradition
as weak or fabricated. However, it is so frequently trans-
James Legge, trans., The Sacred Books of China: The I Ching
mitted and by such a variety of chains of transmission
(New York: Dover Publications, 1963).
that some scholars held it to be acceptable (hasan).
Jonathan N. Lipman, “Hui-Hui: An Ethnohistory of the Chi- 4. Mees, Die Hui, 45.
nese-Speaking Muslims,” Journal of South Asian and
Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 11, no.’s 1 & 2: 1987, pp. 5. Gladney, Dislocating China, 99-100.
112-130. 6. Imke Mees, Die Hui: Eine moslemische Minderheit, 11-
George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning 12.
in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University 7. See Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod, “The World System in
Press, 1981). the Thirteenth Century.”
-------, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Chris- 8. “Hegemonic discourse” is a post-modernist term. “Dis-
tian West with Special Reference to Scholasticism (Edin- course” is the way we speak or write about something.
burgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990). It draws attention to what speakers and writers—or
Imke Mees, Die Hui: Eine moslemische Minderheit in China: those who influence them—consider important. Dis-
Assimilationsprozesse und politische Rolle vor 1949 course becomes “hegemonic” when it manipulates real-
(Munich: Minerva-Fachserie, 1984). ity and creates basic givens that cannot be questioned.
Patriarchy and gender discrimination, for example, are
Abdal Hakim Murad (Winter), “Contentions.” [Online]: UK: rooted in various types of hegemonic discourse. He-
Available: gemonic discourse empowers those who control and
tions.htm. Accessed June 2006. ascribe to it, while disempowering critics or even remov-
Sachiko Murata, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: Wang Tai-yü’s ing the possibility of criticism. To question the basic
Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih’s suppositions of a hegemonic discourse once they become
Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm with a embedded in a culture sounds so absurd and foolish
New Translation of J¥mÏ’s Law¥’i^ from the Persian by that even critical voices find it difficult to speak out. See
William C. Chittick with a Foreword by Tu Weiming James Atherton, Tools: Theory of Theory.
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). 9. See Umar Abd-Allah, “Islam and the Cultural Impera-
Tu Weiming, “Forward,” in Murata, Chinese Gleams of Sufi tive.”
Light, vii-xii. 10. Le Gai Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man, 2.

11. Transmitted with a sound chain of narrators in Sunan

Abi Dawud; a similar Tradition with slightly different
wording occurs in Sahih Muslim.
Footnotes 12. Sahih al-Bukhari.
1. Allès, Musulmans de Chine, 9.
13. Sahih Muslim.
2. The official census of 1990 estimated the Hui to number
about nine million; non-official estimates often put their 14. See Cary F. Baynes, The I Ching or Book of Changes;
numbers several times that large. The actual size of the W. A. Cornaby, “God (Chinese).”
Hui community is difficult to determine because of po-
15. See Dru Gladney, Muslim Chinese, 7-15
litical obstacles, the wide distribution of the population,
and the difficulty of distinguishing them from the vari- 16. Sachiko Murata, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, 21, 45.
ous ethnicities—Han and other—among whom they live.
17. Tu Weiming, “Forward,” xi.
3. While the authenticity of the Hadith’s reference to China
18. Murata, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, 84-85.


19. Ibid., Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, 25. 23. Abdal Hakim Murad, “Contentions,” first contention.

20. From Tu Weiming with modifications, “Forward,” xii. 24. George Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism and Classical
Islam and the Christian West, 22-23, 26-28, 54, 60-61;
21. See Dru Gladney, Dislocating China, xiii, 7, 99-102,
ibid., The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in
Islam and the West, 224-240.
22. See James Legge, The Sacred Books of China: The I
25. Richard M. Eaton, “Islamic History as Global History,”
Ching, xix-xx, 2; Cary Baynes, The I Ching or Book of
Changes, 298, 376. W. A. Cornaby, “God (Chinese),” 6:
272-274. 26. George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, 291.

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