The Rich History of China’s Islam

The ongoing persecution of Muslims in China is destroying Sino-Islam’s long, variegated tradition

The Rich History of China’s Islam
A Chinese Hui Muslim boy puts money into a donation box before Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque on June 16, 2018 in Beijing, China / Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Muslims in the People’s Republic of China are regularly in the news due to the ongoing Uyghur crisis. The continued surveillance, policing, and detainment of Uyghurs is intimately tied up with their practice of Islam, which has become criminalized through policies against things like wearing religious clothing, participating in ritual practices or engaging in Islamic education. The practical prohibition of overtly Islamic signifiers and activities also extends to China’s other Muslims populations, including the Sino-Muslim Hui community. The recent policies, as Kelly Hammond points out in Newlines Magazine, are aimed at the “Sinicization” of Islam, in which the state governs acculturation through cultural imperialism.

But while the process of assimilation is forced upon many Muslims today, Sino-Muslims have a long tradition of blending aspects from their rich cultural context and the Islamic tradition. As an inscription at the tomb of the grand teacher Hu Dengzhou states, even while Muslims were in China, they saw themselves as part of the “transmission of the Dao through the sages and teachers, from Adam in Tianfang (Arabia) through Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus … over 600 years up to Muhammad.” This intersection may be most evident through the Han Kitab (as in “Han” Chinese and the Arabic word for “book”), a body of Chinese language Islamic texts that employs the rich language of Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian traditions to render the technical vocabulary of Persian and Arabic Islamic textual canons. Though it is little known outside specialist circles, its unique writing reveals vernacular ways of interpreting Islam, challenging the concept of “Chinese religion” and demonstrating that being Muslim and Chinese is not inherently at odds.

The mythic beginnings of Islam in China are recounted in “The Origins of Muslims” (Huihui Yuanlai)⁠, an early Han Kitab text written by Liu Sanjie (circa 1630-1710) and published in 1712, which is understood to be an oral narrative that had been in circulation among Sino-Muslims prior. The story tells us about a dream of the second Tang emperor, Taizong (598-649). In the dream, he saw the roof beam of his golden palace about to collapse. Then he saw himself saved by a man with deep eye sockets, a high nose bridge and a brown face, donning a green robe and a white turban. Interpreters thought the strange man in the emperor’s dream might have been the Prophet Muhammad “from the western regions,” who could save the empire. According to the story, the emperor sent a diplomatic mission to West Asia and soon after a delegation of the Prophet’s companions, led by Muhammad’s uncle Sayyid Sa‘d Ibn Abi Waqqas, returned to restore peace and order to Taizong’s realm. Of course, this story is fanciful but reveals the desire for Han Kitab authors to connect their writings to the earliest Muslim communities and demonstrate their importance to Chinese civilization more broadly. The actual arrival of Muslims in China was not as momentous as the dream — no emperor had his roof fall only to be later saved by a bearded man — but it was central to the success of the Chinese realm at the time.

Muslims started arriving in China in significant numbers during the Mongol period under the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Before, Arab and Persian travelers and merchants came from West Asia in small numbers and lived in relatively secluded communities. Mongols brought a professional diaspora of several million Central Asian Muslims to serve as scientists, geographers, astronomers, musicians, artisans, soldiers and administrators. Most began to intermarry with Han women, and their children were raised as Muslims. But within a few generations, assimilation into Chinese society started to increase. This acculturation took on a new shape and pace during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which instituted Sino-centric homogenizing policies that required Muslims to marry Han women and use the Chinese language. The relative ease of religious and cultural exchange during the Mongol rule was also diminished with restrictive travel policies that detached Muslims from traditional networks of learning, language and homeland. By the waning years of the Ming dynasty, many Muslims had lost their mastery of linguistic skills in Arabic and Persian except for the most basic and essential usage. Islamic education had no formal system of teaching and was dependent on local religious professionals’ idiosyncratic approaches and access to limited textual resources.

This characterized the early life of Hu Dengzhou (circa 1522-1597), who would go on to establish an important institutional system for Islamic instruction in China — scripture hall education (jingtang jiaoyu). Dissatisfied with the level of instruction he was able to obtain at his local mosque in the northwest province of Shaanxi, he decided to seek a more traditional Islamic education in centers of learning in Central Asia and, later, in Mecca. After several years of study, Hu returned, bringing with him numerous Islamic texts he found to be most formative in his learning. This solved one of the main challenges facing the now isolated Sino-Muslim communities, difficulty in acquiring authoritative Islamic texts. Hu now had a key component to establish a systematic and accessible program for obtaining religious knowledge. Along with this formalized curriculum of Arabic and Persian language texts, Hu also provided students with financial support, which enabled them to travel from all corners of the empire. Hu also mixed foreign language textual study with Chinese language instruction, making Islamic teachings available to a larger body of students.

Hu’s scripture hall education system was an effective blueprint for other Muslim communities throughout China and a direct prompt for the production of Chinese language Islamic texts within a few generations. Many of the introductory students were articulate only in Chinese and had little knowledge of foreign languages. These lower-level students studied a Quranic primer, containing select passages, and an elementary Islamic textbook covering prayers, ablutions, issues of faith, worship, fasting, marriage and funerals, which often used a Chinese character phonetic transliteration system to represent Arabic and Persian passages. The advanced students’ curriculum was frequently made up of 14 courses, eight in Arabic texts and six in Persian, often referred to as the 14 scriptures (shisi benjing). This program of study included Arabic grammatical theory, creeds, legal works of fiqh and Quranic commentaries, including such well-known texts as “The Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return” (Mirsad al-‘ibad min al-mabda ila al-ma’ad) by Najm al-Din Razi (died 1256); “Rays of the Flashes” (Ashi‘at al-lama‘at) by Abd al-Rahman Jami (1414-1492); “Tafsir al-Jalalayn” (1505) by Jalal al-Din al-Mahali and interpreted by his student Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (circa 1445-1505); “Tafsir al-Qadi” by Abdullah b. Umar al-Baydawi (died circa 1300); and the famous “Gulistan” (Rose Garden) (1258) by Sa’di of Shiraz (died 1291 or 1294).

This curriculum and method of teaching was easily duplicated elsewhere in China, and graduating students returned home to establish their own schools. The linguistic flexibility and instruction via the Chinese language was especially valued in cities with smaller Muslim populations who were thoroughly assimilated into the broader Chinese cultural and social spheres. In places far away from majority communities in northwest China, such as the coastal city of Nanjing, which was the former Ming dynasty capital, Muslim students were well versed in the Confucian classics but unable to read foreign language writings. Nanjing was a large metropolitan center with a strong literati culture, which meant Muslims were conversant in Chinese philosophical and historical traditions because these volumes served as the basis for obtaining administrative positions. Here, the scripture hall framework flourished because of its blending of Islamic and Chinese languages and strategies for education. Soon the city hailed several significant teachers and many regular students, and became the hub for the production of Han Kitab texts. Some of these authors even self-identified as Confucian literati Muslim scholars (Huiru).

Many Muslims were trained in the scripture hall education system in the eastern provinces of China. This community’s predilection for learning, the literati’s familiarity with Chinese philosophical writings, and relative lack of foreign language comprehension produced the perfect conditions for a new form of transmitting Islamic knowledge. Several advanced scholars began to render what they obtained from their training in Arabic and Persian books into accessible Chinese language texts for the scripture hall students, and this is how the Han Kitab was born. Most authors wrote within the educational network across the Yangtze River Delta region and specifically for this distinctive audience. Nanjing became one of the most eminent centers of the scripture hall system, producing both the earliest important author, Wang Daiyu (circa 1590-1658), and the most prolific scholar within the tradition, Liu Zhi (1670-1724).

This conscious blending of Islamic and Chinese literary traditions is one of the quintessential features of the Han Kitab genre.

Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi exemplify the creative genius of the Sino-Muslim writers of the Han Kitab. Their writings cover theological questions, ritual practice, legal norms, metaphysical pursuits, Quran and hadith, and translations of Arabic and Persian texts. This is all done through the expressive use of vivid terminology from the Chinese textual tradition. Han Kitab authors drew vocabulary and concepts from key writings in Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. This conscious blending of Islamic and Chinese literary traditions is one of the quintessential features of the Han Kitab genre. These texts represent a vernacular Islam grounded in the Chinese context but one that simultaneously articulates a global identification with an inherited tradition. Han Kitab writings are dynamic and invested with a range of possible interpretations based on localized meanings of Chinese and Islamic traditions and reimagined through alternative intellectual grids.

Wang Daiyu was one of the first authors to write about Islam using Chinese. He recounted that his ancestors were originally from “Arabia” (Tianfang) and arrived in China over 300 years earlier. He grew up in a devout Muslim family and was of the fifth generation of the scripture hall students. He did not receive a traditional Confucian literati education like many of his peers in Nanjing but began studying literary Chinese at age 20 in order to read Chinese books on metaphysics and history. This background, and his advanced training in Islamic education, enabled him to put Islam and Confucianism into dialogue through his writings, which was aimed at the acculturated participants in the scripture hall program. We can see this clearly through the title of his short treatise “Great Learning of Islam” (Qingzhen daxue), which evokes one of the famous Confucian Four Books and Five Classics (sishu wujing), called the “Great Learning” (Daxue). While the original “Great Learning” focuses on moral refinement and self-cultivation, Wang Daiyu’s text is principally concerned with tawhid or the assertion of God’s unity. Wang Daiyu’s most influential book is “True Explanation of the Orthodox Teaching” (Zhengjiao zhenquan), published in 1642, which is the earliest Han Kitab text. Across 40 chapters, Wang Daiyu explains the nature of God, humans and Islamic metaphysics in addition to practical matters of family life, marriage, food, death and the afterlife. Wang Daiyu established a model for Chinese Islamic literary production that would flourish for several generations.

Liu Zhi is considered the apex of this textual tradition by many, both for the size of his literary output and the originality of his theological skills. Like Wang Daiyu, he was part of a devout Muslim family and one that was already embedded in the scripture hall and Han Kitab networks. Liu Zhi’s father, Liu Sanjie, was his teacher and a well-known author in his own right, penning “Explanation of Islam” (Qingzhen jiaoshuo) and “The Origins of Muslims.” Liu Zhi’s writings covered a wide range of topics including theology, mysticism, legal theory, biography and the meaning of Arabic letters. Among scholars he was most famous for his trilogy of books: “Metaphysics of Islam” (Tianfang Xingli), completed in 1704; “Rituals of Islam” (Tianfang Dianli), finished in 1710; and the “Veritable Record of the Most Sagely of Islam” (Tianfang Zhisheng Shilu), written in 1724. These three volumes outlined issues of faith, practice and the greatest human model as exemplified in the Prophet Muhammad, or as Liu Zhi rendered it, they lay out the teaching (jiao), the path (dao) and how it was embodied by the perfected sage (sheng). However, unlike many Han Kitab authors, Liu Zhi’s influence was much more widespread through short treatises that were used as introductory materials among everyday Muslims. Liu Zhi’s poem “Five Sessions of the Moon” (Wugengyue) has had a long afterlife among Sino-Muslims and can still be referenced or recited in the public sphere. His Islamic primer, “Three Character Classic of Islam” (Tianfang sanzijing), was aimed at introducing the key teachings of Islam and echoed similar Chinese language booklets in circulation at the time, such as “Three Character Classic” (sanzijing) and “Thousand Character Classic” (qianziwen), which taught the main tenets of Confucian learning. The Nanjing tradition of the Han Kitab, epitomized by Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi, emphasized the intersections of Islamic and traditional Chinese philosophical principles through their lucid reassembling of technical terminology. This strategy was most suitable for the literati Muslim audience of eastern China, but the Han Kitab took various shapes in different contexts.

While some of the most eminent authors came from Nanjing, Yunnan in southwest China became another important hub for this literary tradition. One of the earliest Han Kitab figures from this region was Ma Zhu (1640-1711), who authored the monumental “The Compass of Islam” (Qingzhen zhinan) in 1683. Ma Zhu was born into a devout Muslim family, and he was a descendant of the great Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) Muslim governor of Yunnan, Sayyid Ajall Shams al-din Umar al-Bukhari (1211-1279), who was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. His early training was in Chinese literary classics like his father, who died young but inspired his son’s love of learning. Already an accomplished student of the Chinese classics, in his young adulthood he entered Islamic education in Beijing. Through his study and travels within the scripture hall system, he became connected to other important teachers and Han Kitab authors, many of whom added praiseworthy prefaces to “The Compass of Islam,” including Liu Sanjie.

Ma Zhu’s guide is an encyclopedic volume that attempted to lay out Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy for an audience he feared would be “neither Confucian nor Muslim” unless a proper understanding of these teachings was elaborated. Ma Zhu was in many ways a strong Confucian thinker. He utilized many of the key categories that were dominant in the Neo-Confucian writings of his day. The metaphysical understandings of the transformation of the cosmos outlined in the diagram of the Great Ultimate (Taijitu), including yin-yang, and the cycle of Five Phases (wuxing) that was heralded by the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucian thought provided Ma Zhu with a solid basis for explaining his Islamic theology. But fundamentally, Neo-Confucianism failed to account for the ultimate power of a monotheistic God, whom Ma Zhu labeled “True Lord” (zhenzhu). Ma Zhu asserted that Islam and Confucian teachings complemented each other, but that without a recognition of God, one would ultimately fall short of a true life. Ma Zhu’s overall approach to translating Islam for his local audience mirrored that of his peers in the broader scripture hall network, such as Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi. However, his teaching and writing in Yunnan set the stage for an important restyling of Islamic education and scholarship within the Chinese context.

The Han Kitab as a collective body of literature was characterized by its blending of Islamic and Chinese literary traditions and concepts, which was the hallmark of Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu and Liu Zhi’s writings, with its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the tradition and its legacy took a distinctive turn in the 19th century, initially through the efforts of Ma Dexin (1794-1874). Ma Dexin, also in the lineage of the important governor Sayyid Ajall, was raised in a religious family in Dali, Yunnan, and took up Islamic education in his local area. Later in life, Ma Dexin traveled to northwest China to study in the lineage of teacher-disciples tied to the scripture hall systems’ founder Hu Dengzhou. In 1841, Ma Dexin set off for the pilgrimage to Mecca and spent eight years traveling and studying throughout the Middle East and Asia. Upon his return, he became the most prominent scholar in the area and the head cleric at the most important Islamic educational institution in southern China, the Huilong madrasa (school).

The key generative thread throughout Ma Dexin’s many writings was his seamless blending of Arabic and Chinese textual production that was intended for his local Sino-Muslim audience. This was rooted in the localized practice of Islamic learning that incorporated a parallel Chinese and Arabic educational program (zhong-ah bingshou). In fact, several of Ma Dexin’s own texts became part of this curriculum. The move to write original Arabic language texts was a notable shift from earlier Han Kitab authors who almost exclusively wrote in Chinese. Ma Dexin began writing his works in Arabic and Chinese, often translating his own texts from one language to the other. He was a prolific author, whose literary output covered most of the religious sciences, including instructional materials for students, a record of his hajj titled, “Record of the Pilgrimage Journey” (Chaojin Tuji), and the first attempt at a standardized Chinese translation of the Quran, rendered, “A Direct Explanation of the Treasured Mandate of the True Scripture” (Baoming Zhenjing Zhijie). His theological works explored the Arabic, Persian, and Chinese treatises of his predecessors by commenting, translating, and expanding on their works in a sophisticated Sino-Islamic diction. He even produced new editions of classic Sino-Islamic works, such as, “The Commentary on the Compass of Islam” (Qingzhen Zhinan Yaoyan) and “The Essential Record of The True Explanation” (Zhenchuan Yaolu), and edited and abridged versions of Wang Daiyu’s “True Explanation of the Orthodox Teaching,” and Ma Zhu’s “Compass of Islam.” Ma Dexin’s contribution to the intellectual landscape of 19th century China both continued the local strategies of previous Han Kitab authors while heralding new methodologies for including Sino-Muslims in international dialogues concerning Islam.

Ma Dexin’s influence can be seen in the intellectual inheritors of Islamic scholarship in Yunnan, Ma Lianyuan (1841-1903) and Ma Anli (died 1899). Both scholars upheld the importance of the Han Kitab tradition while also connecting Sino-Muslims to Muslim communities abroad. Ma Anli did this through his most important work, the “Islamic Book of Odes” (Tianfang shijing) published in 1890, which was his rendering of the well-known poem the “Mantle Ode” (Qasidat al-Burdah) by the poet Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Said al-Busiri (died circa 1294). It was written in a highly stylized manner employing a plethora of Chinese motifs and expressions and alluded to the Chinese “Book of Odes” (Shijing), the earliest collection of poems that is included in the canonized Four Books and Five Classics (sishu wujing) of Confucianism. Ma Lianyuan, on the other hand, made a clear move away from Chinese language texts, writing primarily in Arabic and Persian. But he honored the Han Kitab by making it accessible to Arabic reading audiences with his text “Sublime Words on Nature and Principle” (Xingli weiyan), known as “Subtleties” (Lata’if) in Arabic. This unique text was Ma Lianyuan’s Arabic translation of Liu Zhi’s “Root Scripture” (Benjing), the summary of his “Metaphysics of Islam.” This effort shows that Ma Lianyuan valued Liu Zhi’s interpretation of Islamic theology and the scholarship of his Han Kitab predecessors even though he did not replicate their literary conventions. Taken together, we can see that Ma Lianyuan and Ma Anli preserved and advanced Sino-Islamic scholarship in Yunnan in unique new directions.

These key figures represent only the crests of the vast ocean of this textual tradition. Reading the Han Kitab literature and exploring the social networks behind its production and consumption reveal the diverse ways Islam was interpreted within premodern China. For Sino-Muslims being Chinese and Muslim was not diametrically opposed, and the ways they expressed their beliefs were rooted in both of these intellectual traditions. Sino-Islamic religious scholarship was clearly expressed as a Chinese religion, one that resonated with the sensibilities and established conventions of participants deeply rooted in literati learning. Altogether, the Han Kitab testifies to the unique way Muslims in China have made their contribution to the rich legacy of Islamic heritage.

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