The Syncretists: Islam's Arrival in China

Modern day synthesis of Islamic faith and Chinese art.
Fan tasmiya (invocation) by Liu Shengguo.
"In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful."
Original at the West Mosque, Cangzhou, Hebei
(China Heritage Newsletter).

Throughout Islam's 1400-year expansion, most countries have encountered their first Muslims via waves of mercantile exchange, immigration, or advancing armies. But in the case of China, it is said that Islam made its debut by way of imperial invitation. In the year 620, as the legend goes, China's Emperor Taizu dreamt that his palace was being besieged by terrible forces. Miraculously, a man in a turban appeared to quell the chaos. When Taizu awoke, he called upon his advisers to interpret his puzzling dream, and was told that the turbaned man was a great sage from the western regions. Believing that this mysterious man might bear wisdom vital to his dynasty, Emperor Taizu sent a delegation westward to find him. The great sage – none other than the Prophet Mohammad – received the delegation, and in return, sent a beloved companion to convey to China the message of Islam.

Even though this story is apocryphal, it aptly illustrates China's unique intercourse with Islam. In truth, the new faith arrived in China through migration and trade, much as it had in every other country, and met with the same obstacles of persecution and prejudice. Early followers of the new religion kept a low profile, content to survive. And over time, the new faith wove itself into the fabric of its host country in much the same way it had elsewhere, through the process of "Islamization," which the historian Richard Eaton delineates as inclusion, identification and displacement. But in the case of China, Islam discovered an unusual accessibility it had not encountered anywhere else. In the long-established Chinese tenets of Taoism and Confucianism, Islam discovered a unique tool for inclusion and identification.

The concept of aligning Eastern and Western ideologies evolved slowly among Chinese Muslims, in response to threats to their survival. The foreign Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) trusted the Muslims more than other native Chinese, and allowed them to rise through the social hierarchy. Not surprisingly, this created resentment among the lower-class Chinese, and ultimately resulted in edicts against Muslim practices such as circumcision and the Islamic procedure of animal slaughter. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) developed an isolationist and protectionist outlook, closing the country’s borders and cutting off Muslims’ connections with their Islamic roots in the West. Legislation imposed to accelerate their assimilation into mainstream society was embraced by the Muslim population, eager to fit in. They took on Chinese names and inhibited the use of non-Chinese languages. They also immersed themselves in learning Confucian values and customs, an education that would facilitate a remarkable harmonization of divergent beliefs.

It was during the Ming Dynasty that significant syncretism of Eastern and Western thought began. Chinese Muslim intellectuals, by now well-schooled in Confucian classics and Taoist philosophy, began translating Islamic texts into Chinese, and composing new works that integrated Muslim tradition with Chinese culture for the first time. Through the use of native language and indigenous forms of expression, Chinese Muslim scholars sought to introduce Islamic thought into established Chinese erudition – in other words, to make Islam respectable in the eyes of their peers. Fortunately for them, the worldview of Chinese Confucian scholars was receptive. To these intellectuals, race was irrelevant and anyone who learned the customs of society and followed the teachings of Confucius could be considered "civilized". When the work of the Muslim scholars became acknowledged by the intelligentsia, it launched a new genre of texts that would become a Sino-Islamic canon known as the "Han Kitab" (an appropriate merger of Chinese and Arabic, meaning “Chinese Book”), and initiated both the "Intellectual Islamization" of China and the "Confucianization" of Muslims.

The earliest syncretists were charged with translating volumes of Islamic writings into Chinese and devising the Sino-Islamic channel of communication. For example, Wu Sunqie, an early scholar, translated a 13th-century Sufi text into Chinese. A second generation of syncretists began producing fresh commentary on established works. One contributor, Wang Daiyu, of Nanjing (1570s-1650s?) published an interpretation of Islamic orthodox teaching, arranging his work by Chinese themes, and seeking to present "… Islamic knowledge as an important component of knowledge in general" (Ben-Dor Benite, 163). Wang astoundingly equated Islam’s Five Pillars of Faith with Confucianism’s Five Virtues. Within the mid-17th century writings of Zhang Zhong, "we find the first articulation of what would become a crucial principle among Sino-Muslims: in order to know God, we must know ourselves" (Lipman, 75). Such ideas emerging from the literature of the Han Kitab were not only compatible with both orthodox Islam and Chinese ideas, but presented Islam as a perfect complement to – and even improvement upon – Chinese tradition.

Later scholars cultivated Sino-Islamic literature into its full flower. In 1710, Ma Zhu composed the Compass of Islam, a thorough manual of Islamic thought and practice. The famous Liu Zhi, extensively trained not only in Islam and Confucianism, but Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity as well, smartly invited highly ranked non-Muslim officials to write prefaces for his books, lending them a stamp of orthodoxy. His writings provided "a wonderfully symmetrical analysis of the relationship between Islam and Confucianism" (Lipman, 83), and his book "Tianfang Dianli" ("Ritual Law of Islam") was even selected by the Emperor Qianlong for inclusion in a compendium of great Chinese literature.

The collective works of these syncretists likened prophets to sages, posited Muhammad as heir to Confucius, and connected the Chinese idea of heaven with the Islamic concept of God. They asserted that "[Muhammad] and his teachings were not merely harmonious with Confucianism; they were an essential component of the totality of the Dao" (Ben-Dor Benite, 168). But the Han Kitab did not succeed at displacing one religion with another – Islam could only be seen as part of the total Confucian picture. Still, the syncretists had succeeded in achieving Eaton’s "inclusion" and "identification" on the profoundest intellectual level, and their contribution is reflected in China to this day, in the Buddhist-style architecture of mosques, and stylized Qur’anic verses incorporated into the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy.

Works Cited
Ben-Dor Benite, Zvi. The Dao of Muhammad. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005.

China Heritage Newsletter, No. 5, March 2006. Division of Pacific and Asian
History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian
National University. , accessed March 2007.

Eaton, Richard M. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier: 1204-1760. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Lipman, Jonathan N. Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1997.

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