Islam’s Chinese language: three Muslim Confuciuses

Islam’s Chinese language: three Muslim Confuciuses

China and Islam: when these two words are mentioned, a person who is remote from the history of the Celestial Kingdom will likely imagine Uyghurs in labour camps and radical secular politicians. However, the history of Islam in China had its roots in the first centuries of the Muslim community. In a column of Realnoe Vremya, political expert and Realnoe Vremya’s columnist Karim Gaynullin talks about three renowned activists of the Muslim community of the Celestial Kingdom whose contribution is comparable to Confucius, moreover, Islam in China is closely connected with Confucianism.

Muslims in China aren’t limited to Turks. A big part of monotheists (around 11 million people) in the Celestial Kingdom consists of ethnic Hui people who are known for Russian speakers as Dungan people. This people is close to the Chinese majority — Han — in everything besides religion.

The first big meeting of Islam and Chinese took place when Muslims discovered (Fath) Central Asia during the grandiose Battle of Talas. Even though the army of the Abbasid Caliphate defeated the Tang Empire’s troops, the Arabs didn’t continue attacking the Yangtze River, and all further links were limited to commercial contacts.

Commerce facilitated the migration of Persian and Arab merchants to Chinese provinces, which was followed by ethnic Chinese’s conversion into Islam. Much time passed before traditional Chinese culture began to consider Islamic confession. The politics of the Ming dynasty, which started under Emperor Zhu Youjian and was open to religion, helped it. The activity of great educators Chinese Muslims played a big role.

Han Kitab, a canon of Hui classic theology, was made of works of educators we will talk about in this article. The most surprising thing in the canon is that Hui authors tried to combine ideas of the Confucian philosophy dismissing customs that contradicted Islam and classical Muslim theology. The polemics of the authors with Taoist and Buddhist doctrines also undermines habitual ideas of Islam.

It is hard to completely consider Confucianism philosophy or religion. It is a conservative moral and ethical doctrine aspiring to establish the supremacy of the principle, that’s to say, the universal law. Confucianism tends to idealise ancestry and ritualism. Despite this, Confucian works contain a series of cosmologic (the origin of the Universe) and religious ideas such as worship of Confucius and the cult of spirits. This couldn’t be accepted by Muslims and required rethinking.

Bronze incense burner with an inscription Muhammad, the Apostle of God, made during Zhengde’s reign. Adilnor Collection, Sweden. Photo:

All this is close to Turkic and Muslim culture: during the early period, Turks neighboured China, there was an active cultural dialogue between the two civilisations. In fact, a myriad of Chinese borrowings still can be found in the traditional Turkic mentality. Take just traditional Tatar music and compare it with traditional Chinese music.

In today’s column, we will tell you about three Muslim Confuciuses whose works became part of Hui literature Han Kitab. We believe that the story of these people will help understand the model of such a dialogue that existed between the Muslim religion and the Celestial Kingdom. This becomes as topical as never before in the new, Chinese, century.

Wang Daiyu: Islam in Celestial Kingdom’s language

Wang Daiyu al-Hanafi al-Maturidi (circa 1570-1660) was probably the first Islamic scientist to use the Chinese language to interpret Islamic doctrine.

He wrote such books as A True Explanation of the Right Religion (Zhengjiao Zhenquan), The Great Learning of Islam (Qingzhen Da Xue), Rare and True Answers ( Xizhen Zhengda). His works gained in popularity thanks to a pure and simple language that an ordinary Chinese-speaking Muslim understood.

Wang Daiyu himself came from an assimilated kindred of Arabs who migrated to the Celestial Kingdom. As a child, he got a classic Islamic education including the Arabic and Persian languages, Quran interpretations (tafsir), hadiths, Islamic law (fiqh), Sufism and rational theology (ilm al-kalam). At the age of 12, Wang Daiyu began learning Classical Chinese. However, unlike the Han youth, he didn’t study classical Chinese sciences as a child. Wang Daiyu began learning the Confucian and Taoist thought only later, which in the end inspired him to synthesise the Confucian and Islamic thought dismissing what contradicted Islam.

The sheikh’s primary task was to pass the Islamic doctrine to ethnic Chinese Hui Muslims. Hui people studied in Chinese through the prism of Chinese beliefs. The situation required the creation of a new language that would allow connecting the Chinese thinking with the Islamic dogma.

Jinjue Mosque in Nanjing. Photo:

Also, Wang Daiyu’s task was to prove the supremacy of the Islamic doctrine. The problem was that he had to do it in the language of another culture. The more interesting it is to read his works: as if Confucius explained you the basics of monotheism. It is surprising how the scientist uses Eastern philosophy a Western reader is not well familiar with. Here is an example of a dialogue between a Chinese hazrat and Taoist monk:

A guest [Taosist] asked, “In which place is the Real Lord?”

He answered [to Wang Daiyu], “Being in a place belongs to creation and transformation”.

The guest said, “If something does not exist here, certainly its dwelling is outside heaven [and earth]. How can it not be in a place?”

He answered, “When the yan is in harmony and moves in a movement, and the ten thousands of things flourish, do you say that spring is inside the things, or outside the things? Inside and outside can be argued only for you and me. How can you argue them for the Real Lord? Tell me, then — before there were heaven and earth, and how many things are here and how many outside heaven? (The true answer is for those who want to know the Truth)”.

What’s more, Wang Daiyu dealt with Sufi practice. In his works, he described seven levels of the heart’s perfection: level of desire (yupin), level of wisdom (zhipin), level of benevolence (renpin), level of seeing (jianpin), level of happiness (xipin), level of mystery (xuanpin) and supreme level (zhipin). Such categorisation was highly likely inspired by the Sufi order Kubrawiya. Going upper, an initiated Sufi can reach perfection, which envisages belittlement of your existence in front of God. Apart from theology, the sheikh was keen on astronomy and served in the emperor’s observatory in Nanjing.

Wang’s merit is that he was the first to formulate the Chinese language of Islam managing to inspire further tradition. Wang Daiyu had Orthodox Hanafi views on law and Maturidi outlooks on the doctrine, which is in Tatarstan called “traditional Islam”, explaining this in the language of Chinese philosophy.

Yusuf Ma Zhu: who found absolute Wise Man

Yusuf Ma Zhu (circa 1640-1719) was born in Baoshan Country in south China. He hailed from the noble Hui kindred that considered itself Sayyid — descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, while his ancestor Seyyid Ajal was the first Muslim governor in the province. At the age of 7, Ma Zhu began studying in the Chinese educational system, and upon graduation after passing exams, he got a seat in the system of Chinese bureaucracy.

Ma Zhu didn’t study in a madrasah. Nevertheless, he seemed to be interested in Islam outside the school and wrote his first religious work at 19. In 1669, he moved to Beijing to teach in the Imperial Academy. At the same time he continued studying Muslim theology.

Sheikh Wang Daiyu had a great influence on him. Ma Zhu decided to help Muslim Hui people to learn the religious doctrine in their language. This is how he wrote his main endeavour Qingzhen Zhinan — a guide to Islamic sciences. The influence of Confucian culture on this work is amazing. So Prophet Muhammad is named in it as “absolutely wise man, a descendant of ten thousands of absolutely wise men”. The existence of Allah is described in categories of Chinese cosmology: according to Yusuf Ma Zhu, God is outside the Ultimate (wuji) and Supreme Ultimate (taiji), which are categories of the Chinese idea of the Universe.

Beijing mosque Niujie. Photo:

When it comes to relationships between genders, Ma Zhu had a firm stance thinking that women shouldn’t deal with public affairs and just stay home. Here he again synthesised Chinese philosophy with Islam: the Yin principle (that’s to say, “worldly” inclinations, nafs) dominates in women, while Yang dominates in men, the spirit. He proved this by mentioning that woman Hawwa (Eve) is created from Adam’s rib.

However, he assumed that women should rest on the experience of such great zealots of Prophet as Aisha, Khadija and Fatima. Ultimately, he supported education for both men and women. He said: “men and women should study until they die” (Qingzhen Zhinan: 146).

Liu Zhi: Shariat as Principle

Liu Zhi (circa 1670-1739) was born in Nanjing and got Islamic education in his native town. His education included learning Arab and Persian literature, traditions of Chinese classics as well as holy Taoist, Buddhist texts and Christian texts recently brought by Jesuits.

He also balanced between Confucian and Islamic traditions considering Confucius the carrier of the divine afflatus and Islam as personification of the perfect Principle. He named Confucius and Mengzi absolutely wise men (sheng) of the East, while Muhammad was the absolutely wise man of the West.

After his studies, Liu moved to his studio with a beautiful name that only a Chinese could understand — Mansion of Sweeping Leaves (Saoyelou). In the studio, he began actively translating Arabic texts into the Chinese language and left a series of works on the borderline between Confucianism and Islam. These works also included works on traditional Islamic studies — usul ad-din (methodology of law), seera (Prophet’s biography), Sufism and Islamic law (fiqh). In his works on law, Liu Zhi tried to not only describe the ritual aspect of the prayer but its meaning. He described this meaning turning to Confucian terminology. Liu saw the embodiment of the Principle, that’s to say, the absolute, universal Law, in service (ibadah) and ethics (adab).

Talking about the Islamic side, Liu Zhi was closer to extreme Sufi views personified in the doctrine Unity of Existence. This idea, which is close to pantheism and dates back to Neoplatonic philosophy, denies the existence (wujud) of creations recognising them only as the “reflection” of the divine afflatus. In one of his works, he wrote: “The truth is obvious, his number is equal to one. There is a unit in addition to something false. The number one appears and becomes physical”.

Lui Zhi’s grave in Yu Hua Tai District, Nanjing. Photo:

With the growth of economic power of China, the interest in learning the Chinese language and Chinese culture is increasing in Russia. Chinese Muslims’ culture is an uncharted area for a researcher. Muslim’s philosophy and legacy in the Celestial Kingdom will help both Russia and CIS countries, which closely cooperate with China, to naturally start speaking the same language. Research on the three philosophers who talked about the Affaltus in Lao Tzu and Confucius’s language can be a start to it.

By Karim Gaynullin