Islam and Chinese Tradition: Negotiating Muslim Identity

Timothy Gutmann on Kristian Petersen

Kristian Petersen. Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, & Language in the Han Kitab. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. pp. 304. $99.00.

In recent years, Muslim communities in the People’s Republic of China have entered a new state of precarity. Because religious conflict and questions about the status of religious minorities have been prominent in Western history, people might be forgiven for assuming that religious difference has always been a cause for anxiety among individuals, communities, and states. However in imperial China, religious difference was rarely a political question; indeed the difference between traditions and communities was not often clear.

Consider Liu Zhi’s 劉智 (1660-1739) Tianfang xingli 天方性理 (The philosophy of Arabia). This text was an exercise in systematic Islamic theology and cosmology. However, an imperial official added a preface to this text that states “although his book explains Islam, in truth it illuminates our Confucianism.” At least for this unnamed official, the Islamic vision of Liu’s text harmonized with the privileged tradition of the Chinese state.

In his book Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab, Kristian Petersen freshly and engagingly analyzes the complex theories and narratives Muslims have used to explore their place within the Chinese empire and among Chinese traditions. His principal sources derive from a corpus of Chinese texts called the “Han 漢 Kitāb”. The term Han is a moniker of Chinese identity, and the word kitāb is that Arabic term for writing. The texts of the Han Kitāb traditions flourished in the 16th-19th centuries, and they include original works about Islamic theology, ritual, ethics, and history as well as translations and commentaries on Islamic sacred texts.

Petersen revisits two of the Chinese Islamic traditions’ main thinkers Wang Daiyu 王岱輿 (1590-1658) and Liu Zhi, who extensively synthesized Confucian and Islamic vocabularies, discourses, and concerns. Petersen builds on earlier scholars, such as Sachiko Murata, who have explored the ways that Chinese Muslim scholars employed metaphysical and ethical concepts derived from Confucianism and other Chinese traditions. Petersen asks how Chinese Muslims understood Islamic theology, rituals, and ethics in their own terms and how they conceived of their community’s geographical distance and temporal separation from Islam’s formative place and time.

Petersen makes his most distinctive interventions by asking how Muslims in China translated and interpreted texts written in Arabic and Persian and how they conceived of and connected with the places and histories of the origins of Islam.

In this regard, Petersen discusses the understudied figure Ma Dexin 馬得新 (1794-1874). Ma’s work marked a period of transition in religious politics in China. Ma doubted that Islam was compatible with Confucianism and questioned whether a Muslim community should subordinate itself to a non-Muslim state. By including Ma along with the better-studied Wang and Liu, Petersen expands the thematic focuses on scholarship about the Han Kitāb and asks how the Han Kitāb’s syncretic approaches gave way to a more narrow delineation of community boundaries.

Petersen begins with the idea that Muslims belong to the imperial Chinese intellectual and social milieu but are different from it. An 18th-century text, Huihui yuanlai 回回原來 (Origin of the Muslims) describes an apocryphal encounter between the Taizong 太宗 (r. 626–649) emperor and Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ (595-674), a companion of Muḥammad. In this meeting, the emperor learned about the Qurʾān and pronounced that it conformed to the classics (jing 經) of Chinese traditions. Petersen explains “the literary movement in this story’s recounting illustrates that Chinese and Islamic traditions were understood as integrally connected and aligned, but that Sino-Muslims communicate and embody them singularly.” In this, Petersen illustrates the principal tensions of the Han Kitāb. On the one hand, it is premised on the commensurability of Chinese and Islamic traditions, while on the other hand, it purports to preserve the distinct message of Islam and register its historical and geographical origins.

Petersen provocatively shows how Chinese Muslims engaged Islamic texts from abroad, and how they distanced themselves from them as well. He also shows how a distinct Islamic idiom in Chinese developed in the Han Kitāb. Writers in the Han Kitāb translated Islamic mystical texts as well as some hadith and parts of the Qurʾān. However, the Qurʾān states that it is an “Arabic Qurʾān,” and Muslims have tended to believe that any translation does not have the canonical status of the original. In other words, someone who reads a translation does not really read the word of God. Petersen explores the tensions and ambiguities of translation in the writings of Wang Daiyu noting that “the Qurʾān and other scriptural (jing) forms of knowledge were the sources of authority and verification, and were not necessarily sacrosanct in and of themselves when translated into Chinese.” For Wang, the message of the Qurʾān is more significant that its language and this approach allowed him considerable freedom of interpretation of sacred texts as well as religious doctrine.

Similar approaches to translation and interpretation are visible in Liu Zhi’s Tianfang xingli. Like Wang Daiyu, Liu freely adapts Confucian ontological vocabulary to describe God and his creation in ways that would be unfamiliar to mainstream Islamic theology. Liu also uses the term jing to refer to both the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth, and sometimes he produces quotations that appear to intermix the two. It is clear Wang and Liu were more interested in making Islamic thought legible through Chinese philosophy than in engaging Islamic literatures understood by traditional categories.

It was Ma Dexin in the 19th century who first translated the whole of the Qurʾān into Chinese. While Ma could not claim his translation had the Qurʾān’s authority as such, he clearly set it apart as a text to read by itself. He devoted himself much more to Arabic than previous scholars, and he stressed that Muslims should follow the ritual and legal stipulations that made them part of a global Muslim community and that separated them from non-Muslims. Ma also thought that Chinese Muslims should resist the imperial rule of non-Muslims, and he participated in a political struggle against the Qing government during the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873).

Petersen makes a key intervention when he contrasts the ways that the writers of the Han Kitāb imagine the geographies of the Muslim world. He illustrates the complex conceptional questions related to the performance of the Ḥajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. For Wang, believers circling the Kaʿaba place themselves within a cosmogonic chain of being, liking them to the origins of creation and the first man Adam. Liu Zhi believed those who went on Ḥajj were returning to the ordinary substance (benti 本體) in which their creator made them. Liu says that the Hajj is a summit in a Muslim’s ethical life.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that neither of these scholars went on Ḥajj personally, though other people they knew did. On this point, Petersen argues that in his ethics, Liu Zhi gave himself the task of organizing a religious life in compensation for not going on Hajj. Petersen says that in effect Liu and Wang charted a way for believers to be close to God and Islam’s sacred places through moral living and philosophical contemplation.

The more orthodox Ma Dexin, however, was not satisfied with this intellectual substitution and interpretive license. He made the pilgrimage and he described the landscape of the Hijaz and the pilgrims’ ritual prescriptions with elaborate formality. Ma rendered the Muslims’ holy voyage familiar to Chinese readers at a distance.

Petersen is particularly adept at highlighting the conceptual tensions present in such themes as translation and geography in the Han Kitāb. He only falters slightly when he makes claims about how scholars of Islamic studies could consider these tensions. For example, in his introduction he says that he wants to challenge binary interpretations that say that Arabic and Persian literatures represent a “core” to which the Han Kitāb is “peripheral”, that the Han Kitāb is a “little tradition” compared to the “great traditions” of mainstream Sunni Islam. However, when Petersen discusses the importance of the rite and imaginary of pilgrimage, readers might be forgiven for thinking that Arabia is indeed at the core of Islamic ritual and tradition, and China is indeed on the periphery. Given the idiosyncratic interpretations of Wang Liu, the Han Kitāb could appear like a marginal literature. Moreover, Petersen analyzes the Han Kitāb as a one-way reception of Islamic literatures; he does not show that Muslims outside of China engaged with it. If we had evidence that Muslims outside China took interest in the Han Kitāb and engaged in a dialog with Chinese Muslim thinkers, then perhaps China would not appear so peripheral in the premodern Muslim world.

Petersen adroitly shows the ways that the Han Kitāb was written within and between global Islamic discourses and Chinese philosophical frameworks. Petersen shows us etic scholars how to consider the questions of belonging which arise when we examine the Han Kitāb traditions’ claims on multiple locations, temporalities, and commitments. The historical endpoint of Petersen’s text, Ma Dexin, believed that those multiple claims could not be reconciled as before, and Chinese Muslims needed to free themselves from the Chinese empire and find religious fellowship with Muslims elsewhere.

Since Ma’s time, national governments have become increasingly suspicious of the idea that communities and individuals can coexist across religious, geographical and historical boundaries. In China, and elsewhere today, the security state has made the status of the Muslim community a question of destabilization. Petersen’s text shows us how, under a Chinese state and society structured by very different assumptions, a scholarly tradition attempted to be in two places at once.

Timothy Gutmann obtained his PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School.