Both Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi regarded Confucianism, the official religion of China, as closer to the Islamic ethos than Daoism or Buddhism, although they readily acknowledged the universal truths in all traditions. Islam and Confucianism in their view, however, constituted a common culture.
In a work entitled The Philosophy of Arabia, Liu Zhi offered a critique of the Daoist and Buddhist traditions that won the approval of the Confucianist vice-minister of the Chinese Board of Propriety. The latter remarked in his preface to the work that Liu Zhi had brought to light the way of the ancient Chinese sages. The viceminister insisted: “Thus, although his book explains Islam, in truth it illuminates our Confucianism.”
Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi focused on five central principles at the core of the Islamic and Chinese views of reality that made up the essential common ground between the two traditions. The scholars argued that each of the principles was implicit in the Islamic testimony of faith—“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—beginning with the affirmation of the one Absolute (God) and the Perfect Human (the Prophet). Each of the five truths derived from this central truth and was a corollary of the others.
The first principle asserted that the oneness of God (the Absolute) confirmed that all existence is governed by a single, supreme Reality. The second principle affirmed the continuity of nature and the equilibrium and perfect harmony of Heaven, Earth, and the Ten Thousand Things. The third principle was that of the Middle Way (Prophetic law and the
Sunna), which eliminated extremism and laid the foundation of a healthy individual and social life. Fourth was the primary humanistic component of the Middle Way: realization of the Perfect Human as the embodiment of the Middle Way.
Although the Prophets (the Ultimate Sages) were the supreme embodiment of human perfection, the sages of old and the saints (awliya’) shared in this perfection and were also exemplary models. The final principle was the universal humanistic component of human perfection in general, the highest objective of both Islam and the Chinese tradition. It required adherence to the Middle Way, emulation of the Ultimate Sages, and reliance upon the intrinsic goodness (fitra) of the human soul.
The five shared principles and their implications for general well-being are alluded to in the words of Liu Zhi: Only those who are Pure and Real can fully realize their nature. Fully able to realize their nature, they can fully realize the nature of humanity. Fully able to realize the nature of humanity, they can fully realize the nature of things. Fully able to realize the nature of things, they can partake in the transformative and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. Being able to partake in the transformative and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can form the third essential element in unison with Heaven and Earth.
Conclusion: The Hui Legacy & Learning To Be Human
Emphasis on the art of learning to be human as an essential part of religion is one of the greatest legacies of Hui Muslim culture for the world today. The advance of modern civilization, as Sachiko Murata stresses, has occurred at the expense of our humanity.
The legacy of Islam in China emphasizes the importance of remembering what it means to be a human being. To paraphrase the words of Liu Zhi: We can only realize the true nature of things if we nourish our humanity, and only when we realize the true nature of things can we become part of the transformative and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth.
The quest toward becoming truly human requires awareness of and sympathy with the humanity of others. Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi illustrate the possibility of escaping one’s cultural limitations and fully discovering the self and the other. To accomplish their task, they mastered the Abrahamic tradition and unlocked its resources. With equal earnestness, they delved into the non-Abrahamic traditions of China and discovered extensive common ground. In this feat, as Murata observes, Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi anticipated the course of action we must follow today if we are to discover our humanity and the humanity of others. Although we live in the information age, our knowledge of ourselves and others tends to be ill-informed and superficial. We too must cultivate knowledge of the human tradition—within and without the Abrahamic box—in the same earnestness and profundity.
As noted from the outset, the Hui experience in history provides a valuable example of long-lasting harmony between two very different civilizations. The bleaker episodes of the Hui record are an exceptional break in more than a millennium of harmony. But Hui-Han communal violence took place at times of political disarray and the breakdown of central authority.
The outbreaks emanated not from a clash of ideals and values but from regional conflicts of interest that were often inflamed by petty squabbles. The trouble occurred at a time when the Hui had become an integral part of Chinese culture at all class levels, yet, for that very reason, had come into direct socioeconomic competition with the Han majority.
Han-Hui discord is a reminder that the internal harmony of civilizations cannot be taken for granted. The violence followed almost a millennium of peaceful coexistence and prefigured the domestic conflicts that have ripped apart nation-states and regional cultures in our time. In recent decades, many of the bloodiest clashes have not been between civilizations but within them as evidenced in the Rwanda genocide and inter-Muslim violence along ethnic and sectarian lines in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. The strife runs along “fault lines” of class, ethnicity, and sectarian difference, which are accentuated and exploited for political gain but, as in the Han-Hui tragedy, results from the internal failures of civilizations, not their inherent natures.
The history of Islam in China is especially relevant to the large and growing Muslim diasporas of the West. The humanistic traditions and democratic values of the West have allowed these communities to coexist in the United States, Canada, and Europe with the promise of a hopeful future. At the same time there are great obstacles to their sustained development.
The geopolitical crisis between the West and the Islamic world over conflicting interests—especially oil—and growing antagonism between the two camps constitute, perhaps, the most serious of these problems. Unless the crisis is defused, it has the potential to revive old fears and irrational hatred possibly leading to the destruction of the Diaspora.
To be continued:
by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D.