The Muslims who first came to China were ethnically diverse, but the diversity of Muslim minorities in the West is unparalleled in any previous Muslim society, and Western Muslim communities are dangerously divided along class and ethnic lines. There is also the factor of time. Hui culture developed over more than a millennium; Muslims in the West have little time to create a viable indigenous culture.
In assessing the realities of the Muslim diaspora and East-West relations, there are reasons for hope as well as despair. The two possibilities should motivate disciplined work in the tradition of Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi, without giving in to excessive enthusiasm or loss of hope. The universal law of opposites, which lies at the foundation of the Chinese (and Islamic) worldviews, requires sobriety and wisdom in confronting challenges. The Book of Changes (Yi Jing/I Ching), an ancient Chinese classic, focuses on the law of opposites, which it expresses in the well-known symbol of the primal binaries, Yin and Yang.
The figure indicates that opposites (including hope and hopelessness) are forever interlinked and mixed by their very nature. They can never occur in complete isolation, and each binary necessarily gives birth to its opposite. What gives us hope brings the potential of hopelessness; what leads to our despair is also a reason for hope. Above all, as Abdal Hakim Murad affirms, we must always rest assured that “history is in good hands.”
It would seem that finding common ground between Western and Islamic civilizations should come more naturally than the synthesis that the Hui created between Islam and the non-Abrahamic legacies of China. Unlike China, Islam was never far away from the West. It was just to the south and east of Europe and, in general, as much a part of the geographic west as its European counterpart. Both Western and Islamic civilizations were rooted in Abrahamic values and beliefs. They shared parallel histories and were equally indebted to Greco-Roman civilization.
Both civilizations cultivated science, mathematics, and philosophy. Even humanism—the central idea of modern Western civilization—emerged first in the Islamic world, as did the university system, the doctoral degree, and academic freedom. As Richard Eaton observes, geographically and in terms of beliefs and values, Islam was never alien to the West but too close for comfort. It was proximity, similarity, and conflicting geo-political interests—not irreconcilable differences—that turned the two sister civilizations into rivals.
Islam in China has left a unique legacy of cultural accomplishment that is as valuable today as ever. It demonstrates the potential resourcefulness of Islam to live in harmony with widely divergent civilizations. It sets a standard of excellence in a globalistic world in the quest for true pluralism based on mutual understanding and interests. As in the past, Chinese civilization remains a valuable destination in this search, and the historical legacy of the Hui people constitutes an instructive example of the unique wisdom still to be found in China.
George Makdisi hoped it would be possible in the context of the modern world for the West and the Muslim world to discover their common values and draw on the best parts of our shared history and not the worst: From “borrower” in the Middle Ages, the West became “lender” in modern times, lending to Islam what the latter had long forgotten as its own home-grown product….Thus not only have the East and West “met”; they have acted, reacted and interacted, in the past, as in the present, and, with mutual understanding and goodwill, may well continue to do so far into the future with benefit to both sides.
China’s successful relationship with Islam for more than a millennium should inspire the Western and Islamic worlds to overcome their differences, find a remedy for their historical amnesia, and overcome the reciprocal incoherence that keeps them apart. Perhaps, in this light, they can finally achieve a harmonious coexistence as profound as that of China and its indigenous Muslims.
by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D.