Seek Knowledge in China Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box Part III Cont’d from...

Seek Knowledge in China Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box Part III Cont’d from part II



The Nationalist Party overthrew the Manchurians in 1912 and established the Republic of China under Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-Sen), “the father of modern China.” The first years of the Republic were chaotic, and Sun Yixian did not win effective control for twelve years.

Although Sun Yixian ultimately adopted a benevolent policy toward the Hui, occasional outbreaks of Han-Hui violence lasted until the 1930s, when the Republic finally consolidated central authority, which was soon disrupted by the invasion of imperialist Japan and renewed civil war.

In 1949, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) established the People’s Republic of China, a Marxist state antagonistic to all religion, whether indigenous Chinese, Islamic, or Christian. Mao made early concessions to the Hui and designated them as one of China’s principal minorities. Like other religious communities, the Hui suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and ended with Mao’s death in 1976. The Red Guards, the backbone of the Cultural Revolution, destroyed temples, mosques, and churches.

There were also attacks against the Hui themselves, whose continued existence in China as a distinctive religious minority became precarious. The Cultural Revolution consolidated Mao’s personal power vis-à-vis political rivals in the Communist Party but weakened central authority and spread political chaos.

After Mao’s death, moderates within the Chinese Communist Party took control of the People’s Republic, abandoned Mao’s radical policies and improved relations with the Hui. The primary concern of the central government became economic development, and the Communist Party recognized the potential value of the Hui, especially in foreign relations with the Muslim world. Mosques were rebuilt, and permission was given to construct new ones and establish Islamic schools. The People’s Republic gave extensive publicity to its accommodation of the Hui, which attracted international delegations from the Muslim world and strengthened diplomatic ties.

The history of Islam in China began under auspicious conditions and flourished for nearly a thousand years. Will the legacy of Chinese Islam return to its former course or end in tragedy? Nothing is more traumatic than irrational violence. It not only affects individuals but may also disrupt the social-psychological balance of entire peoples. Protracted internal discord can alter or destroy earlier cultural formations and entire collective mind-sets. One of the dangers that the Hui face today in the aftermath of the communal violence of the last two centuries and the Cultural Revolution is the weakening of their former cultural synthesis, which made them an integral part of China.

Over the centuries, strong central authority in China repeatedly supported the interests of the Hui and played an active role in the cultivation of symbiotic relationships that fostered mutual benefit. The darker episodes of Hui history coincided with poor administration and the breakdown of central authority. Hopefully, the political stability of modern China is a good omen and bodes a better future for the Hui. Interpretive Control and Hui Self-Definition Historically, China was called the “Middle Kingdom.”

The name reflected more than the Chinese conception of geography. It expressed belief that the Chinese tradition was based on harmony with Heaven and Earth—the two great metaphysical realities—making China the Sacred Land and placing it at the center of the cosmos. Islam could not flourish in China without tempering its Semitic character and creating a respectful relationship toward China’s ancient civilization. The Chinese regarded their society as the epitome of human development. Foreign peoples were looked upon as barbarians, and the Chinese were not readily open to alien values and beliefs. It was hardly to Islam’s advantage to present itself as an alien faith. To succeed in the Sacred Land, Muslims had to demonstrate their compatibility with the Chinese ethos. Hui scholars delved into the Islamic tradition, found resources that enabled them to think beyond the Abrahamic box, and discovered common ground with Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism.

Dual mastery of the Islamic and Chinese traditions permitted Muslim scholars to take interpretative control over how they and their religion would be defined in China. Their accomplishment laid the foundation of a lasting indigenous Muslim culture, which fostered self-esteem and a dynamic spirit for the Hui as a Muslim people in the context of an ancient nonIslamic civilization. There is a long-standing convention in Western scholarship to speak of Chinese Islam as a “sinicization” [making Chinese] of “orthodox” Islamic faith and practice. This convention creates a hegemonic discourse8 that reinforces assumptions about Islam as a monolithic cultural system. It also marginalizes the value of the Hui cultural genius. A “heterodox, sinicizised” Islam is questionable even in Hui eyes and has little instructive value for others. The notion of the sinicization of Islam in China is based on a false preconception of Islam and its attitude toward indigenous cultures.

It presumes that the only valid (“orthodox”) expression of Islam is Middle Eastern. In reality, neither Muslim societies in history nor classical Islamic law produced uniform patterns of cultural expression. Muslims have always formulated distinctive indigenous forms of Islamic cultural expression wherever they went, and the process was encouraged by Islam’s religious law.9 Regional cultural receptivity produced a marvelous mosaic of unity in diversity still in evidence today. Islam’s inherent cultural genius created a global Islamic civilization, which spread its peacock’s tail from China to the Atlantic.10 Mosque architecture is one of the most conspicuous pieces of the great cultural mosaic, and the traditional Chinese mosque beautifully illustrates Islam’s capacity for expressing unity in diversity, namely, the overarching unity of Islamic belief in the regional diversity of Chinese culture.

An Imam of the Beijing central mosque said of the Hui people: “Hui Muslims are just like this mosque. On the outside, we look altogether Chinese. On the inside, we are [Muslims], Pure and Real.” The Hui cultivated both Chinese and Arabic calligraphy. What they wrote in Arabic was translated into Chinese and written in traditional styles of Chinese calligraphy. Often, the Hui used Chinese calligraphy by itself. Upon entering a Chinese mosque, it is common to find a prominent wall with the bold Chinese words: The Primordial Religion from the Foundation of Heaven (Kai Tian Gu Jiao).

To be Continued: