The Hui use of the Chinese language and indigenous cultural forms to find a common ground of understanding has ample support in the Islamic tradition. The Prophet taught: “Honor people according to the eminence of their stations.”
Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the fourth caliph of Islam, said: “Speak to people in terms familiar to them. Would you like to cause falsehood to be attributed to God and His Messenger?”
Ibn Mas‘ud, a close Companion of the Prophet, echoed the same sentiment: “Never will you speak words to people that their intellects fail to understand but that it will be a trial for some among them.”
The Hui cultural synthesis enabled Muslims in China to honor the eminence of the Chinese tradition at its best and speak in words that were readily intelligible and reputable within the Chinese worldview.
To communicate effectively with the non-Muslim Chinese, it was necessary for the Hui to acknowledge Chinese cultural conventions and reach beyond the customary expressions of Semitic religion. In doing this, the Hui discovered a new symbolic universe rooted both in Islam and Eastern religion and philosophy that was readily intelligible to the Chinese. The idea of a personal God, resurrection, and Day of Judgment, for example, were alien to Chinese thought. Hui scholarship cultivated a concise and sophisticated idiom and carefully chose suitable Chinese analogies to bridge the gap between the two very different mind-sets. Effective cross-cultural communication was not only essential for communicating with the non-Muslim Chinese, it was necessary for reaching many members of the Hui community who had been schooled in the Chinese tradition and were unfamiliar with customary Islamic discourse. Had the Hui failed in the task of building cross-cultural bridges, they would have relegated themselves and their faith to obscurity.
Radically different worldviews were not the only obstacle the Hui faced. The Chinese script created problems of its own. To begin with, the transliteration of Arabic words was virtually impossible.
The Chinese writing system is not phonetic and uses word pictures, symbolic ideograms. Pronunciation of the ideograms varies from one region to another. It was possible to select ideograms that might generally be read with sounds approximating Arabic words, but such transliterations were rarely adequate, for Chinese sounds rarely correspond to those of Arabic.
The most acceptable transliteration of “Muhammad,” for example, required four ideograms and was pronounced Mu Han Me De. The use of so many ideograms for a single word was inelegant and cumbersome. There was an additional risk that the ideograms chosen, however much they approximated the desired Arabic sounds, might have inappropriate symbolic associations in Chinese.
The Hui circumvented the problem of transliteration by innovating meaningful Chinese renditions of Arabic words. They referred to God as the One, the Real, the Real One, the Real Lord, and the Real Ruler. The expressions corresponded to Islamic names of the Abrahamic personal God but did not clash with Chinese tradition, which regarded references to a personal God as anthropomorphic. Ancient Chinese tradition had once affirmed a personal God, who was called the Supreme and the Supreme Sovereign.
Later Chinese thought, however, preferred non-personal names such as the Highest Principle. A noted Hui scholar acknowledged the earlier ancient Chinese tradition of a personal God, which he regarded as a remnant of primordial Prophetic religion, but used language for God that would not clash with the understanding of his contemporaries: Our Pure and Real religion [Islam], the true faith, arose in the West [the Middle East] and came to China over the years, beginning from the time of the Tang Dynasty. Our recognition of the Real Lord and Creator, which came from the first human being, had not yet been lost in China. Investigate the essence of this matter. Return to the source. By this, you too may take hold of the correct doctrine of [Islam], the Pure and the Real.
The Hui referred to the Prophet Muhammad not by an awkward transliteration of his Arabic name but as the Chief Servant, the Sage, the Utmost Sage, and the Human Ultimate. They called the unicity of God (tawhid) Practicing One and Returning to the One. The Qur’an was referred to as the Classic, which put it in the same category as the revered and sacred books (called “classics”) of ancient China. It was also known as the Heavenly Classic and the Real Classic of the True Mandate. The direction of prayer toward Mecca (qibla) was called the Direction of Heaven.
The sensory world (‘alam al-shahada) was termed the Color World; its counterpart, the world of the unseen (al-ghayb) was given the name of the Colorless World. The Garden was referred to as the Heaven Country and the Ultimate Happiness. Hell was Earth Prison and Earth Prohibited. (Both terms were based on the Chinese conception of Heaven and Earth as higher and lower metaphysical realities.)
It would have been culturally problematic to call Islam “submission” or to transliterate it, producing the awkward form Yi Si Lan Jiao [the religion of Islam]. Hui scholarship chose to call Islam the Religion of the Pure and the Real [Qing Zhen Jiao]. The words expressed the essence of Islam, avoided foreign associations, and emphasized core Chinese values, declaring Islam to be a cognate faith. The testimony of faith (kalimat al-shahada) was called the Very Words of the Pure and Real.
The Pure and the Real were ancient Chinese symbols of the sacred. An early Chinese etymological dictionary traces their meaning to the expression: “The Pure and the Real lacks desire. It is everything that cannot change.” The Pure (qing; pronounced “ching”) stood for inward and outward purity. It connoted lucidity of belief and thought and the lack of selfish motives. The Real (zhen) was a name for the Creative Principle (God) and corresponded to Chinese notions of the eternal truths that underlie the cosmic order (sunnat Allah fi al-khalq). As Dru Gladney observes, by calling Islam the Pure and the Real faith, the Hui successfully appropriated for themselves the indigenous symbols of the sacred, which placed them strategically at the center of the Chinese symbolic universe and “turned the tables of Chinese society.” Calling Islam the Pure and the Real is an illustration of interpretative control at its best. The Pure and Real became the bedrock of indigenous Chinese Muslim culture. It played a fundamental role in forming a reciprocal Chinese-Islamic identity and enabled the Hui to gain the best of two religious traditions and the civilizations they inspired.
To be Continued: