Two Hui scholars of the early Manchurian period—Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi—are widely regarded as the culmination of Chinese Muslim thought. Both were trained in Arabic and Persian and studied classical Islamic curricula.
They memorized the Qur’an at early ages and mastered the Hanafi School of law, which Chinese Muslims almost invariably follow. They were also trained in Islamic theology, philosophy, and metaphysical Sufism.
Wang Daiyu was born in the late sixteenth century and received an exclusively Islamic education in his youth but was not tutored in the Chinese classics. Once he had attained full manhood and good standing as a Muslim scholar, he came to regard his ignorance of the Chinese tradition as “stupidity and smallness,” because it was impossible for him to reach those around him who were educated in the Chinese tradition. He set to work earnestly to remedy this deficiency and did so after years of intense study. Liu Zhi belonged to the subsequent generation. His father, Liu Sanjie, also a noted Muslim scholar, admired Wang Daiyu and was determined that Liu Zhi follow in his footsteps. Liu Zhi’s father made arrangements for his son’s simultaneous education in the Islamic and Chinese traditions from an early age.
The work of Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi was not apologetic. Its purpose was simply to explain the nature of Islam, not to convince Chinese society of its truths or defend it from their criticisms. Their primary audience was not non-Muslims but fellow Hui Muslims who were trained in the classical Chinese tradition and lacked direct access to Arabic or Persian mediums. This class of the Hui was substantially large and had imbibed a thoroughly Chinese worldview.
Ordinary Hui scholars who lacked training in the Chinese tradition could hardly understand them and had little hope of having a positive effect on them.
The imagery, analogies, and modes of argumentation that Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi used were carefully chosen and finely honed. By speaking in words that the Chinese-educated Hui could readily understand, the two scholars indirectly attracted a second audience among the Chinese intelligentsia and religious scholars. Their books were printed and widely distributed among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. On one occasion, the abbot of the Iron Mountain Buddhist Monastery came to question Wang Daiyu and engaged him in debate for several days. In the end, the abbot acknowledged the superiority of Wang’s thought and became his disciple. Once Liu Zhi was asked about the nature of life and death from an Islamic point of view, he responded in a classically Chinese manner: “Life is also not life, and death is also not death.” The questioner requested further clarification: “Please give me one more word.” Liu Zhi replied: “Life is also not life, because it has death. Death is also not death, because it returns to life.”
Both scholars acknowledged the integrity and essential truth of the Chinese tradition. As Tu Weiming stresses, they offered a vision of Islam that could be “concretely realized in Confucian China.” They did not conceive of their faith as diametrically opposed to the Chinese tradition, rather they set out to explore both legacies in a “mutually beneficial joint venture” and “seamlessly” interwove core Islamic teachings in a “richly textured exposition of Confucian learning.”
In keeping with Hui tradition, Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi did not question the fundamental conceptions of Chinese thought and accepted them as self-evidently true. But neither of them hesitated to find fault with the Chinese tradition wherever they believed it to be mistaken, and both confidently insisted on the superiority of Islamic teaching. Their criticisms were respectful and measured and never as stringent as those of dissenting Chinese schools of religion and philosophy against each other. Most importantly, Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi did not set out to deconstruct Chinese thought but to build upon it and demonstrate its harmony with core Islamic teachings. They based their synthesis of Islamic and Chinese thought on the core paradigm of Chinese metaphysics, the ontological unity of Heaven, Earth, and the Ten Thousand Things (the world of phenomena).
Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi elaborated a moral metaphysics meticulously rooted in both the Islamic and Chinese worldviews. In contrast to customary Chinese thought, they emphasized that only the unicity of the Creator could account for the uniformity of Heaven, Earth, and the Ten Thousand Things. They explained that to conceive only of the manifestations of the Dao (the inherent nature of things; sunnat Allah) as the sole force behind creation was like mistaking the painting for the painter or the mirror for the beautiful woman gazing into it.
In explaining the Islamic testimony of faith—“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger”—they explained that the two phrases “clarify the difference between the Real One and the Numerical One.” Thus, it also makes a distinction between “the Real Lord and the Chief Servant” (the Prophet). Only on this basis, can human beings truly witness “the Unique One and the Numerical One.”
The first exists utterly without dependence on phenomenal reality, and the second is utterly dependent on the first. The moral metaphysics of Islam, Wang explained, could only become the “fountainhead of clear virtue” once such a distinction was made. He asserted: When clear virtue is clarified, there will be real knowledge. When there is real knowledge, the self will be known. When the self is known, the heart will be made true. When the heart is made true, intentions will be sincere. When intentions are sincere, words will be firm. When words are firm, the body will be cultivated. When the body is cultivated, the family will be regulated. When the family is regulated, the country will be governed.
To be continued:
by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D.