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Understanding the Sources of the Sino-Islamic Intellectual Tradition: A Review Essay on The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms, by Sachiko Murata, William C. Chittick, and Tu Weiming, and Recent Chinese Literary Treasuries

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 3, July 2011
pp. 546-559 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0037

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An oft-quoted Hadith purports that it is incumbent upon every Muslim to seek knowledge, even if it is to be found as far away as China.1 However, the plethora of knowledge that was discovered there generally has yet to be unraveled by Western academics. If the intellectual tradition of Chinese Muslims may appear to be of minor consequence to the larger field of Islamic studies, this is in part because of our failure to assess their influence. The abundant resources for understanding the Islamic sciences in China have barely been grazed and are awaiting our thorough analytical peregrination. This essay attempts to evaluate (1) the most recent work that explores this intellectual tradition, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms, by Sachiko Murata, William C. Chittick, and Tu Weiming (Harvard University Press, 2009); (2) some sources for subsequent study; and (3) methods for proceeding in the future.

Prior to the sixteenth century, ulema living in China were immersed within the same ubiquitous tradition of Islamic scholarship as their Middle Eastern or Central Asian ancestors. While China was periodically cut off from the larger ummah, teachers and students were actively engaged in the study of the Quran, the Hadith, and the Islamic sciences. The religious elite worked with Arabic, Persian, and Turkic languages and could participate in the wider discourse of most Muslims. With each recurring oscillation of renewal the Chinese ulema would reevaluate their understanding of Islam, their methods for transmitting this knowledge, and the manner in which they could contribute to the discussion.2 Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, Muslims adopted a new instructional system called scripture-hall education (jingtang jiaoyu 經堂教育).3 It was created by Hu Dengzhou 胡登洲 (ca. 1522–1597), who returned from his hajj pilgrimage with renewed knowledge of Islam and many authoritative texts to guide his coreligionists in their faith. The scripture-hall system succeeded because of several innovative pedagogical methods, including newly accessible Arabic and Persian texts, financing for tuition, room and board for peripatetic students, study materials, a formalized curriculum, and the inclusion of Chinese as the language of instruction. The structure and consistency of the system made its methods easily replicable, and Hu’s students soon spread the scripture-hall system throughout China. The inclusion of Chinese as an “Islamic” language inspired its advanced students to create treatises that reflect the theological and linguistic complexity of the scripture-hall system. However, it was not until the seventeenth century that Chinese Muslims created a canon of texts that expressed their native contribution to the Islamic intellectual tradition, the Han Kitab.

These literary compositions exhibit the theological substance and expressive orientation of the Chinese ulema. However, while key figures in the tradition and major Sino-Islamic texts have been outlined, the content of their work has yet to be studied in great detail.4 Our most pressing and urgent task is to provide clear and reliable translations and examinations of the key components of texts. Once a significant amount of these treatises have been introduced, we can then begin to delineate the intellectual currents, connections, and controversies of the Chinese texts. The limited work that has been done fails to make significant connections between the Chinese works and their Middle Eastern and Central Asian counterparts. Further, we do not even have a sufficient understanding of the Chinese Muslim intellectual tradition to link the works between Chinese ulema themselves. The Sage Learning takes great strides in remedying this problem by translating one of the most important Han Kitab texts, adding substantial observable evidence for intellectual influences and significant methodological developments for the future study of Sino-Islamic literature.

Sachiko Murata on Sino-Islamic Thought

In general, Sachiko Murata has made the most concerted effort to understand the substance of the Han Kitab. Her work has traced the path of the Chinese ulema by following similar stages in its development. Initially, Murata employed a thematic framework from traditional Chinese philosophical systems to analyze the Medieval Islamic intellectual tradition. Her goal in The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought was to approach the issue of gender in traditional Islamic thought and explore the spiritual aspects...



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