- The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China
Zvi Ben-Dor Benite's new book is an investigation of how seventeenth- and eighteenth century Chinese Muslims created Islamic texts that came to be known as the Han kitab—something like a Chinese Islamic canon. More particularly, the author delves into the very Chinese way in which this body of texts was put to work securing Chinese Muslims a particular place in the empire. I have waited for this book for some time, though this is not to say that the author has taken a long time to produce it. I mean rather to say that I was aware of the need for a fine-grained analysis of the Chinese Muslim network in eastern China that produced the Han Kitab, and I was waiting for someone to write on it in a way that I could learn about it and work from it. This is that work. It is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of historical and ethnographic work on Muslims in China, and all the more welcome because it contributes to several ongoing discussions about Chinese social history quite apart from the issue of Muslims.
It is common to associate Islam in China with the peoples of Xinjiang, but this book shifts attention away from them toward a community flourishing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the eastern Chinese heartland. We read of Muslim communities in Nanjing and other cities that supported Islamic schools, scholarship, and publishing endeavors. Leading families in these communities traced their origins to Muslims who had served under past Central Asian rulers of China, and they kept up their traditions by participating both in the Confucian examination system and also producing sons who became experts in Islamic scholarship. Faced with their community's isolation from the wider Islamic world and its limited knowledge of Arabic, these men produced a body of Islamic literature in Chinese. The author documents how this network of literati emerged in the late Ming and early Qing, eventually developing the motivating notion that they were the curators of a specifically Muslim domain of literary Chineseness. The initial focus of the book is on the network of scholars who wrote or translated (from Arabic and Persian) the texts of the Han Kitab. The narrative is an analysis of the ways in which these Chinese Muslim literati negotiated their cosmological position as Chinese in a Confucian moral universe, with their social identity as Muslims and descendents of foreigners. It is most generally about the multivariate nature of identification processes, but more specifically it is a historical account of a dynamic educational network of Chinese Muslim literati in eastern China. The author argues that the Han kitab authors saw themselves as [End Page 376] Chinese literati, and ultimately for them Islam was seen as the completion of Confucian ideals. Built from Chinese Muslim sources and supplemented by imperial records, the picture that emerges in this narrative of the way this Chinese Muslim school of learning was generated does an excellent job of showing a slice of late imperial Chinese life and social history.
Scholars who have followed the argument made by Crossley (1990, 1999), Elliot (2001), Rawski (1996), and others about the conceptual appropriateness of ethnicity as a social technology of the time will find in this work an additional vantage from which to evaluate that argument—not necessarily by directly enunciating a position, but by allowing the presentation of the historical facts to speak to that issue. Scholars who have begun to investigate colonialism in China seriously—something quite distinct from the colonialism of China by Western powers—will see here a case example of the means and mechanisms that were at the disposal of Chinese elites and officials by which ideologies and sentiments of affinity and estrangement were deployed in late imperial China. Similarly, in this example we also see the...