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  • Chinese Gleams of Sufī Light: Wang Tai-yü's Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih's Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm, with a New Translation of Jāmī's Lawā'iḥ from the Persian by William C. Chittick
  • E. N. Anderson
Chinese Gleams of Sufī Light: Wang Tai-yü's Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih's Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm, with a New Translation of Jāmī's Lawā'iḥ from the Persian by William C. Chittick. By Sachiko Murata, with a foreword by Tu Weiming. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Pp. xiv + 264.

Contacts between China and the Near East are at least as old as civilization but have been relatively little studied. This has led to a lack of attention to Chinese Islam. Yet, Islam has been a profoundly influential force in China for centuries. In Chinese Gleams of Sufī Light, Sachiko Murata has stepped forward to bring a wider awareness to the interactions between Chinese Islam and native Chinese philosophic traditions. (Murata is also the author of The Tao of Islam [1992] and, with Islamicist William Chittick, The Vision of Islam [1994]). [End Page 257]

The present book adds greatly to our understanding. It includes a translation of The Great Learning of the Pure and Real, by Wang Tai-yü (ca. 1590-ca. 1658) and facing-page versions of William Chittick's English translation of the fifteenth-century Gleams (Lawā'iḥ) by 'Abd al-Rahman Jāmī and Murata's English translation of Liu Chih's (ca. 1662-ca. 1730) Chinese version of the same work. (Here, incidentally, I follow the book in using the Wade-Giles system.) One can see, comparing the translations, howLiu recast Jāmī's work in Chinese philosophic language, paraphrased some difficult passages, summarized others, and added his own commentaries.

Interestingly, Liu eliminated Jāmī's Persian poetry. Murata thinks this is because Liu wanted to focus on the hard ideas; I suspect that it was because Liu realized that Persian prosody and imagery were too far from Chinese poetry to please his audience.

Both Wang and Liu belonged to what must have been a rather loose but some-how connected circle of Chinese Islamic scholars. Both, also, almost necessarily used language fairly widespread in Chinese philosophy. Terms such as "emptiness" and "transformation" had many Chinese resonances, some most un-Islamic (Neo Confucian and Buddhist, for instance).

Neither Chittick nor Murata give any glosses for key philosophical terms in either source language. Their philosophical and religious provenance, Chinese or Muslim, is correspondingly unclear.

What is clear is that Neo-Confucianism had a strong influence on these scholars. Haqiqa "reality" is often translated as li "principle." Pen-jan "root nature" is used for the Arabic compound "essence and attributes." These examples are discussed in the introduction (p. 19). "Annihilation" becomes "conquering" (pp. 148-149). This is strange, because "Annihilation" (fana') is a technical term in Sufism for the disappearance of the self in God; it is an Arabic term, and literally means something like. "passing away." It signifies the forgetting or loss of self, such that only contemplation of the Divine remains. It is as close to the Divine as humans can get since, in Islam, humans cannot be absorbed into Allah (as, in Buddhism, they can be absorbed into Nirvāṇa or the Buddha-nature). "Conquering" seems a rather strange way to express this in Chinese. Perhaps Chinese Muslim readers of the time had developed this specialized sense for it.

There are, of course, debatable translations here to contend with (both from Persian and Arabic to Chinese and from Persian and Chinese into English), but it appears that real incommensurability is involved. It was very difficult to use the language of Chinese philosophy in the seventeenth century, influenced as it was by centuries of Neo-Confucian thought, to talk about a radically different religion characterized by an infinitely powerful and wise God, aware of all futures, close to the believer and yet cut off.

The inevitable result is to wedge the Arabic and Persian philosophy, so heavily informed by Neoplatonic essentialism and other...


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