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  • Being What We Read:Perennialism in Chinese Islamic Studies
  • James D. Frankel (bio)
Sachiko Murata, William C. Chittick, and Tu Weiming. The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 678 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-674-03325-2.

As often as we remark that long-married couples begin to look like each other over time, or owners come to resemble their pets, could we not say the same about [End Page 8] scholars and their topics of study? When we research and write about historical figures and cultural movements of the past, our subjects have a way of reaching out across the centuries to project their images upon us, transforming us in the process. Surely, we are attracted to study topics that resonate with us personally. Our research subjects also become reflections of our own perspectives and proclivities. We are what we read. What happens, therefore, when a group that includes scholars from Iran, Japan, America, and China read the work of a Muslim literatus of the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911)? How could such an eclectic gathering of intellectuals, with expertise ranging from Islamic sciences to Chinese metaphysics to Arabic and Persian poetry to Confucian philosophy, bear any resemblance to a Chinese Muslim writer who died nearly three hundred years ago? That the Chinese Muslim writer himself excelled in all of these disciplines helps. Therefore, the answer certainly includes the content of their work, but it is grounded perhaps even more deeply in the nature of their collaboration and a common worldview, a perspective these contemporary scholars seem to share with the Chinese Muslim scholar Liu Zhi (ca. 1660-ca. 1730).

The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms is an important addition to the growing body of English-language scholarship on the indigenous Islamic intellectual tradition of late imperial China. This work again brings together the power couple of Islamic studies, Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, both of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, with Tu Weiming, Harvard's preeminent authority on Confucian thought; this trio had previously collaborated on Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light (State University of New York Press, 2000). Providing his aegis and contributing a foreword to Sage Learning, senior Islamicist and perennial philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University joins this elite team. Nasr's presence in this project of translation, analysis, and contextualization of Liu Zhi's work is, in fact, the linchpin that makes Sage Learning the reflection of its subject matter.

Liu Zhi was a product (some would say the finest product) of the reformed Chinese Muslim educational system that emerged in the sixteenth century when Hu Dengzhou (1522-1597) returned from a long journey to Central Asia and the Middle East in search of Islamic knowledge. The new texts that Hu introduced to the mosque schools of China needed to be translated for use by predominantly Sinophone students. The proliferation of Islamic texts in Chinese led to the emergence of a transregional network of Chinese-speaking Muslim scholars and students in China, many of whom were also versed in the Confucian classics. This network developed into an elite literati in its own right, known as the Huiru (Muslim Confucians), who produced a corpus of texts known as the Han Kitab, a hybrid Chinese-Arabic name meaning "Islamic books in Chinese." As a member of the Huiru, Liu Zhi was one of the most renowned and prolific of the Han Kitab authors. [End Page 9]

Operating as a literati class comparable to the Confucian elite, the Huiru were organized into lineages based on a combination of both familial and intellectual ties. Herein we find a compelling resemblance between the writers of Sage Learning and their subject. Long before writing the foreword to their book, Nasr had been Chittick's and Murata's mentor when they were students in Iran in the 1970s. While it is not unusual for a scholar to solicit such blessings from his or her intellectual forebears, the similarity between this and Huiru practice is striking. Notably, in the generation before Liu Zhi...


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