“Comparative Religion” is largely a modern enterprise. Muslims always had some interest in other traditions, not least because the Koran designates Islam as one religion (dīn) among many and describes a long line of divinely sent messengers. Serious study of other traditions, however, was rare among Muslims. India provides one of the few cases in which attempts were made, by scholars such as Prince Dārā Shukūh, to bring out the underlying unity of two different traditions. Only recently have somewhat similar attempts come to light among Chinese Muslims, who were astute readers of the Confucian tradition.
Muslims make up a sizable minority in China. Scattered all over the country, they are officially numbered at twenty million, though estimates of the real numbers range much higher. The Muslims themselves maintain that the Prophet sent an emissary to the Chinese emperor, though historians have not been able to verify this. It is known for certain, however, that a treaty was signed with a Muslim mission in the year 651, less than twenty years after the Prophet’s death. Over the next two centuries, another forty missions are recorded in the Chinese annals as having arrived at the capital. The first concrete evidence of Chinese-speaking Muslim communities dates back to the ninth century.
Muslims living in China transmitted Islamic learning in their own languages, mainly Persian. Not until the seventeenth century did they begin to compose works in Chinese. The first person to do so was Wang Daiyu , who published the Real Commentary on the True Teaching (Zhengjiao zhenquan ) in the year 1642. By the end of that century, several other Muslim scholars had joined him, some of them referring to themselves as Huiru , “Muslim Confucianists.” In the 19th century, their books came to be called by the Chinese-Arabic hybrid word, Han Kitab, “the Chinese Books,” and this expression is commonly met in the secondary literature. The Han Kitab flourished down until the end of the nineteenth century, but, with the influx of modernity, sometimes in the form of Wahhabi-style fundamentalism, it was gradually marginalized and almost completely lost.1 Only in the past twenty years or so have Chinese Muslims made some attempt to revive the Han Kitab by re-printing the important books, producing modern editions, and writing historical studies about the texts.
One of the most striking characteristics of this school of thought is that Muslims, for the first time in history, expressed the teachings of Islam in the language of another intellectual tradition. Prior to this time, Muslims everywhere had transformed indigenous languages by using the Arabic script and importing a massive amount of Arabic vocabulary. The first example is the Persian language. What linguists call “modern Persian” bears little resemblance to the “middle Persian” of the Sassanid period, not least because it uses the Arabic script and draws at least fifty percent of its vocabulary from Arabic. In this and other languages, like Turkish and Malaysian, Muslims made relatively little attempt to reformulate their teachings in terms of native terminology. Instead, they simply imported Arabic words. This meant, among other things, that they never had to write about their religion in the languages of other great traditions. Dārā Shukūh, for example, wrote exclusively in Persian, not Sanskrit.
Only in modern times have some Muslims attempted to reformulate Islamic teachings in terms of an alien intellectual universe, in this case the modern West. But, generally speaking, in making use of a foreign idiom, the Chinese Muslims demonstrated a great deal more originality than modern-day Muslims have done. One reason for this is that in English or French, for example, it is easy enough to transliterate Arabic words, so authors typically import a good deal of terminology. In Chinese, however, transliteration, although possible, is enormously cumbersome. Hence the authors of the Han Kitab avoided it almost totally, not least because they wanted to maintain the literary standards established by the great tradition of Confucian learning.
In other words, Chinese Muslims could not resort to the common technique of using Arabic technical terms. They could not mention words like Allah, Koran, Hadith, Shariah, fiqh, tawḥīd, nubuwwa, Kalam, ṣalāt, Ramadan, hajj, and so on. For the same reason, they rarely mentioned proper names. Because of the unique nature of the Chinese language, they were forced to express their teachings in the language current among Chinese scholars, that is, Neo-Confucianism, which is a synthesis of the so-called “Three Teachings”—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. It is precisely because they were completely comfortable doing this that they called themselves Huiru, “Muslim Confucianists.”
Wang Daiyu tells us in the introduction to his Real Commentary that several centuries had passed since the time his ancestors had settled down in China. More recent generations of Muslims had lost their mother tongue and could not read their own literature. He was motivated to write his book because he feared that his co-religionists would gradually lose touch with their intellectual heritage and become indistinguishable from other Chinese. He also refers to the fact that some of the contemporary ulama had criticized him, saying there was no need to write in Chinese. Why should he use that language, even quoting from Confucius and Mencius, when everything was explained perfectly in Persian and Arabic? Wang responded that without writing in Chinese, it would be impossible to convey Islamic teachings to those who had gone through the standard Chinese education and had no knowledge of the Islamic languages.
The second major author of this school, Liu Zhi , was probably the best known and most widely read of the Muslim Confucianists. He was born about 1670, that is, a dozen or so years after the death of Wang Daiyu. In the introductions to some of his books, he explains his motive for writing in Chinese. He tells us that his father, with whom he studied the Islamic classics from a young age, always regretted the fact that his Chinese was not good enough to translate Islamic books. When his father died, Liu Zhi began a serious study of the Confucian classics. He isolated himself from society, and spent ten years in a mountain forest studying them along with the classics of Daoism and Buddhism. It was during this time, he says, that “I suddenly came to understand that the Islamic classics have by and large the same purport as Confucius and Mencius.”2 He concluded that, if Islam was not going to remain an isolated and provincial tradition, Muslim scholars had the duty to acquaint themselves with Chinese learning and to speak to educated Chinese—whether they be Muslims or non-Muslims—in the universal language of Chinese civilization. This is what he means when he writes,
Although I am indeed a scholar of Islamic Learning, I privately venture to say that unless there is an exhaustive prying into the [Chinese] Classics and the Histories and a wide inquiry into the hundred families of books, Islamic Learning will stay in a corner and not become public learning under heaven.3
Thus we see that Liu Zhi, like Wang Daiyu and other authors of the Han Kitab, studied the Chinese classics for the same reason that Muslims who want to write about Islam in English need to be familiar with English literature and Western thought. One large difference, however, is that the Chinese Muslims recognized that the Confucian tradition was rooted in prophetic wisdom, and they saw no basic contradiction between Neo-Confucian and Islamic learning. The same thing cannot be said about Muslims writing in the modern world, given that the fundamental viewpoints of the main streams of modern thought are intensely antagonistic toward all forms of religious thought, whether Muslim, Confucian, or Christian. For the Han Kitab, however, Confucianism was a legitimate prophetic tradition, even if, in their view, it needed to be supplemented by Islamic teachings. Indeed, an underlying theme of Liu Zhi’s book is to show that the Muslim worldview, though it has “the same purport as Confucius and Mencius,” is superior to it in the completeness of its metaphysical, cosmological, and spiritual vision. It is not without reason that he and other Muslim scholars, though they called Confucius “the sage” in traditional Chinese fashion, referred to the Prophet of Islam as “the utmost sage.”
Liu Zhi wrote many treatises, but he is most famous for three books that can be called “The Tianfang Trilogy.” Tianfang , the first word in the title of all three books, means “heavenly square” or “heavenly direction.” The word was commonly used to refer to Mecca, the central Muslim lands, and the Islamic tradition itself. In these books, Liu Zhi deals successively with three basic dimensions of Islamic teachings. Hence he tells us that although he wrote and published them as different books, they are in fact one book.
The title of the first book, which we have recently translated into English, is Tianfang xingli . It was also one of the most important, if not the single most important, text on Islamic teachings in the Chinese language, republished many times in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Literally, Tianfang xingli means “Nature and Principle in Islam.” “Nature and Principle” refers to Neo-Confucianism, which is often called xingli xue , that is, “the learning about nature and principle,” because of the central role of these two terms in Neo-Confucian thought. With this name Liu Zhi is announcing that he is presenting the intellectual roots of the Islamic tradition in terms of standard Chinese concepts. The topics of the book are precisely the underlying issues of Neo-Confucianism, that is, metaphysics, or the nature of the ultimate reality; cosmology, or the nature of the manifest reality that appears from the Ultimate Reality; and spiritual psychology, or the nature of the human soul and its final perfection, a perfection that is achieved by re-integration into the Ultimate Reality.
The second book of the Liu Zhi’s Trilogy is called Tianfang dianli , “Rules and Proprieties of Islam.” It addresses the basic practices of Islam, that is, the Shariah. It is not a book on jurisprudence, however, because it does not go into the nit-picking details typical of the juridical approach. Rather, it provides an overview of Islamic practices, such as the Five Pillars, and then explains the wisdom underlying them in terms of the quest for human perfection. One of the most prominent of its many topics is the so-called “Five Relationships,” which are fundamental to Confucian spiritual and social thinking and which, in Liu’s understanding, are equally important in the Islamic tradition. In the first, introductory chapter, he spends a good deal of time talking about the common origins of the Islamic and Confucian traditions and the fact that they concur on the necessity of ritual action in conformity with Heaven. For example, he writes,
What is recorded in the books of Islam is no different from what is in the Confucian canon. Observing and practicing the proprieties of Islam is like observing and practicing the teachings of the ancient sages and kings.
The third volume of Liu Zhi’s Trilogy is called Tianfang zhisheng shilu , “The True Record of the Utmost Sage of Islam.” This is a biography of the Prophet that aims to show how he embodied the intellectual and practical teachings set down in the first two books of the Trilogy. As Liu Zhi puts it, the book explains that the Prophet in his very person was “the profound origin of both the teaching and the way.” On the whole, this book is much more accessible than the first two, because it is posed in terms of narratives and tales about the Prophet’s life, with an emphasis on miraculous and wondrous events.
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Let me now provide a brief description of Liu Zhi’s “Nature and Principle in Islam.” It is divided into six main parts, the first of which is called “the Root Classic” (benjing ). This is quite short, about 1600 characters or ten pages in five brief chapters. Appended to it are ten diagrams illustrating the basic ideas discussed in the text. For example, the foundational notion of “Being” (you ), which is Ultimate Reality in Itself, is represented as an empty circle.
Following the Root Classic, each of the five parts of the book elaborates on one of the Root Classic’s five chapters by providing twelve more diagrams. Each diagram is supplemented by a detailed explanation of its meaning and significance. Altogether, the book has seventy diagrams, sixty of which are explained in detail.
By calling the first part of the book “the Root Classic,” Liu Zhi wants to say that it is a compilation of “classic” Islamic texts in translation, and that the rest of the book is an explanation and commentary on these texts. The word jing or classic is used in Chinese for the great texts of Chinese civilization, such as the Yijing and the Daodejing. Muslims employed the same term to refer to the Koran and the Hadith, and they also used it to designate important books by great Muslim authorities. In this case, Liu Zhi had in mind six specific books, from which he translated the passages compiled as the Root Classic. He indicates the name of each book in marginal notes when he quotes from it. There are a total of eighty-six citations from the six classics, which means that each quotation is very brief. Many of them are as short as eight characters, and the longest is a little over one hundred.
Surprisingly, perhaps, these six Muslim classics do not include the Koran or Hadith. The bulk of the citations are from four Persian Sufi texts. Two of these were written by Kubrawī authors in the thirteenth century: Mirṣād al-ʿibād of Najm al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1256) and Maqṣad-i aqṣā of ʿAzīz Nasafī (d. ca. 1295). Two more were written by the famous Naqshbandī teacher and poet ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492): Lawāʾiḥ and Ashiʿat al-lamaʿāt. All of these books have long been recognized as important and influential throughout the Persianate world. Three have been translated into English, and the fourth is a commentary on Fakhr al-Dīn ʿIrāqī’s Lamaʿāt, which has also been translated. The least cited texts are both Arabic. One is al-Mawāqif fī ʿilm al-kalām, a well-known book in dogmatic theology by ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 1355), and the other the Koran commentary of al-Bayḍāwī (d. ca. 1300).
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I said that the basic topics of the book are metaphysics, cosmology, and spiritual psychology. By using these terms, I am choosing English words that can easily cover the contents of the book, whether we consider it a contribution to Confucian thought, or an expression of Islamic thought, or an exercise in comparative religion. These words, however, will pose a problem for some people. They will most likely react by saying, “But this is not Islam, it is Sufism,” or “It is philosophy.” This would be an extremely short-sighted response. Let me say something about how one can reply to it.
If we try to find appropriate Arabic terminology for the subject matter of Liu Zhi’s book, we can say that he is explicating the three basic principles of Islamic faith, upon which all Muslim theology is based. These three principles are of course tawḥīd, nubuwwa, and maʿād—Divine Unity, Prophecy, and the Return to God. The difference between this book and books on the same topics written in Arabic, Persian, and other languages is that none of the standard terminology is used. The three principles are not explained in the technical language of Kalam, or Islamic philosophy, or the Koranic symbolism favored by the Sufis. Instead, the principles are presented in terms of the grand edifice of Neo-Confucian thought, with its deep roots in the teachings of the ancient Chinese sages. The reason that it is possible to do so is because these principles, especially tawḥīd, are basic to human thought in all the great traditions, even if they are often presented in terminology unrecognizable to most Muslims.4
Let me finish by giving a brief description of the topics of the five chapters of the Root Classic, chapters that are elaborated upon in detail in the rest of the book. The first chapter addresses what Liu Zhi calls “the Sequence of the Ongoing Flow of the Creative Transformation in the Macrocosm.” It sets down the overall scheme of what Islamic texts often call mabdaʾ wa maʿād, “the Origin and the Return.” This, in turn, is simply an elaboration of the principle of tawḥīd. Given that the Ultimate Reality is one, all apparent reality must come from this Reality and return to it. However, discussion of the Origin and the Return deals not simply with the structure of the cosmos, but also with an exposition of the human role within the cosmos. Spiritual anthropology is inseparable from cosmology.
In discussing maʿād, or the Return to God, many Islamic texts expand on teachings found in the Koran and the Hadith concerning the end of time, the Last Day, Resurrection, Judgment, and paradise and hell. Many other texts, however, distinguish between the compulsory return, which everyone experiences by dying and being resurrected, and the voluntary return, which is the path of achieving human perfection in this life. Kalam and dogmatics look mainly at the compulsory Return. In contrast, philosophy and Sufism have been equally or more concerned with the voluntary Return. In order to explicate the nature of the human soul’s return to God, however, we need to understand the nature of its emergence from God, so the Origin must be discussed along with the Return. Liu Zhi stands in this tradition of Islamic thought. He has practically nothing to say about death and resurrection, but focuses instead on the becoming of the human soul and its achievement of perfection by establishing unity with God.
In Chapter 1, Liu Zhi outlines the overall scheme of Origin and Return. He concludes by saying,
The great transformation follows a circle;
when the end is fully realized, it returns to the beginning.
Since only humans
grasp uniquely the original essence,
they are subtly united with the original Real.5
In other words, human beings alone have the capacity to achieve the final realization of tawḥīd, in which all things are seen to be re-integrated with God.
In Chapter 2, Liu Zhi addresses the nature of the human soul and the diverse types of human being in terms of their relationship with the universe as a whole. Much of the chapter is taken up with enumerating the various ranks of sages and worthies, that is, prophets and saints.
In Chapter 3, Liu Zhi explains that all human beings traverse a series of stages that parallel the development of the universe as a whole. Beginning in the womb, they gradually ascend on the path of the Return, going through mineral, plant, and animal stages, until they are born in human form. Once their external, physical make-up is established, they begin the process of developing their internal, psychological and spiritual faculties. The ultimate goal is to achieve the human perfections that became manifest in the sages.
Chapter 4 addresses the nature of the spiritual faculties inherent in human beings, especially the heart (Arabic qalb, Persian dil, Chinese xin ). Liu Zhi explains that the goal of life can only be achieved by cultivating the body, the soul, and the spirit in keeping with the model established by the Utmost Sage on the three levels of Propriety (li ), the Dao , and the Real (zhen ). These three terms, basic to Chinese thought, translate Sharīʿa, Ṭarīqa, and Ḥaqīqa—the Law, the Path, and the Reality. This tripartite division of the Islamic tradition had been commonplace in later Sufism and became standard in the Han Kitab. Both Rāzī and Nasafī discuss it early on in their books.
Finally, Chapter 5 describes the ultimate human perfection, or the full realization of tawḥīd. Let me conclude by quoting the last few lines of the Root Classic to provide another taste of the text:
The [three] Ones come home to the Root Suchness,
and heaven and humans are undifferentiatedly transformed.
The things and the I’s come home to the Real,
and the Real One circles back to the Real.
The things are not obstructed by the guises,
and humans are not burdened by desire.
The subtle meaning of each is disclosed
and thereby the Root Suchness is seen.
In the beginning was the True Principle
and now is the True Guise.
When the True Being is seen as Guise,
the seed and fruit are complete.6