The sun rising in Linxia, Gansu province, China. Islam enriched and invigorated China during the early 18th century. REUTERS PIC

ACCORDING to traditional Chinese Muslim narratives, the earliest Chinese contact with Islam was reported to be some years after Prophet Muhammad’s passing, when His companion, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (674), and three others travelled to China.

This was documented by accomplished Chinese Muslim scholar Liu Sanjie and his son, the famed expounder of Sufi metaphysics, Liu Zhi (1739).

Other major Muslim personalities who made an impact on the cultural legacy of Islam in Chinese history include Syed Umar Shams al-Din (Sayyid al-Ajall) (1279). He was said to be the 27th generation of Prophet Muhammad’s descendent and a highly regarded Muslim official during the Yuan Dynasty.

He was appointed imperial minister of finance, as recorded by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Sayyid al-Ajall was subsequently tasked with governing Yunnan and was described by one contemporary historian to have brought “civilisation” to Yunnan.

Sayyid al-Ajall not only propagated Islam through his words and deeds, but also promoted the praiseworthy elements of the indigenous tradition that were compatible with Islam’s teachings. He strengthened the solidarity of the community through the establishment of Confucius schools.

During the Ming Dynasty, Muslims gained unprecedented acceptance at the highest level.

Islam’s prominence in this period is perhaps best encapsulated in the One Hundred Words of Praise by Emperor Hongwu (1398), founder of Ming Dynasty in 1368.

It was during the Qing period, however, that saw the emergence of Chinese Muslim theologians, metaphysicians and thinkers who created a distinctive philosophical school, later named the “Han Kitab” tradition.

Han Kitab sought to Islamise Confucian thought without rejecting the praiseworthy elements of the Confucian tradition, which had begun with Wang Daiyu (1660) who was regarded as a saint during the Qing period.

Imperial recognition of Islam continued even after a century in the Ming Dynasty, based on the imperial edict by Emperor Zheng-de (1522), as recorded by Wang Daiyu (1660) in his Zhengjiao Zhenquan (Genuine Interpretation of the Right Teaching).

The next great man during the Qing Dynasty is Ma Zhu (1710). He was educated in the Neo-Confucian and Islamic tradition. His masterpiece, the voluminous Qingzhen Zhinan (al-Murshid ila ‘Ulum al-Islam, or the Guide to the Sciences of Islam) was intended for non-Muslim elites and Muslims literate in Chinese.

He, too, described Prophet Muhammad as a sage (sheng), adding that he was the “culmination of the achievements of the 10 thousand generations of former (Chinese) sages”.

The most profound figure in the intellectual history of China is Liu Zhi.

At 15 years old, and for the next 15 years, he read up on Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islamic classics. Liu Zhi perhaps represented the intensified phase of Islamisation in China. In his biography of Prophet Muhammad (Veritable Account of the Utmost Sage), he described the Prophet as the “most sagely” of all sages.

The intellectual and spiritual or cultural legacy of Islam in China showed that Islamisation was not rejected by the Chinese. It enriched and invigorated the people with spiritual, social and cultural refinement.

The Islamisation through language and thought as undertaken by sino-Muslim sages, such as Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi, illustrated the possibility of building bridges with traditions such as Confucianism.

Therefore, for a more enlightened future, we need a deeper understanding of the traditions based on what was best represented by the scholars.

MUHAMMAD SYAFIQ BORHANNUDDIN

Senior research officer, Centre
for Economics and Social Studies, Malaysian Institute of Islamic
Understanding