Wednesday, August 10, 2005
As many of you know the Hui are the people of China who look and speak like the Han (Chinese proper) of their local region, but happen to be Muslim. But, the People's Republic defines them as a nationality, not a religion, so their identity is a bit confused because what separates them from the Han is solely their religion and the customs and traditions that are inferred from that adherence. If you read the article at the above link you will note a peculiar tendency of the Hui: the closer they are to the heart of China (the Han dominated eastern half of the nation) the less "Chinese" they feel, but the further they are from Han regions (in Xinjiang or Tibet for example), the more "Chinese" they feel. It was a Muslim who actuallly pacified Yunnan and opened the way for its subsequent Sinicization, and it was a Hui warlord who administered (often brutally) the Muslim Turks of Xinjiang during the first half of the 20th century.
To me, the Hui are interesting because they are a Muslim population of ancient lineage that has perpetuated itself in a profoundly non-Muslim milieu for at least 700 years.1 The Hui interaction with the non-Muslim majority, their status as a nation (they are termed the "Hui nation") within a nation, is I think relevant to contemporary issues outside of China. So it was with that in mind that I decided to read Dao of Muhammad, a cultural history of the eastern Hui literati during the 16th-18th centuries. Most of the book focuses on Islamic commentaries produced by eminently Chinese, but Muslim, scholars, collectively termed the Han Kitab. The Han Kitab serves as a textual looking glass into the minds of men who lived and believed as Chinese Muslims, predominantly during the period of the early to middle Qing (Manchu), a dynasty which was itself of foreign origin.
The narrative culminates in a chapter titled "Muhammad and his Dao," which highlights the peculiar and culturally contextualized paradigm and self-perception of the eastern Hui. These were men who were relatively isolated from the Ummah, unlike the Turkish speaking Muslims of the far west, and their day to day life was that of Chinese scholars, not Islamic ulema. It is therefore not particularly surprising that the Han Kitab highlights men who had reinterpreted Islam within the framework of Chinese intellectual history. For example, Muhammad is depicted as a "sage," rather than a "prophet." These semantical issues are important, because non-Chinese religions and cultures have often found it very difficult to translate the precise meaning of their own paradigm intelligibly to the Chinese (see some of the weirder "Christian" cults popping up in the Chinese countryside...shadings of Taiping Future). Many have argued that Chinese "Buddhism" is in fact more like Daoism than the Indo-Turanian religion that arrived via the Silk Road.2 In any case, the Muslim scholars of eastern China resolved this issue by simply recasting their religion in explicitly Chinese terms. Instead of an illiterate prophet who brought the Word of God down from the mountain, Muhammed was a sage, scholar and righteous king who "completed" the "Dao" in the "western lands" (Confucius is considered the "completer of the Dao" in Chinese tradition). Chinese textual sources that would have been second nature to mandarins were drafted into the argument, as assertions by Confucius and Mencius that barbarian (non-Chinese) peoples also produced sages were used to buttress their thesis about Muhammad. The practices of Muslims, the rituals, forms, prescriptions and proscribed practices, were justified as emulation of Muhammad, just as Confucian gentlemen walked in the path of Confucius. Here is a translation of what what one scholar had to say about the prophet/sage:
Furthermore, these Muslims conceived of their mosques as places for the study of Muhammad's Dao, so that the proper forms and manners would be maintained ("cultivating [of the Dao of Islam]"). There is much more in this vein which implies that these Muslim Chinese tended to view Islam as equivalent to Confucianism, they utilized the vocabulary and priorities of the latter to justify their adherence to the former. But this begs the quesiton, if Muhammad was a western sage, why did Chinese follow his Dao? The answer, is in part, very Confucian: many of these men claimed to be Sayyids (descendents of the prophet) or descendents of Muslims who had long settled in China. Their following the Dao of Islam was an act of filial piety, a perpetuation of customs, traditions and beliefs which were part of their patrimony. Islam was recast as a reverence for their ancestral heritage (explaining in part of the lack of interest in missionary work amongst the Han). By being good Muslims, following the Dao of their ancestors, they were keeping with the best traditions of Confucianism, and implicitly revering the social order which supported and legitimized the Emperor!3
The book stops around 1780, when the Quianlong Emperor diffused an attempted persecution of the Muslims by a court official. During the 19th century there were Muslim (Hui) rebellions in northwest China as well as Yunnan, and that was also a period when western influences, that is, from the Islamic lands of Turkestan, Persia and the Arab world, became a stronger force in Hui practice and belief. Nevertheless, as I've stated before, I believe that social consensus is a crucial factor in the formation of religious orthodoxy that often works under the guise of scholarship underpinned by analytic modes of inquiry. The Muslims of Han China, traditionally amongst the most isolated in relation to the Ummah are a nice illustration of this fact, as not only do they not engage in the Dar-al-Harb vs. Dar-al-Islam (very roughly, the Abode of War [non-Muslim lands] and the Above of Peace [Muslim lands]) talk common to other Muslim minorities who found themselves minorities to reconquista by Christians or Hindus, they legitimize their religion by attempting to establish the imprimatur it received from Chinese Emperors. The modern world is not that of the 16th-18th centuries, information travels very fast, and "cybernetworks" can span continents. Still, as my post about women's mosques in China highlights, there is still enough variance due to spatial separation that disparate social consenses can emerge. Additionally, modern identity formation is not dictated by the whim and unanimity of an elite caste, in places like the United States identity entrepreneurs can generate new combinations of traits which might not serve the interests of heads of cultural cartels. Only god knows what the future holds....
1 - The latest date for large scale Muslim settlement in lands dominated by the Han would be during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in the 13th century. The Hui themselves have legends which date their arrival during the Sui dynasty, during the life of Muhammed himself, though these are almost certainly mythological. It seems highly plausible though that the first Muslim communities in China date to the Tang dynasty, which flourished between 650 and 900 (which an apogee around 750).
2 - It took many generations before the Pali Canon and other Buddhist holy texts were translated into Chinese, in part because the task was so arduous as regards the precise mapping of Indian terms to Chinese ones. Many of the early Chinese perceptions of Buddhism was that it was simply a form of Daoism. Similarly, during later Chinese encounters with Christianity it was perceived that it might be a form of Buddhism (in part because the original Catholic missionaries dressed like Buddhist monks, a practice they ceased when they realized of the relative low esteem that the Confucian scholars held monks). Judaism, which was long practiced in the city of Kaifeng, was assumed to be a form of Islam with a few specific customs and habits (it was called the "Sinew Plucking Religion" because of the Jewish custom).
3 - They made copious (likely mythical) references to past Emperors who enjoined upon them the need to maintain their ancestral traditions and so perpetuate the Dao of Muhammad. Here again, they were legitimizing Islam in a Chinese manner.