Academic Year 2004-2005
Ridwan Khan (Second Place) ESSAY:
LOOKING EAST:
THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF CHINESE ISLAM RIDWAN KHAN
1/23/05
Page 4/11
 
 

Zheng He’s story illustrates the changing position of Chinese Muslims during the Ming dynasty.  According to Donald Leslie they “changed from being ‘Muslims in China’ to ‘Chinese Muslims’” (Leslie 105).  He didn’t work for pan-Islamic interests.  Instead, most of He’s naval journeys were in service of the Chinese court.  On a more general level, one group of Chinese Muslims, the Hui, increased in Qingyang, Gansu, and Xian and spread into Yanan, Fengxiang, and Hanzhong provinces.  The spread of the Hui had unexpected results; the Persian and Arabic racial and cultural influence on Hui Islam became diluted as the Hui mixed more with the Han Chinese.  To keep Islam alive in their communities, the Hui were forced to translate the Qu’ran and other major Islamic texts from Arabic and Persian into Chinese.  The era saw new expressions of Islam in China as well; Sufi Islam came into China from India, as the Chinese scholar Zhang Zhong received instruction from the Sufi teacher Ashgar.  Islam was so pervasive during the era that the first Ming emperor even had eleven Muslims working as astronomers to reform the Chinese calendar and in 1368 proclaimed that “Semuren [another catch all term for Muslims] who were talented and able were to be chosen for official employment” (Dillon 28).  The 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta reports, “During my stay in [Ming] China, whenever I saw any Muslims I always felt as though I were meeting my own family and close kinsmen” (Dunn 258).  The reports travelers like Battuta brought back to the Middle East influenced on Islamic society as well; the story of Aladdin in The Arabian Nights, now emblematic of Arab culture, was originally set in a far off, mystical China.   

Especially interesting in the Ming dynasty is the Islamic scholarship conducted by Chinese Muslims.  The era saw Nanjing become an important center of Islamic study.  From there Wang Daiyu wrote Zhengjiao zhenquan (A Commentary on the Orthodox Faith), while his successor, Liu Zhi, translated Tianfang xingli (Islamic Philosophy) Tianfang dianli (Islamic Ritual) and Tianfang zhisheng shilu (The Last Prophet of Islam).  Another scholar, Hu Dengzhou started a rigorous Islamic school in Nanjing, which taught hadith, the Qu’ran, and Islamic law.  The school grew into a fourteen-course system, with classes in Arabic and Persian (Dillon 37).  Other provinces had different systems and different specializations; Lintao and Hezhou provinces had a three-tier educational system in which the youngest children learned the Arabic required for namaz and wudu, and then graduated to more advanced studies.  Shandong province became a center specialized in Persian texts.  As the Hui Muslim community became more diluted, Chinese scholars worked harder to translate texts into Chinese to “both provide more texts for Muslims [and]… to convince [the ruling Han elite] that Islam was not inferior to Confucianism” (Dillon 48).    

However, the vibrancy of the Ming dynasty Islam was replaced by hostility when the Manchu took over China.  The Manchu, themselves ethnic minorities from the north, exploited differences between the Mongols, Han, Tibetans, and Muslims in China in order to rule the country.  During the more than 250 years of the Manchu’s Qing dynasty, the Chinese government waged five wars against Chinese Muslims in which there was much bloodshed.  During these rebellions, Muslim groups “could, with justification, fear genocide” (Dillon xix).  Indeed,

The low population [of Muslims during the Qing] was a result of the extermination of whole communities…and their replacement by non-Muslim Chinese from other provinces, a policy the Qing and its successor governments were also to put into practice in Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Tibet “ (Dillon 76).