Sino-Islamic Intellectual Tradition, 16th-19th C.

A review of The Great Transformation: Contours of the Sino-Islamic Intellectual Tradition, by Kristian Petersen.

Kristian Petersen’s dissertation, “The Great Transformation: Contours of the Sino-Islamic Intellectual Tradition,” tackles a moment of significant change in the Sino-Muslim community. The concept of a unique Sino-Islamic tradition is not new to scholarship, having been established by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s The Dao of Mohammed and the works of Sachiko Murata and William Chittick (whom Petersen cites). As such, we have known for some time that Ming-Qing-era scholars like Liu Zhi produced a corpus of scholarship (the Han Kitab) that expounded upon the Muslim worldview on various topics yet aimed exclusively at those steeped in the language and ideology of Confucian orthodoxy. Liu Zhi, Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu and others have come to be known as “Confucian Muslims” or Hui-Ru in English-language scholarship. Petersen’s dissertation aims to ground our understanding of Confucian Muslims within the the context of the broader Muslim world and its relationship to Arabic. Petersen does this by considering the written work of Wang Daiyu, Liu Zhi and Ma Dexin, three Sino-Muslim scholars whose engagement with Arabic texts and intellectual traditions from Persia, the Middle East and elsewhere returned an Arabic authenticity to the Chinese Muslim experience. This was an authenticity partially based on an emphasis on the necessity for Chinese Muslims to perform the pilgrimage (hajj) and to reflect on its importance. The hajj is therefore one of the principal tenets that Petersen focuses on. By Petersen’s admission, the dissertation devotes more time to analyzing Ma Dexin’s works than those of Liu or Wang. He does this to show how Ma Dexin was unique in the Sino-Muslim intellectual tradition and to highlight the “nuances of his methodological and theoretical creativity” (p. 6). Moreover, Petersen observes that scholarship has paid little attention to Ma Dexin or has glibly referred to him as the religious force behind the Panthay rebellion. He does note, however, that Ma’s treatment by Chinese scholars has been more thorough.

Petersen’s first chapter, after the introduction, is an overview of the historical factors leading to Islam’s transmission to China. Principally, he covers periods in which Muslim traders became part of Chinese society through residence and intermarriage in the Song dynasty, in addition to the famous Muslim officials of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. These histories left a rich tradition for Sino-Muslims, recorded not only on the parchments of the official imperial record, but also in stone at various Muslim graveyards in trading centers like Quanzhou and Guangzhou. This is a story familiar to scholars of Chinese Islam yet provides a quick overview to those who may be reading about the topic for the first time.

Chapter two brings us to Petersen’s central figure of Ma Dexin (1794-1874), while also introducing the reader to Liu Zhi (1670-1724) and Wang Daiyu (1590-1658). Their major works are briefly listed and described before Petersen proceeds to his explanation of Ma Dexin’s use of Arabic and his methods of making the original language understandable to Chinese Muslims. Ma Dexin is prominent to Petersen, in contrast to Liu and Wang, due to his extensive time living and traveling in the Middle East, which, naturally, led to his strong command of the Arabic language. Ma Dexin was not, of course, the first Sino-Muslim of the early-modern era to sojourn in the geographic heartland of the faith. We can turn to the eighteenth century for examples. Ma Laichi (ca. 1681-ca. 1766) of Hezhou, Gansu, is believed to have taken the journey in 1728 and returned to convert many, including Tibetans, to the Islamic faith. Ma Mingxin (ca. 1719-1781) returned to China in 1761 from studying in Yemen and formed the Jahriyya menhuan or sufi line. (Incidentally, Mingxin’s stay in Yemen failed to overlap with Laichi’s by only a few decades, yet they returned with very different interpretations of how the sufi dhikr should be performed.) There were also others like Ma Wanfu, who spent 1888-1892 in Arabia and returned to launch China’s yihewani movement, and Wang Haoran, who traveled there repeatedly in the early twentieth century. I call attention to Ma Laichi and Ma Mingxin in particular because they preceded Ma Dexin yet appear to have had no influence on him or his approach to presenting Islam to Chinese Muslims. For example, both Ma Zhu and Liu Zhi shared their writings within the scholarly community of the day. It is curious that Ma Dexin reflected little on the experience of his coreligionists who had performed the hajj before him. One also wonders about Ma Dexin’s students Ma Lianyuan (1841-1903) and Ma Anli (d. 1899) and the intellectual discourse that obtained between them and Gansu Muslims, especially since Petersen reports that both Lianyuan and Anli continued Dexin’s practice of directly using Arabic words or translating them into the Chinese/Confucian context in which Chinese Muslims operated. Liu Zhi’s writing and approach to Islam was certainly channeled by Chinese Muslims of all stripes, so it would be surprising if the equally productive Ma Dexin did not have a similar impact.

The dissertation then turns to the textual analysis of Ma Dexin’s works as well as those of Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi in an approach similar to that used by Petersen’s undergraduate teachers Sachiko Murata and William Chittick in Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light and The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. A close reading of this nature allows one to identify the intellectual forebears and the source behind the precise style and terminology that writers like Ma Dexin used. This is particularly valuable since writers of the Han Kitab drew on many, often untraceable sources in their efforts to elucidate Islam for the benefit of their coreligionists and a very skeptical Confucian bureaucracy. At the same time, persons of historical note like Ma Laichi, Ma Mingxin and Ma Wanfu did not leave us as much written text and it is perhaps in this way that they differ most significantly from the likes of Ma Dexin. However, Ma Dexin was such a prolific author that even if major Gansu Muslim leaders had published more consistently they may not have been able to match him for sheer volume of output. Petersen lists some thirteen of Ma Dexin’s works in Chinese, these being a combination of his own treatises, distillations of the Han Kitab and non-Chinese Muslim authors or translations of foreign Muslim works. Ma Dexin’s fluency in Arabic is reflected in the fact that he published twelve works of various length in that language (pp. 69-71).

Petersen then analyzes three additional famous works by Ma Dexin. The author is principally interested in how Ma Dexin treats Islamic tenets of the faith and his own pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as Ma Dexin’s methodology in translating parts of the Qurʾān into Chinese. These three foci occupy Petersen for the balance of the dissertation. Petersen begins by observing that “Ma was generally troubled by what he perceived to be the level of religious knowledge among his Sino-Muslim neighbors” (p. 73). Although this caused Ma Dexin to clearly separate orthodoxy from heterodoxy in his interpretation of Islam, it appears that he did not take more active measures to reform the apparent backwardness of his coreligionists. Ma Dexin’s complaints that Chinese Muslims did not really know or understand their faith well were not uncommon among educated ahong and returned hajjis, resulting in many of those returnees forming new sects to reform the degenerate. It appears that Ma Dexin, however, was content to hope that his writing would inspire something among his readers in China without being proactive in promulgating it. Most usefully, Petersen explicates the Chinese terms Ma Dexin used to explain concepts and how some of those terms connected to traditional Confucian, Buddhist or Daoist concepts already well-understood and prevalent throughout China (pp. 74-85).

In chapter three Petersen discusses a principal tenet of Islam, the pilgrimage, and how Wang, Liu and Ma presented their ideas on the topic. As Petersen states, the hajj signifies “the nostalgic yearning to transcend the mundane and become closer to God” (p. 92). Petersen’s lengthy treatment of what Liu Zhi wrote on the hajj is particularly useful for those seeking to know what Han Kitab scholars thought about this key Islamic tenet. Liu Zhi’s account distinguishes itself through its “passionate endorsement” of a pilgrimage experience that Liu never had. He explained that the physical movement from “one’s mundane setting to the sacred center” was akin to the change that one experienced when approaching God. Despite all this adulation for the wonders of the hajj, Liu may perhaps be credited with making the qurban festival, at the end of the hajj, a worthy substitute for those Chinese Muslims who could not make the pilgrimage (p. 111). In Peterson’s estimation, Ma Dexin’s record of his journey to Mecca and the time he spent in various lands gives the reader a glimpse into his feelings and the change that the hajj wrought in him.

Chapter four considers Petersen’s main authors’ ideas regarding the Qurʾān, and specifically the manner in which they translated Qurʾānic concepts for their Chinese readers and the pre-existing traditions in China that they drew on in this process. Petersen first posits that early renderings of parts of the Qurʾān into Chinese influenced later full translations. Wang Daiyu’s treatment of the text, Petersen tells us, suggests that he discounted the ability of his novice students to comprehend the complexity of the Qurʾān – i.e., that he had a fairly elitist understanding of scripture. To explicate the reception of the Qurʾān in China, Petersen relies on contemporary Chinese scholarship. From the secondary literature and his own reading, Petersen shows us how Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi used the “extraction method” in their translation of the Qurʾān, which interspersed commentary on the text with their own writing. Significantly, they chose individual verses not to present an overall message of the text but rather to enforce their own interpretation of Islamic thought (p. 135). Petersen pointedly calls Wang’s approach “unsystematic” and questions his “general aptitude for Islamic learning” (p. 143). He also raises an interesting point about the conflation of terms in Wang Daiyu’s writing, in particular his usage of the word jing for the entire corpus of Islamic writing. Of course, in the Chinese tradition, Petersen rightly states that the term jing was used for any celebrated text. One wonders if Wang Daiyu’s conflation of hadith and Qurʾānic writings under the term jing reflects more on his shortcomings as a scholar or on the lack of intercourse between China and the Muslim world at this time. Indeed, it is easy to conclude that if the Chinese were more engaged with debates among Islamic scholars, such a broad conflation would be unlikely. His criticism of Wang aside, Petersen holds Liu Zhi and Ma Dexin in higher esteem for their more systematic approach. Petersen’s close reading of Ma Dexin’s work is evident in this chapter where he explicates even the Sanskrit roots of the Chinese terms that Ma Dexin employed and generally shows his command of common Confucian and Daoist concepts like dao (pp. 161-173). He also argues that that Ma’s translation, incomplete at his death, was truer to the non-linear, irregular nature of the Qurʾān. Ma Dexin’s expertise aside, his more complete understanding of the Qurʾān and fuller mastery of Arabic is unsurprising, given that Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi did not spend any time in the Middle East. Petersen closes this chapter by relating such approaches to the Qurʾān to the broader trajectory of Sino-Islamic intellectual history.

Finally, chapter five explores the role of language, and specifically Arabic terms, and each author’s motivations in using them. The combination of Arabic terms and the Chinese language created “a new interpretative framework for understanding Islam” (p. 181). The use of Arabic in some capacity was not uncommon in Chinese Muslim communities, of course, but Petersen draws attention to changes in such usage. As in previous chapters, the author begins chapter five by first considering the writings of Wang Daiyu. Even for Wang Daiyu, whose Arabic appears to be the weakest of the three, the use of Arabic terminology was critically important. Wang, for example, defines the relationship between God and his creation with terms like tawhid (C. taoheide), and wahdat (C. wahadete), both indicating God’s oneness. While Liu Zhi’s approach does not differ significantly from Wang Daiyu’s, his brilliance and fastidiousness is evident in his explanations of why he chose a particular Chinese term to translate an Arabic concept (p. 192). Naturally, as a religious scholar, Liu Zhi also wrote extensively about stories and personages presented in the Qurʾān as well as passages describing Mecca and the Ka‘ba, and Petersen provides extensive translated examples of such passages. He also translates passages wherein Liu analyzes the linguistic features of the Arabic alphabet and their “receptive and creative entities within the cosmos” (p. 206). Petersen likewise quotes extensively from Ma Dexin’s writing. These numerous passages show that the nature and texture of Liu and Ma’s respective outputs was often of a philosophical or mystical nature. Petersen, for example, quotes a long passage from Ma Dexin in which he synthesizes Arabic astronomy with Chinese calendrical systems with a view toward demonstrating “the continued contribution of the Islamic sciences to Chinese civilization” (p. 213).

In sum, Petersen demonstrates how the use of Arabic as an authoritative linguistic discourse gave Sino-Muslims the ability to participate in Islamic scholarship from around the world (p. 227). Arabic “aided in the formation of an authentic form of Islam which reflected notions of fidelity, inclusion and identity” (p. 239). In particular, Petersen shows Ma Dexin to have been one of the most effective agents of this process, especially given the propagation of his methodology by his students.

Jomo R. Smith
Department of History
University of California-San Diego

Primary Sources

Liu Zhi 劉 智: Tianfang dianli 天方典禮 ,Tianfang zimu jieyi 天方字母解譯
Ma Dexin 馬德新: Baoming zhenjing zhijie 寶命真經直解, Chaojin Tuji 朝覲途記, Sidian Yaohui 四典要會, Benjing wuzhang yijie 本經五章譯解, Huanyu Shuyao 寰宇述要, Lixue Zhezhong 理學折衷, Mingde jing 明德經, Tianfang Liyuan 天方曆源
Wang Daiyu 王岱輿: Zhengjiao zhenquan 政教正詮, Qingzhen daxue 清真大學, Xizhen zhengda 希真正答

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2012. 278 pp. Primary Advisor: Joel Walker.


Image: Photograph by calligrapher Haji Noor Deen.


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