For many the world over, Islam has become synonymous with terrorism, separatism, and instability. News outlets and popular commentators, especially in the West, draw a clear line connecting Islam with conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and beyond. An apparently unending Muslim desire to wage war on the ‘unbeliever’ is widely accepted and read into international conflicts, civil wars, and unspeakable acts of terrorism worldwide. No one, it seems, is safe.
But, as any Chinese Muslim will tell you, this image of Islam is incompatible with reality. Rather than a harbinger of death, Islam is a religion of peace, the foundation of a rich and diverse civilisation that, over the last 1,500 years, has spread to every corner of the globe, encountering and peacefully co-existing with innumerable other cultures and belief systems, including in China. Modern negative stereotypes of a violent Islam are difficult to reconcile with the wider vista of Islamic history, which is characterised by religious and cultural plurality, whether in the Islamic heartlands of the Middle East or as far away as China.
In China, Islam’s ability to co-exist with others has also extended into the political realm. Throughout history, Muslims have consistently lived side-by-side with others and, when necessary, showed a willingness to obey non-Muslim rulers. Today, the most obvious examples of this phenomenon are in the West, where Muslim communities have embedded themselves in society, participating in local political processes, including as representatives of the people. A no less important historical example, however, comes from early modern China.
Over the seventeenth century, a unique brand of Islam sprang up across China. Known as the Han Kitab (lit. ‘Chinese Islamic books’), it was authored by literati members of China’s Sinicized hui-hui community who centred their teachings around the Qur’anic concept of din al-fitra (lit. ‘the natural religion’), used to denote the ‘correct religion’ ordained by God (see Q.30:30). Although perfected in the Qur’an, according to Islamic teachings this ‘correct religion’ also constituted the core of several earlier messages sent to the peoples of all nations by a series of (usually unidentified) prophets who came before Muhammad (Q.10:47). The hui-hui used a close analysis of Neo-Confucian thought to argue that Confucius was such a bearer of din al-fitra. Although they maintained that Islam was more pristine than Neo-Confucianism, the hui-hui sought to establish an equivalency between the key concepts of each tradition, to demonstrate that at the core of each beat the same heart. On this basis, the Han Kitab evolved into an early example of ecumenical thought. It also led to a number of important intellectual developments, of which the political thought of Ma Zhu (d.ca.1710) is particularly noteworthy.
Ma Zhu argued that the common core found within Neo-Confucianism and Islam made it incumbent on Muslims to pledge their allegiance to the non-Muslim Chinese Emperor. In other words, because the Emperor was charged with enforcing the Neo-Confucian concept of justice (li, or Principle), seen by Ma Zhu as equivalent to the values underlying Islamic law (shari’ah), so long as the Emperor continued to uphold those basic moral values, Muslims had a religious duty to support him.
This argument is highly significant. Contemporary expressions of Islamic extremism, often rooted in Salafi thought, selectively interpret Islamic sources to vehemently oppose any and all political (or other) association between Muslims and non-Muslims. For them, the Arabic phrase al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loyalty [to Muslims] and disavowal [from non-Muslims]) is paramount. There has never, however, been any juristic consensus prohibiting Muslims from living under non-Muslim rule. Indeed, history frequently demonstrates a willingness on the part of Muslims to do so, with Ma Zhu presenting us with a coherent and well-expressed statement of this position. Using the concept of din al-fitra, Ma Zhu argued that the equivalency between Neo-Confucian and Islamic moral principles made it mandatory for Muslims to support any Chinese Emperor who upheld those values. The contrary position – to disobey a just ruler and sow discord in the land – would be to oppose both shari’ah and Neo-Confucian Principle.
In this regard, Ma Zhu’s work is of considerable contemporary relevance. With the onset of Salafi extremism, Islam faces an existential crisis; Salafi extremism’s acutely essentialist worldview has challenged Islam’s long tradition of peaceful co-existence with other faiths. ISIS, for example, consistently sought to divide Muslims from non-Muslims in every sphere of life, including the political. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph in 2014, for example, he professed himself to be the only legitimate political authority for all Muslims, everywhere.
Ma Zhu’s work, however, is diametrically opposed to this perspective. It is also (and most importantly) entirely Islamic: Ma Zhu’s accommodative stance does not derive from syncretism, hybridity, secular borrowings, or anything else which could be construed as a dilution of Islamic belief. Rather, it stems from the entirely Islamic concept of din al-fitra. It is therefore a genuinely Islamic means of delegitimising extremist Islamic ideology and, as such, should be brought to the fore as an aid in the fight against it.
Dr. Alexander Wain, Associate Research Fellow, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia and Member, China and Muslim World Co-operation Research (CMWCR). He earned his DPhil from the University of Oxford, UK, specialising in the history of Islam in South-east Asia. His DPhil research focused on the possible role of Chinese Muslims in the conversion of the Malay world to Islam. Recently he contributed two chapters, one on the Maritime Silk Route and the other on the Han Kitab, to the book Islam In China: History, Spread and Culture, published from Malaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org