Why Should We Study the East Asian Islamic Tradition?

This is an English translation of an interview Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto and Dr. Elvida Ünal gave to Merve Yiğit. It has been translated by the interviewer and edited by Traversing Tradition.

Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University in 2018. He specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Futuwwa and Introduction to Sufism: A Comparison with Shonen Manga.

Dr. Elvida Ünal completed her Ph.D. at Peking University in 2021. She specialized in Chinese Islamic thought, Chinese philosophy, and the history of Tasawwuf. She is currently working at Ibn Haldun University, Sabahattin Zaim University in Turkey.

Why should Muslim intellectuals turn their attention to the East Asian Islamic tradition?

Dr. Naoki Yamamoto: In his work “On the Five Colors of Islam” (Aux cinq couleurs de l’islam), orientalist convert Vincent Mansour-Monteil divides Islamic civilization into five categories. These are different Islamic traditions manifested in Turkey, Africa, Malay, Arab and Indo-Persian regions. But I think there is an important gap in those categories.

For instance, I am a Japanese Muslim convert. Then, according to this theory, where is an East Asian person standing? Is there no such thing as a Sino-Islamic culture, or is this something that has just begun to flourish? In fact, the Sino-Islamic civilization can be one of the oldest cultures in the Islamic tradition, since there are [accounts] that one of the Companions (sahabah) reached China. Unless we know Chinese Islamic history, we cannot fully grasp the tradition of Islamic civilization.

Dr. Elvida Ünal: As Naoki said, Islamic civilization is not unique to a few well-known regions and languages. Islam, as the last universal religion, encompasses all humanity, languages, and races. However, when Islam is mentioned in academia, usually the Middle East or Western trends come to mind.

However, apart from the Middle East, India-Pakistan, Malay, Africa, and the Western region, there is also a significant Muslim population in China. If someone says Chinese Muslims then, only Uyghurs come to mind. But in China, there are Muslims from 10 different ethnic groups; some of Turkic origins such as Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Salar, some of Mongolian origin like Dongxiang. And some of them are a completely new nation—Hui Muslims are from within and outside of China—who came together around a common identity, Islam. Therefore, researching Hui Muslims is especially important.

The second answer to the question of why we should study the East Asian Islamic tradition is as follows: Islam reached Chinese geography [alongside] Anatolia, Africa, and India. For instance, among the earliest mosques built in Islamic history are in China. That’s why we need to get to know Islam and culture there. With pilgrimage convoys, traveling dervishes, and books circulating the Islamic world, there is a huge Islamic heritage in China beyond our imagination. This heritage is an indispensable part of a whole civilization. That is, if one part is missing, the Ummah can’t know each other and become one body. We are thus in dire need to remember this legacy and study it.

Why do we need to know about the Han Kitab and Chinese Islamic tradition?

Dr. Yamamoto: Chinese Muslims were always a minority. As a Japanese convert, I am a minority too. This situation lit a fire in me about the importance of East Asian Islamic thought. After all, the issue is: “How can we understand Islam in a place where Islam is not seen as the system of the majority?”

And so, after converting to Islam, I found myself thinking, “What does it mean to be a Japanese Muslim?” “Am I going to be a Muslim like a Turkish, an Arab, or a Malay?” I also wondered if accepting Islam meant abandoning my past as a Japanese and my Japanese culture. After reading different sources, it was the Sino-Islamic books which surprised me the most because these books were as if they were written by a Muslim Samurai! I noticed that Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist terms were used much more effectively than a Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist. Afterwards, I felt that if we could revive this valuable heritage, it would be easier for us to build Japanese-Islamic culture.

Therefore, learning Sino-Islamic culture is necessary not only to fill the academic gap, but also to develop a correct method (usul) for Japanese Muslims. An interesting point about Islamic civilization is that Islamic ideals acquired linguistic expressions suitable for their context in various regions. For example, in the Malay region, shadow plays were used by Sufi saints as a means of teaching Islamic history and thought to the people. Many manuscripts written in various languages of the Malay region such as Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese also remain. The vision of Islam is universal, but the usul of experiencing Islam is diverse. If this is the case, then there should be a usul for Japanese people to experience Islam. I would like to learn about the history of Islam in East Asia as a key to understanding such usul.

Dr. Ünal: On this point, the 1300-year history of Chinese Muslims and Han Kitab give us important ideas about how Muslims should live in societies where Islamophobia can affect them. In an environment where Chinese culture is dominant, Muslims did not only keep alive their own beliefs and moral values without conflicting with the values of the society, but also gathered Chinese culture, philosophy, moral values, and Islamic belief. In this sense, Han Kitab brought about a new understanding in Chinese history of thought and showed how Islamic works could [correlate] with [certain] “foreign” ideas in Confucianism and Taoism. It has also shown that besides Arabic, Persian and Turkish, the depths of Islamic terms can be expressed in Chinese beautifully.

What exactly does the corpus of Han Kitab cover?

Dr. Ünal: It covers the books written in approximately 5 centuries, from 1500 to the middle of the 20th century. According to the accepted view in the academy, the last book of Han Kitab corpus was written by Imam Da Pusheng in the 1940s. Among the corpus of Han Kitab, we primarily see books that were translated from Arabic, such as the Qur’an. They were translated by using Buddhist and Confucian terms. In addition, there are Persian translations, books originally written in Chinese, and works written in Chinese and translated into Arabic. We also see books in which Chinese pronunciation is written in Arabic for people who can read the Qur’an but do not speak Chinese. In terms of content, there is a wide range of Han Kitab, such as travel books, memories of pilgrimage, calendar, astronomy, poetry, hadith, Islamic creed (aqaid), and sufism.

Dr. Yamamoto: And again, I want to point out that Muslims in China are a minority. Using the concepts of traditional Chinese philosophy, they tried to show that Islam is not distant from Chinese values. And most importantly, they used Chinese language when they articulated Islamic visions.

Dr. Ünal: When we mention “Islamic book”, first we all think of books written in Arabic, or other languages written in Arabic letters. It does not seem like there is an alternative. However, we should understand that traditionally, Islamic thought was expressed in different characters and in different languages, which is different from the current linguistic framework of nation-states. Each language has its own cultural and historical context, and languages interact with each other to form a complex web of culture. For example, to understand Han Kitab in depth, we need to learn not only classical Chinese, but also Arabic and Persian. In addition, we need to learn about the ideological and cultural background of these languages, such as Islamic and Chinese thought.

Dr. Yamamoto: To study Islamic civilization is to study such a complex web of languages and cultures. We often tend to simplify the world and absolutize each other’s cultural lenses, but until we overcome these prejudices, we will never understand the richness of Islamic civilization.

Can a Muslim living in China today easily access and understand Han Kitab when he/she attempts to read?

Dr. Ünal: Han Kitab is not a genre that ordinary people can read and understand. Books are usually addressed to the scholar or high-ranking Chinese civil servants who are familiar with Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Therefore, they are more likely to be academic books written in classical Chinese, a language more complicated than today’s Mandarin Chinese. On the contrary, grammar books aimed at teaching Chinese and Arabic can be understood by everyone.

Dr. Yamamoto: Even though I might not be able to understand them deeply on a first look, I can read Han Kitab as a Japanese because Classical Chinese education continues in Japan. In essence, the Han Kitab is written not only for the Chinese but also for all people and scholars living in the Hanzi (漢字: Chinese character) civilization. In ancient times, Korea, Japan, Vietnam…all of them used classical Chinese, so that Han Kitab could be read easily in the 18th century. The establishment of the nation-state and the national language was the destruction of this “curtain of Chinese characters” covering East Asia. Knowing Han Kitab, therefore, is very helpful for remembering the unity of Hanzi.

Why should we read Han Kitab? What does Han Kitab teach us?

Dr. Yamamoto: For instance, I am currently reading a book named “Clearing the Doubt against the Pure and True Teaching (清真釈疑)” by Jin Tian Zhu (金天柱). This book was written at the end of the Ming Dynasty/the beginning of the Qing period and tells [of] the prejudices against Muslims in Chinese society during that period. To give an example, Confucianist elites were prejudiced against Muslims, from their dressing to eating and burial practices. So, the author needed to write this book to overcome the existing prejudices. We are currently living in a similar period. Islamophobia continues around the world and in Japan. This is why the intellectual courage of Jin Tian Zhu and other Han Kitab writers is so important in the name of Islam. This book aims to say, very interestingly, “we Muslims are practicing Chinese values more than the Chinese do” by indicating that the Sino-Islamic tradition is at the core of Chinese civilization.

For another example, I would like to point out an important concept, kung fu (功夫), mentioned in Han Kitab. Although kung fu is known as a martial art, martial art is a part of it. Kung fu is the means of training the soul (tarbiya al-nafs) to reach the truth. Today, because of secularization and orientalism, all traditional practices and ideas in Asia have been reduced into some sort of exotic culture stored in museums or consumed commodities. However, not only martial arts, but also many other cultural practices in East Asia are actually the practices of kung fu, that is training of the soul. This structure of the East Asian spiritual world cannot be understood simply by reading English translations of East Asian classics. A good example of this would be the Japanese tea ceremony. Sadou (茶道) is translated as tea ceremony in English, but this may not be a correct translation. Sa (茶) means tea and Dou (道) means the way. The Japanese tea ceremony is a way of spiritual practice to reach the truth by learning from a master how to serve tea to guests. In other words, the tea ceremony is kung fu! However, unless you know that kung fu is [a way of] Tarbiya al-Nafs, you will not be able to understand its true meaning

Therefore, I believe that knowing the terms in Han Kitab will make us properly equipped to understand traditional Asian philosophy since these terms have not been corrupted by orientalism yet and have not lost their “true” meaning. As a result, not only to learn about Islam but also to understand Asian civilization better.

Dr. Ünal: When we read Han Kitab with careful discernment, we learn the whole [of] Chinese philosophy including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. By the way, we should not forget that Han Kitab has been integrated into the fabric of the Chinese language. For instance, in these books, the word Islam is written in a way that we hear Chinese pronunciation when it is read, not Arabic. The word halal then is translated as a counterpart of clean in Chinese. As an extension of this, a single paragraph of Han Kitab can contain both a verse from the Holy Quran, a Confucian doctrine, and a Taoist saying. Of course, they all get “Islamized” in the light of Tawhid.

To summarize, Han Kitab teaches us that Islam does not belong [only] to a specific region. Moreover, it shows that Islam, as the last universal religion, can be understood and practiced by people all over the world.

Dr. Yamamoto: Concerning “Islamization” of Confucianist, Daoist, or Buddhist terms, I should note here that Islamization of the terms does not mean exoticization. It means to develop a deeper understanding of East Asian civilization. 

Is there any Han Kitab translation that you are working on right now?

Dr. Ünal: Yes, I am translating one of the first books of Han Kitab, Qingzhen Daxue (清镇大学), into Turkish, and Dr. Yamamoto will hopefully make its editorship. Then we will continue with Turkish translations.

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3 thoughts on “Why Should We Study the East Asian Islamic Tradition?

  1. This was a really fascinating interview, may Allah always bless and protect the East Asian Muslims

  2. I should revise my words posted minutes ago: Huis accepted Chinese as the mother language from Ming dynasty was not the fundamental background of the appearance of Han Kitab but of Xiaojing – here’s a question, could Xiaojing be entailed in Han Kitab? – because:
    1, Han Kitab’s main readership should be the intellectuals of Han and Hui who are literati of Chinese;
    2, Xiaojing is for Huis – and Salar, Dongxiang, and Baoan – who can read Arabic but not Chinese to study – both learn and teach – Islam, or even in diary and letter among Imams.

  3. Hi there, it’s great to read this interview on Chinese Islam, Dr. Yamamoto and Dr. Ünal offer their in-depth understanding of Islam and East Asian civilization. If you allow me, two slight flaws should be pointed out in this text: 1, in Dr. Ünal’s response to the question “What exactly does the corpus of Han Kitab cover?” she said “We also see books in which Chinese pronunciation is written in Arabic for people who can read the Qur’an but do not SPEAK Chinese,” she must mean the Xiao-jing (消经 as Mr. Hu Long’s term, “to digest the Kitab”), however, this is a kind of Chinese written in Arabic alphabet mostly for those who can read Arabic text such as the Qur’an but do not READ Chinese, as literati (in Chinese) ratio was not high in the period of Han Kitab, and most Huis already accepted Chinese as the mother language from Arabic, Persian, Turkic languages, etc., and this is the fundamental background of the appearance of Han Kitab; 2, the last question, it’s glad to know that Dr. Ünal is translating Wang Daiyu’s Qingzhen Daxue into Turkish, in Chinese it should be 清真大學 . However, these two mini spots will not tarnish the value of this interview, I appreciate Dr. Yamamoto and Dr.Ünal’s contribution in this developing research field, in which I’m a student and learn a lot from this interview. Of course, if my suggestions are not correct due to my limited knowledge, I’ll be more than happy to learn something new. Thanks.

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