On Being a Muslim Minority: Introducing Chinese Muslim Intellectual Jīn Tiānzhù

This article presents the introduction section of a book called 清真釈疑 Qīngzhēn shìyí (Eliminating Doubts Against Islam), written by Jīn Tiānzhù (金天柱). This is arguably the first book written about how minority Muslims living in East Asia have confronted misconceptions about Islam.

Historically, Muslim minorities have found themselves having to justify and explain their beliefs and practices to others. What is the Islamic conception of God? Why don’t Muslims eat pork? Why do Muslims use “foreign” words such as Inshallah and Alhamdulillah in their daily lives? Some questions are metaphysical, while others concern the daily religious practices and cultural customs of Muslims. Sometimes these questions are purely out of intellectual curiosity, and sometimes they are intended to poke fun at Muslims as alien others. In any case, living as a minority is not always an easy path even in countries with almost absolute and enshrined religious freedom, but if you live in a country with state-enforced censorship of religious material, different challenges arise. Therefore, Muslims living as a minority in one part of the world have something to learn from others who have faced similar challenges in another place and time — it is here where Jīn’s work may prove very useful.

Jīn Tiānzhù was a Chinese Muslim intellectual who lived from the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century. The only information available about Jīn’s background is what is stated in the preface of his book Eliminating Doubts Against Islam, which he wrote to his supervisor at the Hanlin Academy where he worked. He was a native of Nanjing province, which produced many great Chinese Islamic scholars, including Liu Zhi, and he himself became familiar with Islamic studies and Chinese philosophy at an early age. In 1726 he was employed in the Translation Department of Hanlin Academy, and in 1737 he began teaching translations in the Islamic Department. He wrote Eliminating Doubts Against Islam in 1738, which is considered the first book written to identify the cause of prejudice against Islam and Muslims in China.

Prior to Jīn, there had been many Chinese Islamic scholars who explained Islamic principles in a register that appealed to Chinese readers, but as he himself states in his Preface, these books were “written primarily for Muslim readers” and did not target the causes of prejudices prevalent among non-Muslims in China. Herein lies the difference between Jīn’s position as an intellectual and that of other Chinese Islamic scholars such as Liu Zhi and Wang Daiyu, who were traditional Islamic scholars (or ‘Ahong’) and were in a position to guide Muslims. Jīn, on the other hand, was a bureaucrat working in the translation department of Hanlin Academy, which served the Emperor. His colleagues and students were both Muslims and non-Muslims, and his translation work required him to explain Islamic values in a way that could be understood by those who believed in the tenets of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Working at these intersections between communities, he was able to write in a way that was understandable to a wide audience of Chinese readers.

Jīn’s motivation to present Islamic ideals not only to a Muslim audience but also to a larger one, including non-Muslims, seems to have been largely influenced by his work environment. As we learn from this book, Jīn was asked a number of questions about Islam by his fellow bureaucrats at work. At the academy, he faced prejudice based on deeply rooted misunderstandings and misconceptions about Islam. These misunderstandings and misconceptions were often founded upon superficial stereotypes and perpetuated by discriminatory practices that were (and in many cases remain) amongst non-Muslims in China. These were worsened by ignorance on the part of Muslims who had no knowledge or means to explain their religion to others, thereby clarify misconceptions about their religion.

Eliminating Doubts Against Islam established a methodology to cope with such issues. In it, Jīn explains that Chinese society at that time was in a state of moral and spiritual decline and that Buddhism and Taoism had failed to provide a solution to this situation. China during Jīn’s lifetime is generally known as the High Qing era (1616 – 1912), or the Golden Age. However, behind this seemingly glamorous period, social contradictions, bureaucratic corruption, and the downfall of local peasants were gradually progressing. In such an age of spiritual decadence, Jīn believed that Islam could guide the way to moral revival.

His writing style is by no means a mere apologetic argument. He emphasizes that Islam shares the same ideals as Confucianism and has contributed immensely to China’s development and historical story. Yet his claim here that Islam shares the same ideals as Confucianism should not be understood as religious syncretism, but rather as an attempt to show that it is the religion of Islam that most deeply advocates and instils the practice of the core Chinese ideals that have persisted since ancient times. He persuasively argues that Muslims, the most discriminated minority group in Chinese society at that time, are in fact the embodiment of Chinese ideals. 

The book is written in a kind of drama format, with the guest asking questions about Islam and Jin answering them, and Jīn’s monologue inserted in between the dialogues. In the epilogue of this book, he contends that those who lack knowledge of the fundamental Islamic sciences and cannot quote and interpret the Chinese classics will not be able to dispel the prejudices against Islam in Chinese society. According to him, it is essential for minority Muslims to have a deep understanding of the religion and culture that forms the background of the majority’s society, in addition to traditional Islamic scholarship. 

Although it is a book written in the 18th century, his work provides a valuable perspective for minority Muslims living today. 

金天柱 清真釈疑
Introduction Section of Jīn Tiānzhùs Qīngzhēn Shìyí

Purity and truth are the basis of Islam, which we believe in, but what is the purpose of this book, Clearing doubts about Islam?

Those who believe in other religions do not understand our practices, and their doubts have not been removed for 1100 years. They still do not know why we have these beliefs and practices because they have not studied the books of Islam. Ignorance increases suspicion toward us, and negative rumors about Islam flourish. And as a result, people say things like:

Muslims do not follow the Chinese calendar but secretly create their calendar with 360 days as a year and gather together to celebrate on their own. Muslims speak different languages, dress differently, and have other choices in what they eat and drink. Why do they eat meat and vegetables (at sunset) and nothing during the day when they are fasting? What god do they worship when they are praying? What do men and women do when they gather together at night and return at dawn? Why do they cut the hair of the bodies of their parents but cast away their bodies (to be buried in the ground) and make them look weird? 

None of the above prejudices have been solved to this day.

However, the fact that prejudice has not been lifted does not mean that there are not qualified individuals in the Muslim community. Our forefathers were dedicated to explaining the principles of Islam and were not willing to explain the prejudices they faced.

In the past, Master Wang Daiyu wrote 正教真詮 Zhèng jiào zhēn quán (Annotation of the truth about doctrine of righteousness)、清真大学 Qīng zhēn dà xué (The Great Teachings of Islam)、希真正答 xī zhēn zhèng dā (The Pursuit of the True Answer), and Master Ma Zhu wrote 清真指南 Qīng zhēn zhǐ nán (The Guide to Islam). Later, Master Liu Zhi wrote 天方性理 Tiān fāng xìng lǐ (The Principal of the Divine) 天方典礼 Tiān fāng diǎn lǐ (The Practice and Ritual for the Divine) and many other books. All of them collected Islamic scriptures and clarified their significance. These books are about belief in the existence of the Lord, worship of the Lord, and daily virtues, most of which were written for the Muslim community.

Moreover, these books are so voluminous that it is doubtful that any believers in other religions would be willing to read and study them.

Therefore, they judge Islam according to their own biases and refuse to recognize this beautiful and excellent jewel of the Truth.

Moreover, since there is almost no one to eliminate the prejudices against Islam, there is no way for believers in other religions to understand it clearly, and the doubt about Islam continues.

The fact that our predecessors did not dispel prejudice against Islam does not mean that they could not do so. They believed that the virtues practiced in Islam and other religions were the same and that criticism was not a big deal. Therefore, they thought that the inconsequentiality was merely a misunderstanding of the ignorant masses and that there was no need to get involved in controversy over it.

Who am I? how do I dare to write a book while the best and wisest of men are those who have gone before me. In this vast land between the sky and the earth, there are many differences in culture, language, clothing, and style, even within China, which is not surprising. But the ethics that people should practice are the same. Meng Zi says, “Yang Zhu neglects his sovereign, and Mozhai neglects his father.” And although Buddhism and Taoism regard the ancestors as gods and praise the sovereign and the father, in the end, at the level of practice, they leave the sovereign and the father behind because they neglect the ruler and the father. On the other hand, Islam adheres to the three moral principles and the five righteous deeds in Confucianism and practices the virtues. In this respect, Islam differs significantly from the philosophies mentioned above and religions. At this very moment, the world is losing benevolence and righteousness, the relationship between ruler and people is being neglected, Confucian ethics is dying, and the relationship between parents and children is weakening, yet those who doubt Islam refuse to consider such major issues.

When they meet Muslims, they take up minor issues, make fun of us, and criticize us. They know nothing about us. Islam has contributed to the country’s development for 1100 years, from the Sui and Tang Dynasties to the present, and it is no different from Confucian ideals. People who believe in other religions think that only their teachings are correct because they do not know the cause of Islam.

And because we have forgotten the principles of Islam – what we believe and why we practice this way – the path of purity and truth has been destroyed, and the truth has become lost as the general public no longer speaks of it. How sad. 

I do not have in-depth knowledge of Islam and Chinese philosophy, but I have studied the principles of how the world came to be. Therefore, I cannot remain silent about this situation!

The ancients said. “I don’t like to argue. I do it because I have to.”

I have been familiar with essential teaching books since I was a child, and now I am a translator for a living. Whenever there is a difference between the culture and customs found in the Islamic classics and those of China, I try to find a sound reason and explain it to the people around me so that there will be no disharmony between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Also, both Muslims and non-Muslims have only one sovereign to serve. And since we are all equally His subjects, why should we have to sit in the same room and listen to unsettled arguments and curse each other?

This book is intended to deal with prejudice against Islam. I hope to clarify the significance of Islam in accordance with the wishes of our predecessors. I have summarized my views. People will understand that Islam and Confucianism share the same ideals, and prejudice will be eliminated. My prayer is that it will contribute to the path of Islam.

Spring, 1738. Hanlin Academy, Translation Department

Jīn Tiānzhù, Preface

Frontcover of 清真釈疑 Qīngzhēn shìyí (Eliminating Doubts Against Islam), written by Jīn Tiānzhù (金天柱)

About the Author: Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He 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 Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).

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