East Asia in the Islamic Civilization: Han-kitab as Minority Literature

The following is adapted from Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto’s lecture Muslim Scholars in Japan: Contemplating Islam in a Non-Muslim Society. It is part three of a three-part lecture series entitled ‘East Asia and Islam: Present, Past, and Future’ at the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) The transcript has been condensed and edited for flow.

Part one is available to read here and part two is available to read here.

What Can we Learn from the East Asian Islamic tradition?

If we take a look at current Islamic scholarship or area studies, we find serious indifference toward East Asian Islamic tradition. Take for example the book, “Aux Cinq Couleurs de L’Islam” (The Five Colors of Islam) authored by a French Muslim academic, Vincent-Mansour Monteil.

He argues about the diversity of the culture within the Islamic civilization and lists five major so-called Islamic colors or cultural colors of Islamic civilization. The first color is of course Arab and the second one is Perso-India, as Persian was the second strongest Lingua-france throughout Islamic history. The third one is Turkic, which is not limited to the Turkish republic but also covers Central Asia, i.e. Turkic culture. The fourth is Malay-Indonesia and the fifth is Africa. I was surprised that he failed to mention a sixth color such as the Chinese Islamic tradition. If someone were to write similar content today, however, I am sure we would also have to include European Islamic culture, American Islamic culture, or Latin Islamic culture as well because we today we have an even more diverse Islamic civilization.

The problem with this book is that it neglects the Chinese Islamic civilization — as I stated in the first lecture — is one that existed since the late 7th century or even earlier (according to one narration, a Sahaba [Companion] reached the land of China and one of the oldest mosques in the world is in China). Chinese Islamic culture can be considered one of the oldest Islamic cultures in Islamic history, but despite this, many academics who study the Islamic civilization, even Muslims, forget the richness of China’s intellectual, cultural and sociological aspects of their Islamic tradition. The Chinese tradition is really close to my heart because I was born in Japan, and Japan is part of the Sino civilization. If we use its richness, we can create a bridge between Islamic civilization and an East Asian civilization that once flourished and continues to exist.

Additionally, some scholars that discuss Chinese Islam or East Asian Islamic culture often fail to introduce its importance in a universal way. We simply view it as an exotic phenomenon or something we like hearing about because it exposes us to a little bit of culture as a form of enjoyment. I do not think this is an ideal attitude towards cultural diversity because while some Islamic cultures are seen as universal, we see other Islamically-informed cultures as an unimportant phenomenon. In other words, non-Arabic Islamic classics are often marginalized while only local cultural diversity is highlighted.

I believe that every Islamic tradition has a universal message. Put another way, universality shows its true value only after the particularity has been thoroughly pursued. It is only at the end of pursuing the depth of the truth based on individual experiences that we can appreciate the beauty of universality, rather than simply repeating a superficial answer. In this sense, we must trace the individual experiences of every human being who has lived in an Islamic civilization.

Image of Chinese classic Islamic book by Ma Lian-yuan

For example, see the above photo. I took it from a Chinese classic Islamic book, but note that it is written in Arabic. This book was written in Chinese in the 20th century by Ma Lian-yuan. He devoted himself to the revival of Islamic education in the Yunnan Muslim community, which had been damaged by the Great Yunnan Muslim Rebellion (1856-1874). He compiled a number of textbooks, including Arabic and Persian grammars and a book of basic Islamic knowledge for beginning students. In his later years, he traveled from China to northern India, publishing the Arabic translation of Liú Zhì ’s book “Tianfang xingli” (Nature and Principle in Islam) with his commentary.

This shows that the Muslim community understood the value of the works of Muslims belonging to another culture, and the importance of classical Arabic as a lingua franca.

We Muslims in the modern world have better access to the writings of Muslims in other parts of the world than they did. But how many local publishers do we have who translate and publish Islamic books written in Urdu, Indonesian, Persian, Turkish, Chinese, etc., into classical Arabic, English, etc.?

There’s a quote from the famous Muslim orientalist, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his book “Islam in Modern History.” He argues that the importance of Southeast Asia has been overlooked not only by Western Orientalists, but “even more striking, by Muslims in other areas.”1

This collective amnesia regarding Islamic civilization is not only limited to Islam in China. Take, for example, the “Kitab Kuning,” Indonesian classic Islamic texts. Indonesian scholars would travel to Mecca or Medina where they would study long-term, then return with this traditional Islamic knowledge and write their books either in Arabic or their local languages. One of the famous “Kitab Kuning” was by Nawawi Al-Bantani. Al-Bantani moved to Makkah and he passed away there. Most of his books were written in Arabic. Today, if you travel to Indonesia and visit traditional madrasas (pesantren), you’ll find that students still use his Arabic books.

Nawawi al-Bantani

Some people explain away the Chinese Islamic tradition as synthesizing Confucianism. Others criticize this phenomenon as a kind of “bid’ah,” meaning that Chinese Islamic scholars incorporate non-Islamic elements into their tradition and make it [un-Islamic]. But I don’t think that is a fair criticism if you know the history of the Islamic instruction tradition.

For example, a good case study is evaluating the works of Ibn Sina or Al-Farabi, Islamic scholars who studied Greek philosophies and logic and tried to articulate Islamic values building on that framework. Why don’t people deem this as an Islamic tradition that “synthesizes” Greek philosophy? What is the difference between this and the Chinese Islamic tradition? In Istanbul, teachers in most theology or philosophy department classes always mention Al-Farabi’s “Al-Madina Al-Fadila” as one of the best examples of the Islamic tradition that incorporates Greek philosophy and tries to articulate their worldview of society. But in most cases, they will never mention the richness of Han Kitab, a collection of Chinese Islamic books.

As Rubenstein’s “Children of Aristotle” outlines, it was the introduction of Greek philosophy by Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina that laid the intellectual framework for modern Western civilization. On the other hand, Islamic discourse, especially in the West, sometimes reveals a strange Western-centrism or Hellenistic belief. There is a disregard for Islamic intellectual traditions in other parts of the world where “Greekness” is not found or an Orientalist attitude that sees them as exotic.

If we find value in the writings of Ibn Sina and Farabi, it should not be difficult for us as Muslims to find at least as much value in the writings of Liu Zhi.

As a side note, the names “Han-Kitab” and “Kitab Kuning” also beautifully illustrate the manifestation of universality within particularity in Islamic civilization. Universality here is in the use of the word Kitab. ‘Han’ means ‘Chinese’, and ‘Kitab’ means book in Arabic. Wherever there is a Muslim community, books are always referred to as “Kitab,” especially Islamic books, whether in Indonesia, Pakistan, or Bosnia. This demonstrates how Islamic civilizations value their intellectual heritage.

Here, I introduce Han Kitab from the perspective of minority researchers. Minority literature refers to how Muslim minorities try to survive in non-Muslim worlds — not only surviving but also developing their own cultural traditions. I also use Han Kitab for my academic activities, cultural practices, calligraphy, and design.

Han Kitab can offer important perspectives, especially to and about minority Muslims. In Islamic studies, we often focus on the so-called authentic or mainstream Islamic tradition [here, the speaker is not referring to theology/jurisprudence, of which there are parameters of Sunni Islam, but the tendency to focus on cultural manifestations in especially Middle Eastern societies as more authentic or more “Islamic”]. However, we must be careful because when we examine the history of Islamic civilization, there is no single mainstream in terms of cultural and intellectual tradition. Every local place has its own tradition.

Through Han Kitab, we see the difficulty of translation and shared emotional experiences, such as solitude as minority Muslims and how these Muslim minorities engage with popular Islam.

When I started studying East Asian Islamic history with Han Kitab, I used to skip the introductions and read the main parts of the books. However, one day, I decided to read the introductions. What surprised me was that the introductions were where some scholars sincerely confessed how difficult it was to write these books, notably in relation to expressing Islamic virtues or values in the Chinese language.

Mă Băiliáng (d. 1678), one of the pioneers of Han Kitab, writes in the introduction of his book:

We live in the land of Han, [China] and our language and script are that of the East. The Chinese language and our ways are different, and our manners are also different. Therefore, there are many who have lost the scripture, and few who are familiar with the doctrines. I have tried to compile a book of introductions on Islam, but this is a challenging task. If it’s not in Chinese, it cannot be understood by the people within this community. But if I tried to express it only in Chinese, it would not align with Islamic doctrine.

In the first paragraph of his book, Mă mentions that there are many who have lost Islamic scripture and few remain familiar with the doctrine. During the Ming Dynasty, because of the policy encouraging Persian or Arabic Muslims to marry Chinese citizens, the second and third generations began to forget their Persian and Arabic heritage and became what we call “Sinicized.” They became wholly Chinese. Many of them even started to forget their religious identity. This motivated Mă to author books about Islam, specifically introductions to Islam in a Chinese language for second and third generation citizens. This is because using only Chinese vocabulary makes it difficult to articulate Islamic concepts, as most Chinese vocabulary has developed through interactions with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, which have entirely different historical backgrounds. But if it is not written in Chinese, meaning if he tried to write in Arabic or Persian, then nobody in his community would have understood what he was talking about. So, he had to strike a balance between the two.

Why is Translating Islamic Concepts into Chinese So Difficult?

The linguistic structure of Chinese languages is based on logograms (or diagrams, as some people call them). In English, we use the Latin alphabet, a phonogram-based script. The Latin alphabet represents speech sounds or combinations of sounds, focusing on pronunciation. But logograms represent words or morphemes, each one representing meaning. For instance, the Chinese character for “fire” also visually represents the shape of fire. This linguistic system works for natural phenomena like fire, but when it comes to Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian terms, using those terms may conflict with Islamic doctrine. On the other hand, as long as one just transliterates Arabic or Persian terms, they will be treated in Chinese society as special terms of a foreign religion, and Islam will continue to be alien.

This is the challenge Islamic scholars face because if they are not careful, they might inadvertently allow non-Islamic elements to enter Islamic doctrine. They must carefully choose terminology to articulate Islam or provide new interpretations.

This is an example from Han Kitab:

Page from Han Kitab

There are two lines in Chinese characters under the Arabic line Alhamdulillahi rabbil alamin. The first line under the Arabic uses Chinese phonograms to show how to pronounce Alhamdulillahi rabbil alamin. The next line consists of Chinese logograms. Even visually, you can see that the line with phonograms are longer than the line with logograms. The phonograms only indicate the sounds but have no coherent meaning. If we examine the classical Chinese characters used as logograms, we not only see the sound but can also visually understand the concept of Hamd, Allah, or Alamin. Our East Asian linguistic worldview is entirely different.

Another Chinese scholar, Shè Qĭlíng (d. 1710), voiced a similar complaint regarding translating Islamic books into Chinese, writing,

I have just translated this book, but the translation of the text was vulgar, and the translation of the poem was poor. I tried to make sure that the sounds of the East and the West [Islam] were correct and that the content was correct. I wonder if I actually conveyed the words or if I could have written on behalf of the author.

What’s interesting is that he referred to Islamic tradition as a tradition of the West and the Chinese tradition as the East. This is merely a geographical difference. In China, the term “West” refers to Islam, while “East” refers to their tradition. Nowadays, even the Japanese sometimes refer to Islamic tradition as part of the Eastern tradition.

Liú Zhì (d. 1730), on the other hand, was relatively confident compared to previous Chinese scholars. He believed that while the form might differ between the East and West, the meaning always remained the same. He emphasized the importance of referring to the original text and understanding its meaning to convey it accurately. He acknowledged that the words may not match exactly, but the meaning would always harmonize. He stressed the need to understand the author’s intended meaning in the original text, allowing it to be articulated in the vernacular language.

This concept alludes to the idea of semantic reconstruction: if we use terminologies or words from other cultures, as long as we can reconstruct their semantic background, we can use those terms within an Islamic context. For example, consider the tea ceremony. While many associate it with Zen Buddhism, it does not belong exclusively to Zen Buddhism. Islamic scholars, by examining the culture, can reinterpret and integrate it within an Islamic context, making it part of Islamic culture.

This approach extends beyond culture and includes language itself. In Han Kitab, there is a term called “sān chéng,” referring to the three vehicles. In Buddhism, these three vehicles are essential for reaching Nirvana or enlightenment (to be taught and guided, to become enlightened, to bring enlightenment). In Han Kitab, these terms are reinterpreted. The first level, corresponding to the trainee guided by the master, is Sharia. The second level, the practitioner focused on enlightenment, is Tariqa. The third level, the one who has gained enlightenment and aims to guide others, is Haqiqa. This demonstrates how the form is retained while the meaning is adapted within an Islamic context.

Additionally, studying Islamic history in China sheds light on the roots of Islamophobia. While many believe that Islamophobia is a recent phenomenon, it has historical roots in Europe, India, and other regions. “Eliminating Doubts Against Islam,” written by 18th century scholar Jīn Tiānzhù, is considered the first book aimed at addressing prejudice against Islam and Muslims in China. His work identifies the causes of this prejudice. Tiāzhù writes that non-Muslims often do not understand Islamic practices and harbor doubts because they have not studied Islamic books. This ignorance has led to increased suspicion and negative rumors about Islam for over a thousand years.

Tiānzhù listed the common questions and prejudices he encountered while working in a translation department at Hani Academy. These questions included why Muslims follow a different calendar, dress differently, and have certain dietary restrictions. Non-Muslims were also curious about Muslim worship practices and prayers. This reflects many common misconceptions and questions faced by Muslims in non-Muslim countries, highlighting the historical roots of such issues.

There was a great Chinese scholar who actually tried to fight against prejudice. He argued that Islam had contributed to the country’s development for 1100 years, from the Sui and Tan dynasties to the present, and that it was no different from the Confucian ideals. If you look at the history of European civilization, for example, it is obvious that Islam contributed to the development of European civilizations, not only through philosophy but also cultural and political impact. This is also the same case in China, according to Jīn Tiānzhù.

We still face the same problems. Yet, ,Tiāzhu’s books were not just his listing of prejudices against Muslims, but his attempts to eliminate doubts. Furthermore, he argued that Muslims were the real practitioners of Confucian ideals. In other words, he said, “We are more Chinese than you.” A Chinese Muslim is one who believes in traditional East Asian values, but also practices, such as praying salah, paying zakat, and fasting during Ramadan. For me, this is not only comforting, but has also really encouraged me to be proud of East Asia as a Muslim.

What does it mean to be a Japanese Muslim? What does it mean to be an East Asian Muslim, living in the 21st century? Sometimes, I lose the courage to keep my Muslim identity in a non-Muslim country. But Jīn Tiāzhù says that we should be proud of being Muslim, and we should be proud that we can be more East Asian than the other East Asians. In this way, Han Kitab is not only a classical book but a minority literature. East Asian Islamic history is not just exotic, a fancy thing that we can talk about only when we have tea or dinner; it is a sincere record of the Muslim minority. It may be different from academic research, but reading these Islamic classical books is not only for writing academic articles, authoring books for major Western university press, or trying to score high points in your career.

Reading Han Kitab can help us to rebuild a stronger identity as Muslim minority. Chinese classical books are life-giving literature. We can read for everyday life. There is a quote from my favorite Japanese manga “Hikaru no go.” It is about teenagers who are playing Go, a traditional board game in East Asia. One teenager studies this board game with a master. But this master disappears, and the teenager continues to play this board game. In an important final match, he loses and is devastated. The opponent asks him, why are you still playing this in a board game? And this is the answer of the protagonist: “to link the far past with the far future.” He plays Go because he loves his master and he loves the ancestors who played and developed this game.

That is also why I am studying this Chinese Islamic classic: not only for myself nor for academic endeavors, but to link the far past with the far future. I do not want great Chinese Islamic scholars to be forgotten because they are precious ancestors who survived as a Muslim minority and fought against Islamophobia. It is up to us to link this far past to the next generation with the far future. I read one article stating that around 20-25 percent of the Muslim Ummah today is living as a Muslim minority in some way, such as Muslims who live in European countries, East Asian countries like Japan, India, and so on. For these minorities, it is imperative that we create our own intellectual vision grounded in our tradition.

This lecture was generously transcribed and edited by Heraa Hashmi.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

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  1. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, Princeton University Press, 1957, p.295.[]
Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto

Dr. Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at the 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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