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Shifts in Sino-Islamic Discourse: Modelling religious authority through language and travel

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2014

Department of Religion, Gustavus Adolphus College, USA Email:


During the nineteenth century, many Sino-Muslim scholars were seeking a more robust relationship with their Arab co-religionists. The efforts of Ma Dexin 馬德新 (1794–1874) exemplify this shift to strengthen ties with the Muslim community outside China and situate Sino-Islamic scholarship in widespread Islamic discourses. Ma's writings provided Sino-Muslims with discursive and pragmatic tools for engaging a global Muslim community. For Ma, Muslim cooperation was negotiated through the means of religious education, which was enabled through travel and language. In this paper, I demonstrate how Ma Dexin modelled the importance of global connections of inter-Asian networks of religious learning by exemplifying the value of Middle Eastern travel and fluency in Arabic. I employ Ma's Chinese and Arabic written works in relation to those of Wang Daiyu 王岱輿 (circa 1590–1658) and Liu Zhi 劉智 (circa 1670–1724) to illustrate how he differed significantly from previous Sino-Muslim authors with regard to the use of Arabic within the Sino-Islamic intellectual tradition and in his emphatic urgings to perform the hajj pilgrimage. Finally, I briefly show how his divergent position was embraced, as exhibited through the efforts of one of his intellectual inheritors, Ma Lianyuan 馬聯元 (1841–1903).

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Ma's writings have garnered very little attention in Western scholarship. For a bibliography of his works and glossary of his key viewpoints, see Chang-Kuan, Lin, ‘Three Eminent Chinese “Ulama” of Yunnan’, Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 11 no. 1 (1990), pp. 100117Google Scholar; and Jianping, Wang, Concord and Conflict: The Hui Communities of Yunnan Society in a Historical Perspective (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1996)Google Scholar.

2 There are various types of Islamic literatures written by Sino-Muslims. Ma Dexin's work and the Han Kitab texts are characterized by their hybrid incorporation of Islamic and Chinese themes and terminology, which were primarily written in eastern and southwestern parts of China where Muslims lived among a majority of non-Muslims. Much of the literature written by Sino-Muslims in Muslim majority regions, such as northwest China, has differing goals and style. This paper defines Sino-Islamic literature by these features. I do not claim to be referring to all literature written by Sino-Muslims, as this is beyond the scope of this paper.

3 In brief, the Chinese cultural sphere during the Tang (618–907), Song (960–1279), and Yuan (1271–1368) periods was largely cosmopolitan but divided in nature. Muslims lived in China but not among the Chinese, generally interacting solely for political, scientific or economic reasons. After the collapse of the Mongol empire, Muslims in China were largely disconnected from their co-religionists abroad and increasingly became ‘Chinese’. For an outline of the early history of Muslims in China, see Leslie, Donald Daniel, Islam in Traditional China (Canberra: Canberra College of Advanced Education, 1986)Google Scholar; and Lipman, Jonathan, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

4 For an introduction to the scripture hall system, see Benite, Zvi Ben-Dor, The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Chinese Muslims in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 To my knowledge there were no female students in the scripture hall system. However, there were related systems of women's education in China during this period but with differing goals and expectations. See Jaschok, Maria and Jingjun, Shui, The History of Women's Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of Their Own (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

6 The earliest detection of this identification is from 1680 in the preface to Ma Zhu's 馬注 Compass of Islam (Qingzhen zhinan 情真脂南) where 11 scholars were labelled Huiru. Later authors continued to use the term Huiru. Benite, The Dao of Muhammad, pp. 143 and 160.

7 Western scholarship has failed to examine the content of Sino-Muslims literature in great depth. The most comprehensive scholarship so far has been on Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi. See Murata, Sachiko, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: Wang Tai-yu's Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chiu's Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Murata, Sachiko, Chittick, William C. and Weiming, Tu, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frankel, James D., Rectifying God's Name: Liu Zhi's Confucian Translation of Monotheism and Islamic Law (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 In a Buddhist context, shoujie 受戒 means to take the precepts and be initiated into monkhood.

9 Dexin, Ma 馬德新, Mingde jing 明德經 (Scripture of Bright Virtue), in Jizu, Ma 馬繼祖 (ed.), Ma Fuchu yizhu xuan 馬復初遺著選 (A Selection of Ma Fuchu's Posthumous Writings) (Hong Kong: Guoji Huaren Chubanshe, 2003), p. 484Google Scholar.

10 The final rite on the last day of the pilgrimage is the shaving of one's head or cutting a length of hair. Ibid.

11 Daiyu, Wang 王岱輿, in Zhengui, Yu 余振貴 (ed.), Zhengjiao zhenquan, Qingzhen daxue, Xizhen zhengda 正教真詮, 請真大學, 希真正答 (True Explanation of the Orthodox Teaching, Great Learning of Islam, Orthodox Responses on the Rare Truth) (Reprinted edition: Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 1987), p. 87Google Scholar.

12 Ma, Mingde jing, p. 483.

13 Zhi, Liu 劉智, Tianfang dianli 天方典禮 (Rituals of Islam), in Qingzhen Dadian清真大典 (The Great Canon of Islam) (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 2005), Vol. 15, p. 111Google Scholar.

14 Liu, Tianfang dianli, p. 109.

15 Sino-Muslims were engaged in cross border trade but this did not usually extend beyond Burma and Thailand. See Forbes, Andrew D. W., ‘The Role of Hui Muslims in the Traditional Caravan Trade between Yunnan and Thailand’, in Lombard, Denys and Aubin, Jean (eds), Marchands et hommes d'affaires asiatiques dans l'Océan Indien et la Mer de Chine, 13e-20e siècles (Paris: Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1988), pp. 289295Google Scholar; ibid, ‘The ‘Cin-Ho’ (Yunnanese Chinese) Caravan Trade with North Thailand During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’, Journal of Asian History 27 (1987), pp. 1–47; and Prasertkul, Chiranan, Yunnan Trade in the Nineteenth Century: Southwest China's Cross-Boundaries Functional System (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1989)Google Scholar.

16 On al-‘Aydarūs, see Bang, Anne K., Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), p. 22Google Scholar.

17 Ma Dexin 馬德新, Chaojin Tuji 朝覲途記 (Record of the Pilgrimage Journey), in Ma Jizu 馬繼祖 (ed.), A Selection of Ma Fuchu's Posthumous Writings, p. 350.

18 The three little buildings previously situated on the exterior of the circumambulation pathway (maṭāf) vanished in the modern period. Such buildings housed the religious leaders of the four main legal schools during the prayers. The largest building (maḳām or muṣallā ḥanafī) was northwest of the Kaʿbah in front of the Hijr, the Ḥanbalī was to the southeast, the Mālikī to the southwest, and the Shāfi‘īs used the Zamzam well building. They disappeared not only to provide some open space but also because the diversification of religious rulings had become of secondary importance to many Muslims. Wensinck, A. J., ‘Ka'ba’, in The Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1927), pp. 584592Google Scholar.

19 The entrances he listed are the gate of ‘Alī (erli 爾里), the gate of ‘Abbās (爾波士), the gate of the Prophet (nabī, naibingyi 廼並倚), the gate of Peace (salām, seluemu 色略母), the gate of the Path (darā, dulaibai 堵賴白), the gate of Increase (ziyādat, yeyade 野呀德), the gate of the Pole (quṭbī, 故推補 gutuibu), the gate of Extension (bāsṭiyat, boxituiye 波洗退葉), the Ancient gate (‘atīqah, ertigai 爾梯改), the Pilgrimage gate (‘umrah, ermulei 爾母勒), the gate of Abraham (Ibrāhīm, yibulaxin 以補喇欣), the Farewell gate (widā’, weidaer 委大爾), the gate of ajyād (tuyade 土呀德), the gate of Refuge (takīyah, taikengye 泰硜葉), the gate of Compassion (rahmah, leiqiamai 勒洽買), the gate of Purity (ṣafā, suibo 隋博), the gate of ‘Um Hāni (yunmuhe 藴母呵), and the gate of the Dhow (baghlah, baienlai 白恩賴). Ma, Chaojin Tuji, p. 350.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid, p. 351.

22 Fragner demonstrated this transition within the Persian context and Matheson and Milner explore this theme in the Malay context. See Fragner, Bert G., Persische Memoirenliteratur als Quelle zur neueren Geschichte Irans (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1979)Google Scholar; and Matheson, Virginia and Milner, A. C., Perceptions of the Hajj. Five Malay Texts (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1984)Google Scholar.

23 Ma Anli, ‘Xu 序 (Preface)’, in Ma Dexin 馬德新, Sidian Yaohui 四典要會 (Essence of the Four Canons), in Ma Jizu 馬繼祖 (ed.), A Selection of Ma Fuchu's Posthumous Writings, p. 14.

24 The pairing of Arabic fluency and Middle Eastern study continued to grow in importance throughout the twentieth century. Some Chinese nationalists especially followed this pattern in the first half of the twentieth century. See Yufeng Mao, ‘Sino-Muslims in Chinese Nation-building, 1906–1956’, PhD thesis, Georgetown University, 2007.

25 These processes were also happening within other Asian Muslim communities during the same periods. See Ricci, Ronit, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 It is almost impossible to ascertain the character of Ma's audience because he does not refer to them specifically. The wide range of Ma's writings indicates that he is addressing a range of readers, including Sinicized Sino-Muslims who could only read Chinese as well as highly advanced students who had a depth of knowledge of Chinese systems of thought, the Islamic tradition, and various linguistic capabilities.

27 Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi include Chinese transliterations throughout their writings, such as Muhammad (muhanmode 穆罕默德), Adam (Arabic ‘Ādam, adan 阿丹), Eve (Arabic Hawwā’, haowa 好媧), Jesus (Arabic ‘Īsā, ersa 爾撒), Rābi‘a (labi'an 喇必安), al-Bukh(buhalie 補哈烈), Mecca (moke 墨克), Medina (modena 默德那), Kab'ah (ke'erbai克而白), tawḥīd (taoheide 討黑德), waḥdat (wahadete 穵哈德特), imān (yimana 以媽納), mu'min (mumin 穆民), al-Fātihah (fatihai 法體海), among others.

28 Donald Leslie argues that Persian was already established as a common language among foreigners by the Song dynasty (960–1279). Leslie, Donald Daniel, The Survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish Community of Kaifeng (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 118119Google Scholar. It continued to be the predominant scholarly language for centuries. See Shijian, Huang, ‘The Persian Language in China during the Yuan Dynasty’, Papers on Far Eastern History 34 (1986), pp. 8395Google Scholar.

29 It seems likely that many of these texts are no longer in existence—I was certainly unable to locate copies for my research.

30 This sample is from Dexin, Ma 馬德新, Tianfang Liyuan 天方曆源 (Sources of the Islamic Calendar) in Qingzhen Dadian 清真大典 (The Great Canon of Islam) (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 2005), Vol. 21, p. 880Google Scholar.

31 This and the following three epithets are some of the ‘Most Beautiful Names’ (al-ʾasmāʾ al-ḥusnā) of God. There is a hadith that explains, ‘God has ninety-nine names, one hundred minus one, and whoever memorizes them will enter paradise.’ For an overview, see Armajani, Jon, ‘Names of God’, in Campo, Juan (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Facts on File Publications, 2008), pp. 515517Google Scholar. For a brief explanation of the name ‘the Most High’ (al-ʿAlī), see al-Jerrahi al-Halveti, Tosun Bayrak, The Name and the Named: The Divine Attributes of God (Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2000), pp. 102103Google Scholar. This name is derived from Qur'anic passages, such as 4:34, 31:30, 42:4, and 42:51.

32 al-Jalīl (Q 55:27), al-Halveti, The Name and the Named, pp. 109–110.

33 al-Karīm (Q 27:40, 82:6), ibid, pp. 110–112.

34 al-Walī (Q 4:45, 7:196, 42:28, 45:19), ibid, pp. 134–135.

35 Ma Dexin 馬德新, Lixue Zhezhong理學折衷 (Folding the Inner Feelings through the Study of Principle) (n.p., 1867), p. 1.

36 For a classical discussion on the al-ʾasmāʾ al-ḥusnā, see Burrell, David and Daher, Nazih, Al-Ghazali: The Ninety- Nine Beautiful Names of God (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1992)Google Scholar.

37 See, for example, Qur'an 91:1–8: ‘By the sun in its morning brightness and by the moon as it follows it, by the day as it displays the sun's glory and by the night as it conceals it, by the sky and how He built it and by the earth and how He spread it, by the soul and how He formed it and inspired it [to know] its own rebellion and piety!’

38 Ma Dexin 馬德新, Benjing wuzhang yijie 本經五章譯解 (Translation of the Five Chapters of the Root Scripture) (n.p., 1867), p. 1.

39 Ibid.

40 Ma, Lixue Zhezhong, p. 3.

41 Ibid, p. 2.

42 Ibid, p. 3.

43 Ibid, pp. 2–3.

44 Ibid, p. 5.

45 The full meaning of al-ḥaqq is not encompassed through English translations, where the term is usually rendered as the ‘Real’, the ‘Truth’, the ‘Right’, whereas al-ḥaqq also embodies the notion of giving each existent entity their duty. This idea becomes clearer when it is understood in relation to a term from the same Arabic root, taḥqīq (realization). The act of realization requires that each thing is given their rightful due, thus making it true or real as a complete entity.

46 Ma, Lixue Zhezhong, p. 7.

47 Murata et al., The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi, pp. 15 and 630.

48 As we saw with many of Ma Dexin's texts, it was commonplace to give any work used by the Sino-Muslims a Chinese title. Often an Arabic title was also given but not always. Ma Lianyuan followed this procedure when naming his texts.

49 Lin Chang-Kuan, ‘Three Eminent Chinese “Ulama” of Yunnan’, p. 111.

50 A complete contemporary translation and edited edition of the Arabic text is available in Murata et al., The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi, pp. 102–157.