The common threads of Confucianism and Islam

August 31, 2019 09:30 pm | Updated 09:30 pm IST

Muslims pray during a Eid al-Fitr at a mosque in Yinchuan, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010. Muslims in China celebrate the Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on Friday. (AP Photo) ** CHINA OUT **

Muslims pray during a Eid al-Fitr at a mosque in Yinchuan, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010. Muslims in China celebrate the Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan on Friday. (AP Photo) ** CHINA OUT **

After about an hour’s drive along a spanking new highway, southwest from Lanzhou, the capital of China’s Gansu province, the landscape changes suddenly. For several miles along the green countryside, the minarets and gleaming domes of mosques burst into view. The area is part of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture — an abode of Hui Muslims, whose Islamic faith appears well integrated with the Han Chinese mainstream.

The Hui Muslims, a total of around 10.5 million in the entire country, form a significant minority in China. They slightly outnumber the Uyghur Muslims, who have been in the media limelight on account of their sporadic run-ins with the state in the far western region of Xinjiang. Among the thousands of Chinese Muslims who head for the Haj annual pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, the majority are of Hui lineage.

The Chinese authorities appear to have a soft corner for the Hui community, which is often cited as a model for peaceful cultural integration. Hui Islam traces its origin to the 7th century when, during the Tang dynasty, Arab and Central Asian traders immigrated and seeded Islam along the Silk Road.

Over time, local philosophers sprouted, successfully blending Islam with the native tradition of Confucianism and Taoism. In the 18th century, Hui scholar Liu Zhi wrote Han Kitab . This was a strikingly imaginative work representing a fusion of Confucianism with Islam. In tune with the popular imagination, Liu projected the Prophet Mohammed as a sage in the Confucian tradition. The Sharia law was perceived as an extension of Confucian rituals. In the end, Liu believed that the blend of Confucianism and lslam along certain select lines would produce a society of social harmony and virtue.

Unlike the followers of a more rigid interpretation of Islam, Hui Muslims regularly visit Sufi shrines. Incense burning is not rare, and kowtowing, typical of Chinese worshipers across many religions, during visits to Sufi shrines, is routine. A blend of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy at places of worship is also commonplace.

While Chinese authorities may be comfortable with their cosmopolitan traditions, the Hui Muslims are often under internal attack, especially from those who have been exposed to the Wahhabi doctrine during their travels abroad. A Foreign Policy article quoted Imam Ma Jun, who left his hometown of Lanzhou for a five-year study of Sharia law and Arabic at the Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. “I was on fire when I came back from Saudi Arabia,” Imam Ma was quoted as saying. “I felt a strong responsibility. Chinese Muslims didn’t have enough belief. They were impure and too shallow.”

Imam Ma is not alone in being attracted to the puritanical form of Islam. In the late 19th century, Imam Ma Wanfu came back from Mecca brimming with the zeal of purifying Chinese Islam. Over time, the Yihewani (or Ikhwan) sect of Islam, gained a foothold in Gansu province.

Unsurprisingly, the common threads of Confucianism and Islam are visible in the mosque architecture in Linxia. From afar, the crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, towers over buildings whose roof corners sharply turned upwards — typical of the Taoist architectural tradition.

Cultural diversity

The Linxia area eventually merges into grasslands of the Tibetan plateau that extend into Gansu province. The countryside becomes seamlessly dotted with Buddhist monasteries as well as cultural nodes, which stand out for their Tankha paintings as well as highland agricultural and medicinal products.

About four hours by road from Lanzhou, the Labrang monastery — built on the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian cultures — towers over the landscape. Its imposing white walls, capped by gilded roofs, represent a fusion of Tibetan and Indian Vihara architectural styles.

Local and national authorities are leveraging Gansu’s cultural diversity, beautiful scenery and heritage sites by imparting a push to tourism. “From 2010-16, the share of tourism industry in Gansu’s economy grew from 6% to 17%,” said Ahmed Eiweida, a senior World Bank official, last month at the Fourth Silk Road (Dunhuang) International Cultural Expo at Gannan, a Tibetan enclave in Gansu.

Atul Aneja is The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent.

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