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Islam in China - a Strange Fit?

Roberta Tontini wonders at how well Islam adapted itself to Confucian teachings - and at how quickly this harmony can disappear.

At first she was sceptical. When Roberta Tontini first flipped through the texts of Liu Zhi from the early eighteenth century, a particular thought kept crossing her mind: “My initial suspicion was that this Muslim scholar merely pretended to adjust Islam to the Qing rule”. Tontini kept trying to read between the lines. She was surprised that in his legal work “Tianfang Dianli” the author evokes a harmonious relationship between Sunni Islam and the teachings of Confucianism. How could it be possible for Islam to adapt to the dominant Chinese social order? “Considering that the so-called Confucian Muslims were the forefathers of presentday Chinese Muslims, I was puzzled by what this would mean in the long run - just imagine: a Muslim communist”. A strict hierarchy versus egalitarianism. But Tontini's curiosity was sparked. “And the more I learned, the clearer it became that I my initial assumption had to be revised.” Three years later, Tontini even doubted whether an old Chinese alim had not been right. He had whispered to her in front of a mosque in Kunming: “In China, we understand Islam better than the Arabs.”

Roberta Tontini
Roberta Tontini

During her master's studies in Rome, Tontini went through a number of classical texts. Afterwards, she was ready to ask new questions. “I was determined to find socially relevant issues for my work”, she says. At Xiamen University in southeast China her interest in Chinese Islam flared up once again. How could it be that the Jesuits were expelled from the country while the Muslims were not? And how did the Muslims succeed in integrating Islam into a secular state whose basic principles seemingly contradicted many aspects of Islamic law? “To really immerse myself in this research, I had to become part of the Chinese system”, says Tontini.

She was granted a scholarship from the Chinese gov ernment and taught Italian and Latin at Xiamen University. At the same time, she explored the day-today lives of locals and repeatedly visited different mosques, thus becoming gradually acquainted with the Islamic community of Xiamen. “I did not want to limit my experience to classical texts”, says Tontini.

While sipping her coffee in a Heidelberg cafe, she retraces her steps. Already as a teenager, she was fascinated by people whose identities stem from different roots. “Sometimes it creates tension and conflict, other times it works perfectly well”, she says. In her research on Islam in China she anticipated tension and conflict, but found harmony instead.

Already in the ninth century, many Sunnis came from the Middle East to China. It is generally assumed that the first wave of immigrants consisted mostly of men who later married Chinese women - a strong incentive to reconcile the different religious backgrounds.

Muslim scholar Liu Zhi was the self-appointed mediator between these two worlds. In his essay “Tianfang Dianli” he addresses the question of how a Muslim minority should interact with the non-Muslims and how Islamic law should be applied in order to avoid conflicts. To this end, he replaced Islamic hierarchies with a Confucian social structure, redefining the five pillars of Islam on the basis of Confucian ritual etiquette. The relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, between brothers and between friends were used as an organising scheme.

In this way, Liu Zhi succeeded in harmonising the teachings of Confucianism with the five pillars of Islam (ibadat) and with the social domain of the Sharia (mu'amalat). The latter lays down rules of warfare, marriage, divorce, inheritance and trade which seemed to contradict the legal culture of the Qing. Nonetheless, the scholar managed to reconcile seemingly incompatible views, such as the rules for polygamy or the legitimacy of a non-Muslim ruler over Muslim people.

Liu Zhi's academic text from the early Manchu period was just the beginning of a series of efforts at adaptation and harmonisation. In his teachings, other Islamic scholars found the inspiration to write “three-character classics” - condensed texts on Islamic law that were aimed at the wider public and written in rhymes for oral transmission. Every time the political system in China changed - from the Manchu empire to the Republic to the communist People's Republic - the authors adapted the content to the new political circumstances.

At first, Tontini thought that the variations from one copy to the next were transcription errors. She found that Heidelberg researchers were interested in this intellectual puzzle. In the Graduate Programme for Transcultural Studies (GPTS) of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” she also found academic freedom. “Before I came here, I experienced science as a competition where information was highly guarded. Here I came to know a new openness. People exchanged ideas, and even unorthodox views and new sources of information were welcome.”

Roberta Tontini is convinced that, at least, the Chinese Hui Muslims succeeded in staying true to their religion and becoming integrated into Chinese mainstream society. As descendants of the first Sunni immigrants, they now live scattered throughout China. However, Tontini does not think that the modality of their success is necessarily exportable as such. “In view of the peculiarities of the historical context, the Chinese experience cannot be easily duplicated”, she says.

Unlike other Muslim groups in China, the Hui share a closer sense of connection to the country. Tontini explains that the government consented to the publication in 2008 of a collection of books on the cultural heritage of Chinese Muslims that spans more than 200 volumes - the Chinese did not want to leave the development of religious theories to foreign Islamic scholarship. Since the 1990s, however, Muslims in China have increasingly been reading Arabic texts in Chinese translation instead of the three-character classics. Tensions are mounting, and imams are frequently trained in other countries such as Pakistan. Since then, what used to be considered as a sustainable Chinese variant of Islam finds itself in danger.


Short Biography

Roberta Tontini

Roberta Tontini Roberta Tontini studied sinology at the University of Rome - with a semester abroad at the University of Göttingen - and is now a PhD student in the “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” cluster in Heidelberg. Her master's thesis focused on Chinese Muslims' religious identity. After earning her degree, she worked for three years at Xiamen University in southeast China as an instructor of Latin and Italian.

For her PhD thesis, she is currently investigating how Islamic law was and is defined and incorporated in China. Tontini is fluent in Chinese and proficient in Hindi and Arabic. She has translated architectural works from Chinese to Italian and volunteered in Tibetan refugee camps in Dharamsala as an English teacher.

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