China’s forgotten legacy of Islam

Uyghur Life Endures in Kashgar's Old CityACCORDING to traditional Chinese Muslim narratives, the earliest Chinese contact with Islam was reported to be some years after Prophet Muhammad’s passing, when His companion, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (674), and three others travelled to China.

This was documented by accomplished Chinese Muslim scholar Liu Sanjie and his son, the famed expounder of Sufi metaphysics, Liu Zhi (1739).

Other major Muslim personalities who made an impact on the cultural legacy of Islam in Chinese history include Syed Umar Shams al-Din (Sayyid al-Ajall) (1279). He was said to be the 27th generation of Prophet Muhammad’s descendent and a highly regarded Muslim official during the Yuan Dynasty.

He was appointed imperial minister of finance, as recorded by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Sayyid al-Ajall was subsequently tasked with governing Yunnan and was described by one contemporary historian to have brought “civilisation” to Yunnan.

Sayyid al-Ajall not only propagated Islam through his words and deeds, but also promoted the praiseworthy elements of the indigenous tradition that were compatible with Islam’s teachings. He strengthened the solidarity of the community through the establishment of Confucius schools.

During the Ming Dynasty, Muslims gained unprecedented acceptance at the highest level.

Islam’s prominence in this period is perhaps best encapsulated in the One Hundred Words of Praise by Emperor Hongwu (1398), founder of Ming Dynasty in 1368.

It was during the Qing period, however, that saw the emergence of Chinese Muslim theologians, metaphysicians and thinkers who created a distinctive philosophical school, later named the “Han Kitab” tradition.

Han Kitab sought to Islamise Confucian thought without rejecting the praiseworthy elements of the Confucian tradition, which had begun with Wang Daiyu (1660) who was regarded as a saint during the Qing period.


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