18 Jun 2024

The Story of Liu Zhi; Chinese Muslim Scholar

The Story of Liu Zhi; Chinese Muslim Scholar


Zahra is an Indian Iranian creative who loves learning. Her particular areas of interest are culture & identity. Outside of researching, writing and collating stories together, she’s an avid reader and traveller.

The Story of Liu Zhi; Chinese Muslim Scholar

Do you know about the historical Muslim legacy in China?

Whilst the historical link between China and Islam has been tainted by the horrific treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Islam is not a new thing in China.

In fact, some of the earliest mosques in Islamic history are in China.

Islam came to the country during the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279) through the Silk Roads.

Arabian and Persian traders built tombs and mosques that combined traditional Arab and Chinese architectures. They settled and intermarried with local Chinese, raising the first generation of Chinese-speaking Muslims.

Prior to 1949, both Sinitic and Turkic Muslims were referred to as “Hui” or “Hui-hui”.

It was only in the 1950s that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) identified ten Muslim groups, which it subdivided into four language families:

Sino-Tibetan (Hui), Turkic-Altaic (Uyghur, Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Uzbek, and Tatar), Turkic-Mongolian (Bao’an), and Indo-European (Tajik) [i].

Who was Liu Zhi?

Liu Zhi was born in 1660 and was raised in a Hanafi and Sufi Muslim household. During this period, many Hui Muslims were significantly affected by Sufism, particularly the Qadari, Naqshbandi, and Kubrawi branches of Sufi Islam.

After receiving religious instruction from his father, Liu Sanjie, Liu began studying the scriptures with scholar Yuan Ruqi in the Garden of Military Studies Mosques in Nanjing when he was 12 years old.

When he turned 15, he spent the following 15 years learning about Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam.

Confucianism, also known as Ru, is an ancient Chinese belief system, which focuses on the importance of personal ethics and morality.

Liu is said to have referred to Confucius and Mencius as the “Sages of the East” and the Prophet Muhammad as the “Sage of the West” in order to better understand prophethood in Islam, asserting that “the teachings of the Sages of the East and West, today and in ancient times, are one.”

Liu is said to have spent the next 20 years studying Islamic scriptures and spirituality in greater depth in Nanjing starting at the age of 30. Up until the 1720s, he wrote many of his illustrious writings and works during this period. He also learned to speak Arabic well.

His writings were incorporated into the Han Kitab as part of a greater endeavour to better understand Islam through Confucian philosophy.

His most renowned papers, The Principles of Islam (published in 1704), The Rules and Proprieties of Islam (published in 1710), and the Tianfang Zhisheng Shilu, solidified Liu as one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Islamic views in Confucianist China (The Record of the Prophet of Islam, 1724).

The Han Kitab is a collection of Chinese Islamic texts, written by Chinese Muslims, which draws on Islam and Confucianism. Their name reflects this collaboration in thought: Han is the Chinese word for Chinese and kitab is the Arabic word for book.

A page from the Han Kitab

Dr Yamamoto described the Han Kitab as such. ‘Using the concepts of traditional Chinese philosophy, they tried to show that Islam is not distant from Chinese values. And most importantly, they used the Chinese language when they articulated Islamic visions.’

Liu Zhi, who is now regarded as one of the greatest Chinese scholars of Islam, was revolutionary in the way he rethought Islam through the perspectives of East Asia and Confucianism.

He skillfully merged the beauty of Islam with the depths of Confucian philosophy and popularised Sino-Islamic intellectualism.

Liu lived during the Qing Dynasty, the final dynasty before the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which put an end to 5,000 years of monarchy and brought about the Republic of China. Little is known about his personal life.

He passed away in 1739. Liu was given the title of “wali” after his passing, and many Hui Muslims referred to him as a Sufi saint.

He is laid to rest in front of Nanjiang’s southern gate, a place of great historical and religious significance to Muslims throughout China. His tomb has become a place of great significance for Muslims all over the world.

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