The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China

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The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China, by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005. xi + 280 pp. US$45.00/£29.95/euro41.50 (hardcover).

Between the late Ming dynasty and the late Qing, Muslim scholars in China created a sophisticated corpus in the Chinese written language that set out the principles and practices of Islam. This corpus is known by Muslims in China as the han kitab, the Sinophone Islamic books, and includes both translations of Persian and Arabic texts and original works. The system of learning that gave rise to the Sinophone Islamic books is known as jingtang jiaoyu, or Sinophone Islamic learning. The scholarly network that developed and propagated this system of learning, and their relationship to other Chinese scholarly elite networks, is the subject of Svi Ben-Dor Benite's first book-length publication, based on a PhD thesis of a similar title written under the supervision of Benjamin Elman.

The Dao of Muhammad is, at heart, a close textual analysis of an important biographical text that chronicles the early teachers of Sinophone Islamic learning. Written by a certain Zhao Can in Kaifeng in the 1670s and published in 1989 under the title Jingxue xi chuanpu, or "Genealogy of Classical Learning", the text describes twenty-five major teachers in the scholarly tradition with which the author himself identified, documenting where and from whom these teachers gained their knowledge, to whom they passed it on, and any worthy accomplishments they may have achieved. The founder of this tradition, Zhao tells us, was known as Grand Master Hu, who gained his knowledge during several years of study under a "turbaned elder" in Central Asia. On his return to China, Grand Master Hu established a school where he taught the new style of Islamic learning that became known as jingtang jiaoyu. His students founded further new schools, and so the network spread.

Ben-Dor Benite takes the detailed information provided by Zhao Can and interprets it through the concept of a "scholarly network", derived from Elman's work on Confucian scholarly networks. He begins by raising the issues involved with researching an Islamic scholarly community in China and introducing an intellectual (Chapter 1), and proceeds to a skillful exposition of the scholarly network of Sinophone Islamic learning and the movement of texts through this network. In Chapter 3, he draws on Zhao Can's text supplemented by other biographical sources to address the question of how Islamic principles were articulated in a Chinese medium (hence the title of the book). In this chapter Ben-Dor Benite overemphasizes the importance of the specific vocabulary used by these Sinophone Islamic scholars. For example, he describes the transformation of Muhammad from Prophet to Sage at the hands of the Sinophone Islamic scholars, without discussion of what the characteristics of a prophet (Ar. rasul, nabi) are as defined by the broad tradition of Islamic learning, or the status of the sage (Ch. …