Disclaimer: While this paper highlights certain points of common ground with Islām, it is not written in support of Confucian doctrine and teachings.
Laws, generally speaking, are established to promote order in society and help people live their lives in peace, while governments are put in place to ensure these laws are followed in what John Locke called a “social contract”. The Great Digest details the practical application of that contract, from the smallest, most “insignificant” unit of the society to the highest. In short, it attempts to explain how to live a life in harmony with others. After giving a quick overview of Kung Fu-tzu, Kung-fu-t’se, Confucius’s life, the arrival of Islam in China and the manner that the local converts dealt with it, this paper will briefly look at a few of the principles put down in Kung-fu-t’se‘s writings and compare them with the Islamic concept. This is done for two reasons: (1) The author, after studying for five years, has been granted traditional license in Islamic Studies and Arabic at a madrasah. (2) Islam as a religion influences every aspect of a Muslim’s life, from the way he/she uses the bathroom, conducts business, prays, and governs, to the way one deals with his/her environment (whether those inhabiting that environment are animate or inanimate).
Kung-fu-t’se, known to the West as Confucius, was a Chinese philosopher who lived between 551? and 478 B.C. Born into a noble family, he lost his father at the age of 3, and was married by the age of 19. After working for the governor of his district for some years, he eventually opened up a school that allowed even those students who could afford to pay only a little bit to come and learn. At the age of 52 he was appointed the governor of a province and preformed the task so well that a neighboring governor became jealous and plotted his overthrow. After this Kung-fu-t’se went into to voluntary exile for 13 years, eventually returning to his native state in his 69th year and dying 3 years later. A collector and editor of the poetry, music, and historical writings of what he considered the golden age, Kung-fu-t’se spent his life trying to bring men to a right way of living and a respect for the teachings of the wise men of old. (Compton’s Encyclopedia Vol. 5, P. 511)
Living so many years before the birth of the Prophet Jesus (Peace be upon him), Kung-fu-t’se’s teachings were already imbedded in Chinese culture by the time the Prophet Muḥammad (May peace and blessings of God be upon him) was deputed. As Islām spread outwards from Madīnah, moving inexorably through the territories once held by the Roman and Persian empires, it also stretched eastwards, reaching as far as Ṣīn (China). It was carried there by Muslims on “journeys from the Arab lands”. (Compton’s Encyclopedia Vol. 4, P. 295h) As in other places throughout the globe, those elements of the local culture that were compatible with Islām were woven into the fabric of its physical expression.
The Chinese Muslims found it “culturally problematic to call Islam ‘submission’ or to transliterate it, producing the awkward form Yi Si Lan Jiao [the religion of of Islam]”. To make it easy, and understandable according to the norms of their culture, the Chinese Muslim scholars translated the Arabic word Islam as Qing Zhen Jiao [the Religion of the Pure and the Real]. The same was done with other terms, like Qiblah (the direction which Muslims face while praying), Heaven and Hell. The Qur’ān was referred to as the Classic, “putting it in the same category as the revered and sacred books (called ‘classics’) of ancient China.” The concept of Ṭawḥīd (the Oneness of God) was referred to as “Practicing One” and “Returning to the One”. (Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah Page: 8)
According to Dr. Abd-Allah, two Hui scholars of the early Manchurian period, Wang Daiyu and Liu Zhi, “regarded Confucianism[…] as closer to the Islamic ethos than Daoism or Buddhism…”.(Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah Page: 10) The reasons for this are quite clear when paging through the Great Digest with its emphasis on knowledge, self rectification, filial piety, and sincerity. These qualities are also greatly emphasized in Islam, with numerous Qur’ānic ayāṭ (verses), and aḥādīth (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings of God be upon him)) extolling the status of parents, especially the mother, and explaining the kindly and deferential manner with which they should be treated. In a similar fashion one can find innumerable texts dealing with sincerity (naṣīḥa) and selflessness in great detail.
Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucious The Unwobbling Pivot & The Great Digest begins with knowledge and it’s importance, because “knowing what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet.”(p.38) Ilm (knowledge), then, is the root and source of every good. It is one of the distinctions between Man (in the Old English sense of the word) and Animals. Because of it’s significance one of the greatest Scholars of Islam, Bukhari (May God have mercy on him), a non-Arab whose ancestors hailed from Persia, dedicated an entire section (from page 14 to page 25, in the edition I possess) of his famous book, Al–Jāmi Al-Musnad As-Ṣaḥīḥ Min Ḥadīthi Rasullāh Ṣallāhu Alaihi wa Sallam Wa Sunanihi Wa Ayāmihi, to mentioning those āḥādīth dealing with knowledge, its importance, and the etiquettes of acquiring it.
Kung-fu-t’se‘s text then proceeds to tell the reader that when this knowledge is acquired in an orderly manner it allows one to “grasp the azure [clear sky]”, and enables one to remain calm and level headed in the “moments of danger”. (p. 38) This is similar to Ibn Khaldūn’s statement in his Muqaddamah: i’alam anna talqinul ‘ulum lil mut’allimeen innama yakunu mufeedun idha kana ‘alat tadreej shai’an fa shai’an wa qalilan qalilan [you should know that instructing students will only be beneficial when it occurs in stages, little by little, bit by bit.] (Ibn Khaldūn, p. 533) This orderly manner of instruction and learning allows the student to fully understand the subjects being taught, and when this is accomplished, leaves the student in a calm state, allowing him/her to “keep his head in the presence of a tiger”. (p. 38)
Acknowledging the great virtue of knowledge, Mencius explains in his epistemology that “[t]he men of old wanting to… diffuse throughout the empire that light… first set up good government in their own states…” The building block of their “good government” was knowledge, but applied knowledge. Understanding the adage kamā ṭadinu tudānu [how you act is how people will act with you], they first looked inwards and attempted to “rectify their hearts”(p.38), as the Quran states in Ṣūrah Shams, ayah 9: qad aflaḥa man zakkāhā [Successful indeed is the one who purifies their nafs (i.e. the self)].
After rectifying oneself, one will no longer fall into the warning mentioned in the proverb, “No man knows his son’s faults, no one knows the stone-hard grain in the stalk’s head from the first sprouts.”(p. 46) The heart having been purified, one will see clearly and will not be swayed from the Truth even on the basis of family ties, race, or national pride. Pointing to the importance of the heart and its rectification, the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessing of God be upon him) mentioned alā wa inna fil jasadi mudhghatan idha ṣalaḥat ṣalaḥal jasadu kuluhu wa idha fasadaṭ fasadal jasadu kuluhu alā wa hiyal qalb [Indeed, in the body is a lump of flesh. When it is rectified, the entire body is rectified, and when it is corrupt, the entire body is corrupt.] And then he explains what piece of flesh that is by saying, “It is the heart.”
“The Kang Proclamation says: ‘As if taking care of an infant.’ If the heart sincerely wants to, although one may not hit the mark precisely in the center, one won’t go far wrong.”(p. 47) These lines seem not to mean sincerity in the sense of ikhlāṣ (doing an act solely for the sake of God), but sincerity in the sense of nasīḥa. Ad-dīnun nasīḥa [religion is nasīḥa], the narration of the Prophet (May peace and blessings of God be upon him) tells us. When his companions (May God be pleased with him) asked who this nasīḥa was due to, he replied lillāhi wa lī kiṭābihi wa lī rasūlihi wa lī ‘aimmatil muslimīn wa ‘āmmaṭihim [To God, His book, His Messenger, the leaders of the Muslims, and the general masses of the Muslims].
Focusing on the last two categories, we find that Sheikh Shabbīr Aḥmad (May God have mercy on him) explained that in the case of the leaders the nasīḥa is “[t]hat one should should help them fulfill their responsibilities, alert them to any lapses… and stop them from oppression in a good manner,” and concerning the general masses one should “be compassionate towards them, strive to do that which will benefit them, teach them that which will benefit them, ward off harm from them, like for them what you like for yourself, and dislike for them what you dislike for yourself.” (Faṭḥul Mulhim Vol: 2, Page: 15)
“[H]aving attained self-discipline, they set their own houses in order…”(p. 38) and moved slowly outward in ever larger circles, since “ [n]o one has ever yet been able to induct others into a style of conduct not part of his own viscera”.(p 47) After the individual, the first unit of the society is the family. It is the building block upon which society stands, and if it’s component pieces, specifically the husband and wife, are not rectified the rest will fall to ruin. Pointing out the importance of the wife, the poet says, “…Fragile fair she goes to the house of her husband/The bride who will bring harmony to it…”(p.47)
For this reason, that is the importance of the woman in the family, the Prophet Muḥammad (May peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has advised us that while women are married for four reasons (viz. their wealth, beauty, lineage, and religiousness), we should pick the one who is religious: fadhfar bi dhā’tid dīn. While explaining this narration in his book Mirqāṭ Al-Mafāṭīḥ, the great scholar Mulla ᶜAlī Al-Qārī (May God have mercy on him) related the following incident: A man once came to Ḥasan (May God have mercy on him) and said, “I have a daughter whom someone has proposed to. Who do you advise me to marry her to?” Ḥasan (May God have mercy on him) replied, “ Marry her to a man who fears God, because if he loves her he will honor her, and if he becomes angry with her he will not oppress her.” (Mulla ᶜAli Qārī Vol. 6, Page: 241)
The children brought into this “altar raised on earth under the heaven” (p. 47) will then be properly educated as is the duty of the parents. This is clearly stated in the Qur’an in Ṣurah Taḥrīm, ayah 6: ya ayyuhal ladhīna āmanu qū anfusakum wa ahlīkum nāra [Oh you who believe, save yourselves and your family from a fire…] Commenting on this ayah scholars versed in exegesis of the Qur’ān like Ibn Kathīr, Waḥīdī, and Qurtubī (May God have mercy on them) have mentioned that it means one must teach their children what they should and should not do.
The imparting of knowledge and good character is something that is the right of the child, and when it is fulfilled the children issuing forth from this house will be a benefit to the society. They will become beacons of light who are merciful to those below them, respectful to their elders in accordance with the narration of the Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of God be upon him): laisa minna man lam yarḥam ṣaghīranā wa lum yuwaqqir kabīranā [That individual who does not have mercy on our youngsters, nor respects our elders is not from us] and dutiful to their parents in conformity with the verse of the Qur’an: wakhfidh lahuma janāhadh dhulli minar raḥmat [And lower the wings of mercy to them]. Built upon these strong blocks, it is little wonder that “[o]ne humane family can humanize a whole state…”(p. 47)
Looking over the entire Great Digest as translated by Ezra Pound, one finds that it can be summarized into a few lines, though these lines must be read backwards, since the qualities detailed above spring upwards from the individual, outwards through the mother and father to the children, and then to society at large. To borrow Kung-fu-t’se‘s tree metaphor, it is from the root of the tree into the branches, and only then do they, laden down with humility, shower their favors back down. “As a prince he came to rest in humanity, in the full human qualities in his manhood; As a minister, in respect; As a son in filial devotion; As a father in carrying kindliness down in to particular parts, and in relation to the people, in fidelity to the given word.”(p. 41-42)
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