Interview: James Frankel

Interview: James Frankel

About the Islam in China Interview Series: Islam in China is doing a series of interviews with academics, Chinese Muslim artists, scholars, researchers etc. The goal is to give the readers of this resource a good overview of aspects of Chinese Islamic culture and civilization. The current interview is the second interview in this series.

About James Frankel: James Frankel is an Assistant Professor at University of Hawaii. His area of expertise is the history of Islam in China and his areas of interest include comparative history of ideas and religious and cultural syncretism in China. His PhD dissertation was on the subject of Chinese Islamic scholarship during the early Qing Period. He has traveled extensively in Asia and Europe and has interacted with Muslim scholars and leader in many Muslim communities. His book, Rectifying God’s Name, on the great Chinese Muslim scholar Liu Zhi was recently published by the University of Hawaii Press.

James Frankel Faculty Page at University of Hawaii

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[Image Source: University of Hawaii Website]

Interview of James Frankel: On June 22nd, 2011 I had the good fortune of sitting down with James and interviewing him, and discussing things of interest. Here is the transcript of the interview.

James Frankel Interview Transcript

Islam in China: Can you tell us something about your background? How did you get interested aspects of the Chinese Islamic Culture?

James Frankel: Well, I have been doing it for quite a while. I have been working on this topic for a while, since the senior year of my college days. I came to it through two different directions. It’s a hybrid topic, so I came from it from both directions. From the Chinese direction, I was an East Asian Studies Major at Columbia University and that comes from my family background. My parents deal in Asian art, so Chinese culture was around me when I was growing up. So it was only natural that I started to study Chinese culture at university. That was the first part. As an East Asian language and culture major, I studied Chinese culture, Chinese philosophy and Chinese history. And within that I also studied Chinese religion. Now the other part, the Islamic part, is a little bit harder to frame but what it comes down to is that during that time in my life, (when I was) in my late teens and early twenties, I was engaged in a personal search for meaning and understanding of the world and life. That led me to the study of religion independently and that led me eventually to the study of Islam. These two interests converged when I was twenty one years old when I was writing my bachelor’s thesis and I had to write something original about Chinese culture and I decided to write about Chinese Muslims and ever since then I have been doing that.

Islam in China: So your recent book, Rectifying God’s Name, talks about the work of Liu Zhi and also the broader context of the Han Kitab, can you please tell us something about that?

James Frankel: Well, in my early research, even from that Bachelor’s thesis, whenever I read about Chinese Islamic intellectual history the name Liu Zhi always came up. Every article, every chapter of a book in English which dealt with Islam in China always mentioned Liu Zhi. It actually mentioned the three great Han Kitab writers: Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu and Liu Zhi, but Liu Zhi was clearly the most accomplished of these writers from all the descriptions. So I wanted to know what this person was writing. It was from there I worked backwards. I acquired my first copy of the Tianfang dianli from a family friend in Hong Kong, from a Chinese Muslim family. And I tried to read it but it was impenetrable at that time and so I had to backtrack and I wanted to learn the context of the kind of language that he was using which leads us back to the history of the Han Kitab. And that history begins with the long history of assimilation of Muslims in China who arrived some time in the Tang period (618-906) in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and then after several centuries working with the Chinese language and Chinese culture, some of them lost contact with the Islamic sources. So then during the Ming period (1368-1644) in the sixteenth century, there emerged a great figure, Hu Dengzhou, who was so unsatisfied with the amount of Islamic knowledge available in China that he went westward in pursuit of Islamic learning. He returned bringing with him what may have been Sufi teachings and all sorts of books in Arabic and Persian. Then he and his associates back in China began to translate these works. That’s the origin of the Han Kitab. And then from those original translations, generation after generation, teachers transmitted and expanded upon this knowledge, in a scholarly network spread throughout central  and eastern China. Then, from these beginnings, the more innovative, original Han Kitab works of Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu and Liu Zhi emerged in the two centuries after that. It was in this context that I then delved deeply into Liu Zhi’s thought.

Islam in China: It seems that the Han Kitab represents the acculturation of Islam in China with respect to the Confucian and the Daoist philosophies of China. Would you say that that tradition still survives or did it die out in China?

James Frankel: I think it continues amongst those of us who are reading the Han Kitab today and there is a small group of Chinese readers, Chinese Muslims readers, who are probably studying the Han Kitab but the tradition, the Han Kitab itself, there was an interruption in the Han Kitab tradition which had a lot to do with the upheaval in China in the late 19th century, all the way up to the 20th century. The Chinese Islamic intellectual tradition evolved and was transformed into something quite different. If you look into the research that some of my colleagues are doing into the early 20th century intellectual history of Muslims in China, it has a lot to do with the reformation of China: the Chinese education, the Chinese intellectual tradition at large, the modernization and to some extent the Westernization of that intellectual tradition. So the Han Kitab may have been transformed into something else, like apologetic works by Chinese Muslims which were much more concerned with a new order and not the Confucian order that they were interested in previously. I think today there is resurgence in interest in Han Kitab but that represents a revival rather than a continuation.

Islam in China: There seems to be a general revival of Confucian teachings in China, do you think that this would feed back into this (Sino-Islamic) tradition?

James Frankel: Yes I think so. I do think that after the heights of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, there is a resurgence of Confucian thought in China. Confucianism never disappeared from China but it was subordinated just as Islam and other religions and philosophies were subordinated during the heights of the extremely ideological period in China’s history. Now that they have been discovered by Western scholars there has been a recognition of the Han Kitab as not only Muslim books but also as part of the Confucian tradition. So as Muslims rediscover or redefine their identity in China, I do think that there will be a synergy between the rise of Confucianism in China and the Sino-Islamic tradition.

Islam in China: Were there any influences, from the Muslim Confucians in the other direction as well, i.e., on the wider non-Muslim Confucian scholars?

James Frankel: I think minimally. It was not as profound or influential as the Jesuit and the Chinese Catholic thought and writing that penetrated China from the 16th through the 18th century. There may have been some subtle influences but I think that the scope of the Han Kitab was limited to the Chinese Muslim community, and a particular elite amongst the Chinese Muslim community, to express themselves and express their self-identity. So I do think that there was limited influence. I do know for example that Liu Zhi’s Tianfang dianli was included in the Siku quanshu, or the Qianlong emperor’s (r. 1736-1796) compendium of literature. So it gained a certain modicum of recognition but I do not think that Islamic thought penetrated Confucian circles that deeply.

Islam in China: And why do you think that is the case?

James Frankel: If you look at the description of the Tianfang dianli in the imperial compendium in the Qing period, I think the answer is right there. The Confucian editor who reviewed Liu Zhi’s work said that Liu Zhi was a brilliant scholar who writes beautifully, that his style is very eloquent but he says that Islam is fundamentally absurd and therefore all the clever ornamentation that Liu Zhi used, all of his Confucian training was to no avail. So the dominant Chinese world view would see Islam as being inherently inferior to Confucian thought and I think it was the utmost obstacle to any kind of serious influence by Islamic thought on Chinese culture.

Islam in China: Can we make a parallel between Islam and Buddhism in this context? For the longest time Buddhism was also considered to be a foreign religion in China?

James Frankel: Buddhism is unique amongst the foreign religions in China because it really was transplanted and naturalized in China to the point that it became one of the so-called Three Teachings alongside Confucianism and Daoism. No other religion has been able to achieve that level of acceptance in China. So although it was foreign, Buddhism integrated into Chinese culture and society. Perhaps it has to do with historical circumstances, the manner in which the missionaries and then Chinese Buddhists translated this tradition into Chinese. May be all of these factors contributed to why Buddhism became so widely accepted in China. I think it is because of a number of things – historical circumstances, the timing when Buddhism entered China, and that it was an attractive religion at that time. Also, in the field of comparative religion we often hear the generalization that Asian religions are less exclusive and more inclusive, whereas the Abrahamic monotheisms, as similar they are to each other, are exclusive of each other not to mention other religions in the world. So Judaism, Christianity and Islam demand an exclusive commitment to their truth claims that can’t really permit the acceptance of other religions simultaneously. Buddhism does not require that same kind of faith commitment. Buddhism traditionally has been more of a practice rather than a doctrine and so it managed to find a way to coexist with Confucianism and with Daoism often in terms of syncretism and blending of traditions. So there is a parallel between Islam and Buddhism, or Buddhism and other foreign religions, but Buddhism, as I said, has a unique distinction of successful transplantation of a foreign religion in China. Of course throughout the centuries it has had its opponents as well, but you cannot separate Buddhism from Chinese culture today. The same cannot be said about Islam.

Islam in China: Going back to the topic of Liu Zhi’s teaching, what do you think other cultures, especially Muslim cultures and Muslim minorities, can learn from that particular era in time and that culture?

James Frankel: Well, in many ways, I actually think that Liu Zhi’s, and not just Liu Zhi’s but the Han Kitab phenomenon and the scholarly enterprise developed by Muslim intellectuals in China, is consistent with some of the earliest and the most deeply held values of Islam. There is a Hadith[1] which says that the “word of wisdom belongs to the Believer and he should take claim of it wherever he finds it.” And we know the oft-repeated Hadith, “Seek knowledge even though be it in China” And that is exactly what the Han Kitab writers were doing. They were finding wisdom in the tradition of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism which also blends Buddhist and Daoist ideas. And they were finding parallels with Islamic ideas and values. As I have argued in my own book, this is just an expression of their simultaneous existence as Chinese Muslims. I think Muslims around the world, especially minority communities, can learn a lot from this. Rather than the rejectionism that we see, the exclusivity of Islam for lack of a better word, that is, the thinking that Islam is completely independent and bears no relation with any world tradition except in so far as traditions which preceded it may have been divine revelations which may have been distorted. Rather than looking at it simply in those terms, we can see the universality of human wisdom and Liu Zhi made this argument that the wisdom of the Chinese sages is identical to the wisdom of the Arabian sage, the Prophet (pbuh). That is something that all of us can learn from and we can have a civil discourse based on finding common ground. A lot of inter-faith dialogue in Western countries is based on that principle but I do not think that it has been as successful for European or American Muslims as much as the Han Kitab enterprise was successful for Muslims in China. So I think that is a lesson for all of us.

Islam in China: Ever since China opened up to the rest of the world, there have been a number of pressures on Chinese Muslims in terms of national policies and also influences from the outside with respect to “purging” Islam of Chinese influences i.e., mainly influences coming from the Middle East. How does this affect the local Chinese Muslim tradition?

James Frankel: From its inception in China, Islam has never been a monolithic entity. Islamic communities in Northwestern China are different from Islamic communities in Eastern China. The further East we get, we see greater assimilation into the mainstream Chinese culture. That has been true even earlier and includes the Han Kitab, which were works of assimilation. So I think there will always be different Muslim communities in China. We see it everywhere; there are different Muslim communities in Muslim countries and there are different Muslim communities amongst Muslim minorities in the West and elsewhere. I think that would be the case in China as well. I do think, however, if I can give my personal opinion, for the lack of a better word – the Arabization of Chinese Islam that we see will continue to some extent. I think that it threatens to undo some of the efforts of the luminaries of the Han Kitab three hundred, four hundred years ago. If the idea of an exclusive or “purified” Islam is to be promoted in China, I think that will only serve to further separate China’s Muslims from their non-Muslim neighbors. That will put Muslims in a more unfavorable position in Chinese society. I think assimilation i.e., some sort of integration, is vital. I am of course not advocating the loss of Islamic identity. But if the pendulum swings too far in the direction of differentiation then you leave these communities vulnerable to intense segregation and ghettoization. I do not think that that would be a good outcome.

Islam in China: Now moving in the other direction, outside of China was there any influence of the Confucian and the Daoist traditions on the Islamic world?

James Frankel: Not that we can document. Buddhist, yes. Buddhist influences in early medieval Islam are documented but that did not come from China. It probably came from India and Central Asia. Daoist and Confucian influences in the Central Islamic lands, I do not think that we can really document this. We can speculate but the evidence is very very scant. I think it behooves Muslims everywhere to learn more about other religions of the world, including Chinese religions.

Islam in China: In general, would it be correct to say that within the larger Islamic, and even Confucian and Daoist, context the influence has been a one way street intellectually or is that too strong of a statement?

James Frankel: That is too strong of a statement, but I think the preponderance of evidence in the Han Kitab shows mainly the influence of Confucianism on Islamic thought and that is because they are written in Chinese. The Chinese language carries within it certain ideological and cultural assumptions; any language does. Now there may be subtle influences of the Islamic culture on the Chinese culture. There certainly have been influences in terms of material culture. There have absolutely been influences on the Chinese culture because trade went both ways, but intellectually and religiously I think that the vast majority of influences haves been one directional. Maybe further research will reveal more bidirectional influences.

Islam in China: Mainly because of the rise of China on the world stage, China has started reappearing in the consciousness of the wider Muslim world once again. Do you think that such influences and such interaction will once again become prominent?

James Frankel: I am sure of that. China is so integral to the global community and there are more Muslims in China than most people realize. With the opening of China, and Chinese people traveling abroad, a certain percentage of the traveling Chinese population will be Chinese Muslims, including Chinese Muslims performing the Hajj[2]. The Hajj has traditionally been not only the religious obligation that it is, but also a meeting place for Muslims around the world, a pan-Islamic, almost universal marketplace not only of goods but also ideas. So I think that the Chinese Muslims and Chinese Islam will be further integrated into global Islam just as China is being integrated in the global civilization.

Islam in China: Based on what I have read about the Han Kitab, owning to the peculiarity of the Chinese language, the translation of Arabic and Farsi terms into Chinese, when they are translated back, may lose some meaning or sound strange. Can you comment on that?

James Frankel: Any attempt to translate from language x to language y, and then back to language x, is bound to produce oddities of expression. I think with translation comes increased complexity. In the encounter of civilizations, I write in my book, translation is the necessary first step but also the greatest barrier to communication. We try to finds ways to communicate when we encounter the other and then we have to find a certain accommodation to an entirely different set of ideas and worldview. I think that the ideas that are written in Liu Zhi’s work are based on some very sophisticated ideas from Islamic mysticism and metaphysics, which would be difficult for most Muslims to understand even in their original language, not to mention that the Chinese language which Liu Zhi used is the most refined and literary language of that culture, of China. The Neo-Confucian texts are very hard for most Chinese people to penetrate and so multiple layers of complications exist. And so you may ask, who can read these? And I would have to say that at this point only a very few people can read these overlapping literatures. And of course when we translate back to English, another layer of complexity is added. But hopefully our attempt i.e., the my attempt and that of my colleagues, will open up this up to a whole new audience in what is the Lingua Franca of our day. With reference back to the Chinese and the Islamic context, we can understand the meaning of these books in both contexts and finally in an English speaking context.

Islam in China: Can you say a few additional things about the work of Liu Zhi and the Han Kitab?

James Frankel: If we look at their name, the word itself shows their complexity. The word Han is the Chinese word for the Chinese language (and people) and the word Kitab is the Arabic, or rather the pan-Islamic, word for the book. It has been borrowed by many other languages too. So Han Kitab shows that the writers and the readers of these books were an audience that was equally comfortable with the Chinese literary tradition and the Islamic religious tradition. As such some people call them works of apologia which seek to explain and defend Islam. I think that is part of their purpose, but there is another aspect. For the scholars who wrote and studied, these were also works of inner transformation, they were works of personal devotion. In Islam, for a scholar, an alim [3], his work is an act of devotion and I do not think that Liu Zhi and Chinese Muslim scholars were any different in this regard from other Muslim scholars. I think that they thought that they were doing a service to Islam and they were serving Allah and his people by writing the works that they were writing. At the same time they completely embodied the Confucian ethic of education and self-cultivation that takes place through learning and scholarship. And so the Han Kitab, just as the name suggests – their hybrid Chinese-Arabic name, they were simultaneously works of Islam and Confucian, or Neo-Confucian, (works of) self-cultivation by these scholars. They also served a more general purpose of educating the Muslim community in China and to some extent speaking to the non-Muslim scholarly elite, the Confucian elite, in China and showing them aspects of Islam which they hadn’t seen previously. So they actually serve multiple purposes. A personal purpose for the writers themselves, a communal purpose for Chinese Muslims in general, and a wider purpose in the encounter between the Chinese and the Muslim civilizations.

The work of the Han Kitab writers was so important and so remarkable. They were showing that there was not only a genetic, blood connection between the Han and the Hui, but also that there is a profound intellectual, ideological, ethical, moral and even, dare we use the word, spiritual connection between the Chinese and the Islamic traditions. The stigma of otherness or foreignness that Muslims have carried for so long, if it is ever going to be, I would not say eliminated, but minimized, there needs to be more communication between these communities. And I do think that this example, which admittedly occurred at the most elite and scholarly level of society in late imperial China, may hold a lesson for Han and non-Han relations in China in general. If you want to call it a meeting of civilizations, there is a lesson to be learned from that meeting and that lesson, as I said earlier, can be transferred to other Muslim minorities elsewhere, even in the United States. There is a lot of common ground; it sounds so cliché that I almost feel embarrassed to say it, but we do have so much in common than that which separates us and differentiates us – our DNA itself. I think there is a lesson to be learned here. I would not be doing the work that I am doing if I did not believe that there was some relevance of this work to the bigger picture and when I say bigger picture what I am talking about is our relationship with one another and to the world in which we live. And I do not mean to sound so grandiose but that is what motivates me.

Islam in China: A number of authors have argued that, historically and even now, Islam has been the “Other”, or at least one of the “others”. Do you think that through the process of acculturation and non-Muslim Chinese getting to know more about Islam, the Chinese people will stop thinking about Islam as the “Other”?

James Frankel: I think that the Chinese conception of Muslims is best captured by the title of my colleague and mentor John Lipman’s book Familiar Strangers. That is exactly what they are. They are other, but they are an other that has been in the midst of Chinese culture for so long that they are a known other. They are not a complete other, they are not a complete enigma. Will they ever be a not-other? I think China will have to become, and it is becoming, a more cosmopolitan society but for the most part among the great Han majority, as it is described in Chinese sociological and anthropological studies and policies in China, there is an attempt to make China very homogeneous. That, to some extent, requires minorities who are “other”, who are heterogeneous, and who must conform to a certain cultural standard if they are to belong to China. As long as that attitude persists, there must be an other, especially insofar as Muslims insist on differentiating themselves. And the Muslims in China who are not-other are the Muslims who have assimilated to the degree of losing their Islamic identity. So I think there must always be some degree of otherness as long as there are self-identified Muslims in China.

Islam in China: My last question, what future works are you thinking about?

James Frankel: I am contemplating my next major writing project, my next major research project. Perhaps a second book, which is basically the outgrowth of the work that I did on Rectifying God’s Name. It is to look at the parallel, the intertwined history of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Chinese context. Recently, during my visit to New York, when I spoke to a group at local synagogue, I was talking about this very topic of Jews and Muslims and how they have assimilated in China and we noticed so many parallels, and not only parallels but also ways in which these two groups have influenced each other. We also see that the Christians were an integral player in this drama. One of the responses that I got from an audience member in this mostly Jewish audience was that she “never realized how similar we were.” She meant, or course, how similar Jews and Muslims are, and we can add Christians to that equation as well. And in the Chinese context perhaps it is easier to see in the stark relief of Chinese society. the relationship between Jews and Muslims than it is to see this relationship in the politically charged climate of the Israeli-Arab politics.

Explanation of terms:

[1] A Hadith is a saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

[2] Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Madina which is in present day Saudi Arabia.

[3] The Arabic or rather the pan-Islamic term for a scholar

Rectifying God’s Name

Here is the description of James’ new book from the University of Hawaii Press.


“Islam first arrived in China over 1,200 years ago, but for more than a millennium it was perceived as a foreign presence. The restoration of native Chinese rule by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), after nearly a century of Mongol domination, helped transform Chinese intellectual discourse on ideological, social, political, religious, and ethnic identity. This led to the creation of a burgeoning network of Sinicized Muslim scholars who wrote about Islam in classical Chinese and developed a body of literature known as the Han Kitab. Rectifying God’s Name examines the life and work of one of the most important of the Qing Chinese Muslim literati, Liu Zhi (ca. 1660–ca. 1730), and places his writings in their historical, cultural, social, and religio-philosophical contexts. His Tianfang dianli (Ritual law of Islam) represents the most systematic and sophisticated attempt within the Han Kitab corpus to harmonize Islam with Chinese thought.

The volume begins by situating Liu Zhi in the historical development of the Chinese Muslim intellectual tradition, examining his sources and influences as well as his legacy. Delving into the contents of Liu Zhi’s work, it focuses on his use of specific Chinese terms and concepts, their origins and meanings in Chinese thought, and their correspondence to Islamic principles. A close examination of the Tianfang dianli reveals Liu Zhi’s specific usage of the concept of Ritual as a common foundation of both Confucian morality and social order and Islamic piety. The challenge of expressing such concepts in a context devoid of any clear monotheistic principle tested the limits of his scholarship and linguistic finesse. Liu Zhi’s theological discussion in the Tianfang dianli engages not only the ancient Confucian tradition, but also Daoism, Buddhism, and even non-Chinese traditions. His methodology reveals an erudite and cosmopolitan scholar who synthesized diverse influences, from Sufism to Neo-Confucianism, and possibly even Jesuit and Jewish sources, into a body of work that was both steeped in tradition and, yet, exceedingly original, epitomizing the phenomenon of Chinese Muslim simultaneity.

A compelling and multidimensional study, Rectifying God’s Name will be eagerly welcomed by interested readers of Chinese and Islamic religious and social history, as well as by students and scholars of comparative religion.”