Islamic Manuscripts in China


The investigation and introduction of Islamic manuscripts in China is ,in fact,a rediscovery of the old Islamic heritage of a country where Islamic cultural influence was once deep-rooted and widespread.Traces of this influence still exist due to the fact that there are large Muslim populated areas in China where the inhabitants are keen to keep their Islamic heritage alive. Historical circumstances,and social and political change,have meant that research and study in the field of Islamic studies,unlike other parts of the world,has remained dormant in China.The existence of Islamic manuscripts in Chna goes beyond bibliographical and codicological value and has great worth as a cultura and historical document of the remaining Iranian-Islamic heritage in China.


The main problem in surveying ollections of Islamic manuscripts in China lies in the fact that there has been no thorough study carried out,apart from a handful of articles on some collections in Peking which were written by visiting foreign scholars. The location of many collections of Islamic manuscripts remain unknown to Chinese Muslim and non-Muslim scholars.The Chinese authorities,research institutes and even Islamic cultural and academic foundations are not willing to co-operate with scholars who are trying to carry out research in this field.There seems to be a lack of awareness of the cultural significance of Islamic manuscripts,and a lack of familiarity with technical aspects of codicolgy,particularly when assessing the value and significance of the manuscripts.As the real value of certain manuscripts has not been properly assessed,even the most ordinar manuscripts are considered by their owners as a precious treasure and are kept hidden and their existence denied.


A researcher working in the field of Islamic manuscripts in China must rely on his own personal experience and knowledge of the Chinese mentalityhe must overcome transportation difficulties when covering vast areas of land in search of collections of manuscripts;and he must find ways of solving communication problems.Only with enthusiasm,initative and persistence can the scholar of Islamic manuscripts in China overcome the difficulties facing him.A researcher may spend time visting a huge area which was historically important inas-much as traces of the Islamic culture in China are concerned,and still exist there,with the hope of identifying some significant and rare manuscipts in an unknown and remote village instead.


As there is no reliable inforation about the location of Islamic manuscripts in China,one must depend on statements from individuals.Unfortunately,often these statements are misleading.


The survery in China of all the important collections of Islamic manuscripts brought us to one crucial and perhaps disappointing conclusion.The long history of Islam in China and the existence of old Islamic cultural centres within the country may convince and enthusiastic researcher that he will locate several significant Islamic manuscripts during his work,however,when our survey was completed,with all the results in hand ,one came to realise that the existing Islamic manuscripts in China are restricted to duplicated of a few main titles with no variety.The categories of Islamic manuscripts which are give below clearly justify this point.



Categories of Islamic Manuscripts in China


Islamis manusmipts in Chian can be devided into the following categories.


Manuscripts on fiqh,belief,prayer and the interpreation of the manuscripts being duplicates of the same titles.


Classical works for teaching Persian and Arabic grammar and rhetoric.


These texts are commonly still used in traditional Islamic centres in Muslim countries,particularly Iran.


Sufi tests in persian belonging to followers of the sufi orders of Naqshbandiya,Kubrawjya,Khawfiya and Qadiriya as well as manuscripts particular to followers of the Jahriya sect.


Well-known texts of Persian literature such as the Gulistan and Bustan of Safdi which have been the focus of attention in china for many centuries.There are many copies of these manuscripts with various interpreatations and explanations.Also the Diwan of Hafiz and commentaries on it, the Mathnawi of Molawi in complete sets or parts as well as selected passages and interpreattions of it,and works byfAbd al-Rahman Jami are found in abundance in China. These texts are commonly studied by followers of sufi orders,and at the same time form part of the curriculum taught in traditional Islamic teaching centres.

The existecne of numerous inscriptions in mosques and tombs which contain Persian poens and the names of Chinese poets who have composed Persian poetry points to a hive of vigorous Persian literary activity in China over the centuries.(Unfortunately,many of these indications are gradually vanishing.)Nevertheless,Persian had become the fist and only Islamic language to be officially recgnised and used in China.


In Xinjiang region many Muslims speak of the famous persian literary texts such as Shahnumah of Firdowsi,Khamsah-i Nizami and the diwans of important Persian poets which have either been taken out of the country or were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China.Some persianists of China toled us that they had studied a rare shahnamah manuscript,smoe significant Persian literary manuscripts and Persian dictionary manuscripts which were held in the liberary of Niujie mosque up to a few years ago,These manuscripts have since disappeared or been transferred to an unknown destination.


It was surprising that no manuscripts were seen in the field of Islamic learning,for example in the domain of hadith there was not even a copy of such a work as Bukhari of Muslim,etc.,the main authentic sources of hadith throughout the Islamic world. The text Sharh-i khutab-i arbafin by Taj al-Din Bukharafi of which numerous duplicates are found ererywhere in China ,is considered to be a more of text onfirfan rather than an important hadith manuscript.Also no manuscripts in the fields of genealogy and Islamic history,philosophy and logic,were seen. The few manuscripts on kalan, belief and logic which were seen in Dongsi (mosque)are but exceptions.

The fields of mathematics,pure and natural sciences were also not represented,even though histtttorical evidence suggests that these fields used to be treated with considerable interest i China and manuscripts should have been available in these domains.In Qing Bai lei Chao,the most accurate chronicle of the history of China it is said that Chinese Muslims had a great reputation in astronomy,mathematics and cartography.‡@Needham in his work science and Civilisations in china has given examples of translations of astrological and mathematical works which were adapted from Persian and Islamic astrological tables and calendars.Some of these translations are still available e.g. the translations of al-madkhal fisinafat al-nujum or mujmal al-usul fi ahkam al-nujum by Iranian astronomer Kushyar Gilany which has been translated into Chinese in AD1383 on the basis of Persian.

Manuscripts on medicine, except for one case in Kashghar a copy of ikhtiarat Badifby Iranian physician Ali Ibn Hosein shirazi were not ween.

The Huihui Yaofang manuscript-(Muslim remedies/prescription)-The original MS is in Chinese and kept in the National library of China (under The Classmark o1193)-translated from medictinal and pharmacologtical Persian texts into Chinese.According to chinese sources,Li Xun,a herbalist, botanist and poet whose originated from Iran and who was known as Li Posi(meaning Li the Persian)compiled a book called Hai Yao Ben Cao on the basis of Iranian sources in Chinese. This book is the most important source of the work Ben Gang Mu(herbal drugs)compiled by the great Chinese doctor and chemist Li shi Zhen which in turn is the most authentic Chinese work on traditional medicine and herbs in China. B.Laufer in his famous work Sino-Iranica, Chicago 1919,mentioned the names of some of the herbal drugs from that famous Chinese work.


It is clear tgat nabyscruots ib neducg=ube if Uskanuc/Persian origin should exist in China,but no trace of them remains today. They may however ,still survive in an inaccessible corner of an old Chinese library or archive.


Until such time as full general catalogues of the contents of libraries ,museums and archives are produced,it is uncertain if valuable and signitficant Islamic manuscripts have completely disappeared.



Characteristics of Islamic Manuscripts Copied in China


The quality and style of copied Islamic manuscripts and the variety and greater number of Persian manuscripts compared to Arabic indicate that in the Persian language. As Hadi alfAlawi an Arab scholar who in vestigated the collection of Dongsi(mosque)in Peking,the richest collection of Islamic manuscripts in China,said,gThe Persian element and the familiarity with Persian language dominates througout the Arabic manuscripts.since within the Arabic manuscripts there are mostly explanations and interpretations in Persian and at the end of the Arabic manuscripts it is written in tamam shod which in Persian means the manuscript has been finished.Moreover,the script of many arabic manuscripts is in Persian style.h‡A

The style of the script of the Islamic manuscripts which were copied in China bears its own characteristics.The Chinese style of the Arabic scipt is influenced deeply by the style of the Persian script. 


It is worth mentioning that there was a particular script in use in Iran which was called Nastafliq-i Turkistani meaning the script which was applied in chinese Turkestan. However, the more one moves  towards the East in China,i.e the domain of genuine chinese rice and culture called Hanzu the more the rorm of the same script manifests the impact of Chinese hieroglyhphics and the more its distinct identity and style reveals itself so that it can rightly be called gIslamic calligraphy in Chinese style.h

There are other systems of Persian script such as estifi which have been applied in Islamic documents and manuscripts in China.‡B


Islam has spread in China under Persian influence. This has meant that the intention of the canonical prayers(usually expressed mentally),the names of the five canonical prayers,Islamic rites and formal religious statements of marriage,etc.,are all still uttered in Persian,whether the mother tongue of the Muslim is Chinese,Uighur or otherwise and whethter they know Persian or not Chinese Muslims express most of the Islamic rites in Persian.Moreover,many Islamicterms whose Arabic forms have been and are still being used in Iran,are said in Persian in China. The need for the Persian language in old China was so great that in the time of the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644)a chinese-Persian dictionary was compiled in China. Copies of this dictionary which was also printed are still available.


Old texts such as Zashia,dafawat and qandil namah as well as recently printed books such as Manasik-i kamil-i islam nowadays consist of the text and interpretations of Islamic rituals in  Persian. These rites and expressions are learnt by heart. Many of the terms used in these texts as well as other Persian ones have been adopted in the Chinese language.

In traditional Islamic teaching centres suc as Xinjiang,Shandong and Shaanxi,Persian has been the primary teaching language. The spread and current usage of persian among Chinese Muslims and Non-Muslims has been studied whdely by Chinese researchers.Quoted below are two quotations from two famous Muslim scholars which give an ingsight into why Persian manuscripts are so widespread and used in China.These two well-known scholars of fiqh lived in two different eras, three hundred years apart,and their statements relevant to the point in question confirm the continuity of the use of Persian as the first religious and cultural language among Chinses Muslims.The first scholar,Muhammad ibn Hakim Zinini,founder of the Shandong Centre of Islamic traditional learning ,in his book Minhaj al-talab compiled in 1070/1660said,hIn China most of the texts of fiqh,tasawwuf and tafsir are written in Persian and a scholar of fiqh in order to understand the religious texts has no other choice than to learn Persian properly,because if a problem arises in connection with the religious matters which requires a fatwa-legal opinion how can one cope with it if he does not know Persian properly?h‡C

The other scholar,Muhammad Nur al-Haqq ibn Luqman al-Sini, a renowned scholar of fiqh of the Shanxi Islamic teaching centre in the last half of the 19th century,in his work Kimiyafsaid,gSince our land China is close to the Persian land (Iran)and since most of our ancestors were originally Persian the Persian books on fiqh,tafsir,tauhid and tasawwuf are numerous in China.And there is no escape for religious students and the beginner from learning Persian.h


‡@Qingdai Zhongguo Yisilan jiao lunji,Ningxia 1981,P160

‡AAl-makhtutat alf-Arabiya fi jamifBikin ,by Hadi al-eAlawi,Revue

de IfAcademie Arabe de Damas,53,1978,P.475.

‡BgWhat is Estifi?hby Mozafar Bakhtyar,Collection of papers on

Iranian Studies in China, Peking University Press,1993,PP.44-50

‡CMinhaj al-talab,Linxia 1309/1892 ,PP.136-137.




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