Saturday, 14 May 2016

Some Notes on Islam & the Chinese Tradition

In most translations of Mohammedan works, such as the Koran, into Chinese, the name of God, Allah, is rendered by two Chinese characters meaning "True Lord".

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In several short works, but specifically the essays in Insights into Islamic Esotericism & Taoism and Confucianism, Rene Guenon applies his usual clarity to the seemingly diverse religious phenomenon of both Islamic and Chinese civilization. This is of concern to the present writer as he makes his way through South-East Asia – specifically the Chinese areas of the Malay peninsula – and heads towards western China and the far end of the silk road. It is difficult to find even slightly useful reading material on the essential features of the traditions that converge in these regions. Guenon’s essays, as usual, are remarkable for their perspicuity, precision and authoritative insights. There are shortcomings in the Guenonian perspective, sure enough – a Masonic preoccupation with initiatory organizations and secret societies, for example – but it is always a relief to encounter his stern, unadorned, mathematical prose and to appreciate his utter indifference to sociological and other profane considerations. His disdain for Boodhism is refreshing too. 

When all is said and done Guenon deals with religious traditions as though through a series of geometrical models. These are sometimes simple and sometimes complex. In the present case – Islamic esotericism, or Soofism, on the one hand and the Chinese traditions, Taoism and Confucianism, on the other – the schema is relatively simple, at least in the first instance. It is an essential feature of Guenon that religions manifest both inner and outer dimensions. There is externalism – popular forms - and then there is the inner or esoteric – hidden or secret or elite - aspect of the tradition concerned. In comparing the Mohammedans with the Chinese, he proposes that there is an all-important contrast in the way these two dimensions, inner and outer, are arranged in each case. Leaving aside all the details and whatever complexities arise, this is the key to a Guenonian study of these traditions. 

In the Guenonian perspective, the Mohammedan order is concentric with the esoteric (tariqah) within the external casing of the Law (shariah). It is a model of kernel and protective shell. Thus:

But as Guenon explains, the Chinese order does not work in this way. Rather - for reasons that we need not discuss at present - the two spiritual functions, inner and outer, have been effectively bifurcated. Taoism is the esoteric function and Confucianism the external or exoteric function. Their relationship in the Chinese case is parallel rather than concentric. Thus:

This, for Monsieur Guenon, is what is crucial to appreciate about the nature of the Chinese tradition, especially in contrast to such a tradition as Mohammedanism. We should add that this model is quite separate to and distinct from the imposition of Boodhism upon the Chinese tradition. The model described here was established and settled long before Boodhism arrived in China. Boodhism adds nothing and takes nothing away from it. Often in modern studies the Chinese tradition as a whole is described as the 'Path of Three ways' - Taoism, Confucianism, Boodhism. But Boodhism, as Guenon insists, is not integral to the Chinese order. 

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The Prophet Mohammed said, "Seek knowledge, even if it is in China." 

There are some rather obvious parallels – at least in form – between the Analects of Confucius and the Hadith of Mohammed. In both cases we have short, pithy sayings and examples of word and deed as recorded by disciples and companions. And in both cases these records act as exemplars or patterns of behavior. The Hadith are the recorded words and deeds of the Prophet – supposedly – and they function to guide and shape all the patterns of Mohammedan life. They establish Mohammedan ethics as well as manners. The Prophet is True Man, the model for all men.

In the Chinese tradition this is exactly the function of Confucius. It becomes conspicuous to anyone who spends more than a little time among the Chinese, even in this day and age, that there is a common model, a common ideal, of behavior among them, and this ideal is set by Confucius. Confucius is the exemplar, the Master, the standard of all that is proper and correct. This is especially evident in the Analects which, indeed, take a form very much like the Hadith found in the Mohammedan tradition. Confucius is the True Man, and we learn of his deeds and words through the analects recorded by his immediate followers in the form “The Master said…” or “The Master did…” Moreover, the circumstances in which he lived as well as the disciples and people around him are regarded as paradigmatic. They set examples to be emulated by everyone thereafter. Thus do the (traditional) Chinese say “Confucius says…” and cite some analect or saying in exactly the same manner as Mohammedans habitually cite the Hadith with “The Prophet said…” Chinese life is textured in this way just as is the social life of the Mohammedans. It is a close parallel between the two traditions.

Anyone familiar with any of the Hadith (traditions) of Mohammed will recognize the form, if not the content, of the following examples of the traditions of Confucius:

The Master said: “When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are shameful. When a country is poorly governed, wealth and honour and shameful.”

The Master said, “One should study as though there is not enough time and still feel fear of missing the point.”

The Master said: “In the morning hear the Tao. In the evening die content.”

The Master said, “I have yet to see a man who loved virtue as much as sex.”

The Master said, “There are shoots that never come to flower, and there are flowers that never bear fruit.”

Ji Wenzi always pondered matters thrice before acting. The Master heard of this and said, “Twice is enough.”

Though the Master’s meal was only greens and vegetable congee, he inevitably offered some in sacrifice, and always in ritual reverence.

When the Master was at home in his neighborhood, he was warm and courteous, and seemed as if he found it difficult to speak. In the ancestral temples or at court, he was articulate, his speech merely showing signs of caution.

When the Master was at leisure, his manner was relaxed and easy.

When sending his greetings to someone in another state, the Master would twice bow low as he sent the messenger off.

When mounting a carriage, the Master always faced it squarely and grasped the mounting cord. Once in the carriage, he did not turn to look at those standing behind him; he did not speak rapidly; he did not point.

The Master said, “Be devoted to faithfulness and love learning; defend the good Tao until death.”

The Master said, “Extravagance leads towards disobedience; thrift leads towards uncouthness. Rather than be disobedient, it is better to be uncouth.”

When the Master slept, he did not assume the position of a corpse. When at leisure, he did not ornament his dress.

The Master was vigilant about three things: fasting, war and illness.

When the stables burnt, the Master returned from court asking, “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask after the horses.

The Master taught by means of four things: patterns, conduct, loyalty, faithfulness.

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The concept of the One is not absent from Chinese thought. And the concept of the Nothing - a metaphysic of emptiness - is not absent from Mohammedan thought. The Confucian classics speak of “the all-pervading One” (i kuan) and Taoism refers to “holding onto the One” (shou i). The I Ching refers to “heavenly Oneness”. Unity of the absolute, in fact, is a constant theme in both Confucianism and Taoism. But, as Guenon notes, the bifurcation of functions within the Chinese order mean that the purely metaphysical and the personal never meet. Thus the Absolute is not usually presented as a “God” in the Semitic and occidental manner. The negative conception of the Tao is more like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, although in other respects it is, in function, like a creator. “The Tao produces the ten thousand things,” says the Tao Te Ching.

It is entirely possible to reconcile this with Mohammedan metaphysics. It is only externally that the Mohammedan deity is a personal god, or even a “god” at all. This is the contention of Toshihiko Izutsu’s powerful study, Sufism and Taoism, where he draws parallels between the Soofi metaphysics of Ibn Arabi and the metaphysics of the Tao. Despite Islam’s positive theology, in Soofism there are strong apophatic themes, and it is there that Mohammedanism may meet the temperamental preferences of the Far East. It is possible to read the confession of faith in an apophatic manner. The exclusive tribalism of “There is no god but (our) God” can be read, instead, as “There is no god. Only Allah.” Allah, in that case, is – like the Tao - beyond all conception, beyond personhood, too great to be any god of human understanding. The god of the externalists is an idol. Let us remember also that the Kabba in Mecca is empty. Finally, the only symbol that fits Allah – the Real - is nothingness.

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While Mohammedanism has a long presence in China – especially western China – the Chinese authorities are, very wisely, fully aware of its potential to disturb the equilibrium of Chinese society. Precisely because the Mohammedan model is different to that of the traditional Chinese, and there is no neat bifurcation of the religious and the social, it may – if one is not alert to the inherent dangers – operate as a political ideology under a religious cloak. In contemporary China, the authorities in Peking are understandably anxious to prevent this and are ever on guard against religious movements that act as political agents.

An acute issue amongst China’s Mohammedan communities is the fast of Ramadan. Every year the authorities are at pains to downplay and restrict the extent of the fast. This usually earns them the ire of so-called ‘human rights’ groups, but it is an entirely justifiable strategy in the context. In areas where Mohammedans obtain demographic density, the fast of Ramadan becomes a de facto political instrument. It enables the Mohammedans to completely close down an entire region, to completely disrupt the ordinary machinations of life, for an entire month. This becomes a very potent method for imposing Islamic control upon commerce and government.

Quite properly, the Chinese will have none of it. They have passed regulations insisting that all schools, transport and government services will continue as normal throughout Ramadan, and eateries and cafes must remain open too. People are free to fast if they wish – you cannot stop people from not eating or drinking – but Chinese Mohammedans will be prevented from disrupting services and normal social functions, from shutting down society, in the name of Ramadan. Far from being an abuse of ‘human rights’, this is a wise policy that should be adopted wherever pernicious and troublesome concentrations of Mohammedans exist. You can fast, but you cannot shut down civil society. The difficulty, always, when dealing with Mohammedan minorities is that the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the political, are almost impossible to separate. This, as the Guenonian model above illustrates, is in the very structure of Islam. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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