Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinese Sufis in Yemen

Considering the name of our blog - and its focus on the Islamicate world - we thought this book would be a fun way to start.  This text is what is known as a ratib, or an order of service, for a Sufi order in northwest China.  Although an innocuous looking thing, the arabic and chinese text on the front of the book gives a hint of the extraordinary inter-regional connections stretching right the way from Morocco to China which it represents.  The book is called the ‘Minshar’, which means ‘saw’ in Arabic; its name comes from the ‘sawing’ noise that Sufi members made while reciting dhikr out loud.

The book was lent to me by a fine scholar of Islam in China, Jonathan Lipman.  Jonathan found the text in Gansu Province in northwest China, and asked me to translate it (it is written in Arabic and Persian, as well as having a title written in Chinese on the front).  The book’s history is an exotic one, and revolves around the travels of a Chinese Muslim from the 18th century called Ma Laichi.  Although the sources conflict on exactly where he travelled, I’m pretty sure Ma Laichi travelled all the way to Yemen, and studied there with some major Sufi scholars, most likely it seems to me in the town of Zabid.  (Zabid was once a centre of religious learning; when I was last there in 2010 it was a real backwater and not the safest place to be either).

The book contains all sorts of weird and wonderful ‘drunken’ Sufi poetry, as well as passages from the Qur’an and well-known Islamic prayers.  It even has some poetry which can be matched to various poems in the ‘Dala’il al-Khayrat’ of the Moroccan Sufi al-Jazuli (d.1426).  Although we can’t be sure exactly where the book originally came from, what we can be say is that it stands as testament to a cultural world of shared ideas and texts stretching across the entire Asian landmass and into Africa.

While everyone is banging on about the rise of China and its ‘arrival’ into Africa and the Middle East, it’s worth remembering that there’s been plenty of connections between these seemingly distant parts of the world stretching back centuries – and that Islam had a big part to play in making it all happen.


  1. The role of the Nestorian Church in taking Christianity to China in the C6th and C7th is well known, as is the Jesuit mission in the C16th. The impact of the Protestants (James Legge, for example) - and their interaction with Confucianism - is, perhaps, less well understood.
    Can we hope that evenuntochina will address this topic, especially in the context of the present difficulties experienced by Christians in China and the phenomenal growth of evangelical Christianity elsewhere in Asia.

  2. Joseph Fletcher already expresses some kind of reservation abut Ma Laichi's study with Zaid (?) in Yemen. I would add Kasharia as another important region for Chinese Muslims to seek religious aspirations.

    Minshar in Chinese is also associated with the "afterworld," indicating that the book is about life and death.

    It is possible that many Muslim Chinese went to the Islamcates including Hindustan (as late as 17th)and many Muslim scholars went to China, too, such as Ashige of India at the end of the Ming dynasty (17th).

    In the same century, a Qadiriyya Sufi from Mecca or Medina went to Gansu and Sichun provinces of China and his Chinese disciples finally formed Qadiriyya Sufism in China (I am working on a paper about his Confucian disciples,。。。)

  3. Interesting picture and engineering examples. I would love to see them, especially the China Pavilion. for more info