The First Islamic Classic in Chinese

Wang Daiyu's Real Commentary on the True Teaching

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Daiyu Wang
Sachiko Murata
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , April
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Few have done more than Sachiko Murata, professor of religious studies at Stony Brook University, for our collective understanding of Sino-Islamic intellectual history. The First Islamic Classic in Chinese: Wang Daiyu's Real Commentary on the True Teaching adds another invaluable translation to her already prolific career. Murata has focused the last two decades of her efforts on understanding the Chinese-language Islamic canon of texts, collectively known as the Han Kitab. This has yielded two previous books on the subject, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: Wang Tai-yu's Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih's Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm (SUNY Press, 2000); and The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: Islamic Thought in Confucian Terms (Harvard University Press, 2009), co-authored with William C. Chittick and Tu Wei-ming, in addition to the book considered here. Overall, her scholarship has provided reliable translations of generally unknown Chinese-language primary sources and detailed analysis of their content.

The First Islamic Classic is a complete translation of the Real Commentary on the True Teaching (Zhengjiao zhenquan正教真詮), the earliest enduring Chinese-language text, published in 1642, that was written by a Muslim for a Muslim audience. Its author, Wang Daiyu 王岱輿, was the initial producer of the distinct Sino-Islamic literary style that would become characteristic of the Han Kitab genre more broadly. Sources tell us little about Wang, and Murata follows this general absence when laying out his biography. For example, Wang’s birth and death dates have been disputed so are left out. Previously Murata estimated his birth around 1590 (Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, 19), while others have proposed as early as 1570 (Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Chinese Muslims in Late Imperial China, Harvard University Press, 2005, 134). It is likely Wang died around the time his pupils publishedhis final dialogues,Truth Answers of the Very Real (Xizhen zhengda希真正答), in 1658 (Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light, 20). Murata introduces the reader to Wang through a new translation of his own “Self Narrative.” From this we learn a bit about Wang’s foreign ancestry, regional travels, educational endeavors, and motivations for writing his book. She also provides a new translation of Lan Zixi’s 籃子羲(1782-1857) brief account of Wang from his 1862 compendium, The True Learning of Islam (Tianfang Zhengxue天方正學) (previously translated by Murata in John Renard, Tales of God’s Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation, University of California Press, 2009, 367-68). Due to Wang’s critical position within Sino-Islamic intellectual history this material is available elsewhere but it is both expected and welcomed in such an edition.

The introduction situates the Real Commentary on the True Teaching within both Chinese religio-philosophical discourses, primarily Neo-Confucianism, and Islamic frameworks, most notably “the inner dimensions of Islam,” which Murata conveys through the term “Sufism.” Readers of Murata’s previous writings will be familiar with the primer on the unity of God (tawḥīd), cosmology, and moral perfection, which echoes both Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light and The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. However, these sections should not be ignored. Murata’s strong command of Han Kitabtexts combined with deep knowledge of Chinese and Islamic literary traditions enables her to make keen insights and connections. Through these in-depth accounts Murata also draws out the subtle differences and broader disparities between Wang and Liu Zhi 劉智(1670-1724), arguably the most prolific and creative Sino-Islamic scholar, and author of Nature and Principle in Islam (Tianfang xingli 天方性理), which Murata previously translated in The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. In the translation itself Murata continues to mark these types of links in over two hundred explanatory footnotes. These indicate connections to Chinese or Muslim authors; Chinese, Arabic, or Persian terminology; renderings of hadith and quranic passages; discrepancies of Chinese characters between editions; and parallels to Liu Zhi’s Nature and Principle in Islam.

The bulk of The First Islamic Classic is the first rendering of Wang’s Real Commentary. Murata previously translated portions of chapters 2 and 5 of the Real Commentary in Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light. Murata has returned to these first attempts and made them much more readable. Altogether her rendering is very clear and makes the difficult task of translation invisible. This is so challenging because Chinese characters already have culturally infused meaning but are then used to rephrase technical vocabulary from the Islamic tradition, creating a dual translational process. While the volume will be most welcomed by specialists it will also be useful for teachers who want to incorporate primary documents about Islam into their courses on Chinese religions or Islam. Both the novice and the expert will gain much from reading through The First Islamic Classic.

From a more technical perspective, Murata provides valuable leads for further exploration of the Real Commentary and its reception. She provides a brief history of the textual production of the Real Commentary in both wood-block manuscript and modern editions, noting years of production and location of texts. She also specifies small textual variations and the levels of errors, imperfections, or defects in the various editions. Those who wish to learn about the interpretive history of the Real Commentary might be interested in the various prefaces, postscripts, and imperial edicts included across versions. None of these are translated in The First Islamic Classic, but future scholars will have an easy time following Murata’s efforts since she mentions who authored these passages and in which editions they are included. Similar to The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi, Murata also includes an extensive (almost thirty page) index that is composed of numerous technical terms that are translated in English, rendered in pinyin, and have the Chinese characters. Therefore, another reason the book is extremely valuable for Sino-Islamic studies is that it can serve as a useful glossary of Chinese-language Islamic vocabulary.

Overall, Murata has produced another fine volume that is key to the study of Islam in China. It is only hoped that she has already embarked on translating another text in the Han Kitab to add to her immeasurable contribution to Islamic studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristian Petersen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Old Dominion University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sachiko Murata is professor of religious studies at Stony Brook University, State University of New York. Her books include The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought,also published by SUNY Press.


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