Interpreting Islam in China

Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab

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Kristian Petersen
AAR Academic Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Studies of Islam in China, in particular those on the Han Kitab tradition, are increasingly drawing the attention of scholars in Chinese and Western academia. Kristian Petersen’s book, Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab, provides a new perspective on the subject. Petersen examines manuscripts by three luminaries of the Han Kitab tradition, Wang Daiyu 王岱舆 (1590-1658), Liu Zhi 刘智 (1670-1724), and Ma Dexin 马德新 (1794-1874), to analyze “the hybridity of the texts” (7,18). Interpreting Islam in China is also the first volume to make comprehensive comparisons between the three “Confucian Muslims” (6). Petersen achieves this by investigating three concrete aspects of Hajj, the Quran, and Arabic language, as indicated in the book’s title. By doing so, Petersen offers the reader information on what these authors said in regards to these three central subjects and also explains why they said it in that way. He also tries to “delineate constructive theoretical structures for analysing similar dynamic and dialogical environments” (16). 

The book is organized into five chapters with an introduction and short epilogue. As a means of contextualizing his research subjects, in chapter 1 Petersen illustrates the ways in which the intellectual development of Islamic thought in China was shaped by the unique Chinese dynastic history and how this historical process relates to the larger Eurasian historical context. By focusing on local and global historical circumstances that (re-)construct the broader social background in which the three central subjects become evident, Peterson reveals the multifaceted factors that shaped the ways the three Han Kitab authors dealt with the issues in question. In chapter 2, Petersen illustrates the similarities these authors shared and the unique characteristics of each that distinguished them in terms of the literary output they produced. He does it in a way that investigates, on the one hand, the foreign sources in Arabic and Persian determining the textual inclinations of Sino-Muslims in general, and, on the other hand, each author’s personal history in particular. His contribution in this chapter not only provides rich and detailed information on the three authors, especially in the case of Ma Dexin, but also demonstrates how it is possible for the authors to meaningfully deal with “the thorny relationship between heritage and hermeneutics” (51). 

With this as a background, in chapter 3, 4, and 5 respectively Petersen shows how the differences among the authors became clearer in cases dealing with place (Hajj pilgrimage), scripture (their references to the Quran), and authority (the use of Arabic language). Chapter 3 which deals with the issue of Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, shows how and why pilgrimage was dealt with differently by the authors, from neglecting it as a religious ritual to promoting it as a devotional practice that “brought Sino-Muslims into the broader Muslim community” (122). Chapter 4 demonstrates the role the Quran played in the Sino-Muslim community of 17th to 19th century China reflected in the approaches and attitudes of the Han Kitab authors towards the Quran. Chapter 5 manifests how “the approaches to Arabic in the works of Wang Daiyu, Liu Zhi, and Ma Dexin demonstrate a shifting engagement with the language and changing perceptions toward linguistic authority and utility” (196). Petersen’s selection of these three cases perfectly serves his theoretical framework of historical hermeneutics that emphasizes the dynamic interrelatedness of tradition and authority in a changing socio-political environment. Moreover, he gives the readers the most comprehensive comparison of three cases that have not been researched adequately in academia. Through Petersen’s argument, readers will understand how the approaches applied by the three authors differed with one another in addressing the three central subjects and what these differences tell us about not only the internal development within the Han Kitab genre but also the external social environment that contributes to these differences. 

Undoubtedly, Petersen contributes to the growing interest in the studies of the Han Kitab tradition with his new approach of historical hermeneutics, which enlarges and deepens our understanding of both the individual Muslim authors and the Han Kitab as a discursive tradition. Those who are interested in this Sino-Muslim tradition will definitely find it beneficial in rethinking and redefining the key categories in their own research. Additionally, his theoretical, as well as methodological, contributions will also encourage future academic investigations into other themes in the Han Kitab tradition and inspire approaches applied in the analysis of other Muslim communities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gang Li is a dual doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of University of Groningen, and in the Department of Islamic Religious Studies, Friedrich–Alexander University Erlangen–Nürnber

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristian Petersen is assistant professor of religious studies and co-director of Islamic Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. His research engages theory and methodology in the study of religion, Islamic Studies, Chinese religions, and Media Studies.


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