By Dr Shamsuddeen Sani
It is easy for the narrative about Uyghur Muslims of China to draw your attention due to the fierce East-West political drama about them. Before now, I had no clue of the profound complexity inherent in the history of Islam in Muslim northwest China.
Jonathan N. Lipman skilfully avoids the more sensitive politico-religious aspects, as he aptly puts it, making it not a book about the history of the Muslims in northwest China but a comprehensive account of the history of Muslims living in northwest China.
This book offers a critical analysis of the origins of Islam in northwest China, the evolution of Muslim identity and culture in the region, and their intricate connections within the broader context of greater China. This examination spans six comprehensive chapters and incorporates both pre and postmodern contextual perspectives.
Following an elaborate introduction that combines geography and ethnography in northwest China, Lipman offers an extensive overview that spans nearly a millennium, encompassing the entire cultural landscape of China. He achieves this by positioning Muslims as unique elements within the familiar historical context of China from the Tang dynasty through the Ming dynasty.
After the Qing conquest of the 1640s, he investigated specific solidarities among Chinese Muslims and their leaders. Additionally, he examines the development of Sufism in northwestern China and the integral role played by the Shuyuks and Tariqa in the region’s social fabric. By the mid-18th century, as the book highlights, Sufi orders had already ignited a significant drive towards political activism, community cohesion, and horizontal competition.
Coming to the early 19th century, Lipman looks into the era marked by the transition from the Qing Empire to the Chinese nation-state. He explores the intricate processes of change, driven by internal factors and influences originating from Europe, America, and the Muslim world, which swept across the outskirts of China. These forces compelled individuals to make decisions under unfamiliar and challenging circumstances. The book took a tangent to meticulously analyse four key Sino-Muslim figures who embarked on distinct yet equally complex journeys towards finding common ground with a modernised China.
This book is not an easy read, given the unfamiliar names one must remember, but it is worth every minute of your time.
Dr Shamsuddeen Sani wrote from Kano, Nigeria.