Islamic Philosophy and Chinese Culture


prof. Ayatullah. Sayyed Muhammad Khamenei



The Silk Road which used to connect China to the Middle East and other parts of the world was not only a road for transportation of goods and developing commercial and material relations but also a path for establishing relationships in thoughts, cultures, sciences, industries and philosophy and mysticism. It is so nice to have an open road to relate hearts and to transact love among nations.

The 6th century BC is a turning point in the history of cultures. It witnessed the rise of Zoroaster, the religious reformer prophet and the Persian theosopher, following whom there appeared philosophical and moral genius such as Laotzu, Confucius in China, Buddha in India and Pythagoras and Thales in regions closed to Greece. According to some researchers, Pythagoras and Thales used to be the disciples in the schools of Persian Magi and had traveled to Iran. It is also estimated that due to the existing similarities witnessed between philosophical principles of Ancient Iran, called illuminationism or Eastern, and doctrines introduced by Buddha and Laotzu (with respect to speculative philosophy, their ideas were similar to modern Islamic Mysticism) and Confucius (regarding practical philosophy, politics and running a government, he was akin to the Magi Dynasty in Persia), there have been relationships between these theosophers and Iranian thinkers and even Zoroaster himself.

The reason is that the Ancient Persian theosophers, called Magi, made the first class after the king and court and were an independent and wide group in the society at the time. It also said that during Cyrus reign and other kings of that period, they were present in all lands around Persia from the Indian Sub-Continent to Egypt and Greece.

Though the relationship between philosophies and religions and the similarities among them have been weakened through time as various tastes and customs have had their effects, the interactions among thoughts and cultures have never disappeared. In China, too, because of social developments and the emergence of various dynasties, Chinese schools of thought have undergone some developments and have witnessed some ups and downs.

As the rise of Islam had profound and extraordinary effects on the whole civilized world of its time ad naturally caused the surrender of the powerful Iran and the arrogant empire of Rome to its ideology and Divine School, similarly, its wave spread to all eastern nations and the Chinese got familiar with it.

Shortly after its emergence, i.e. in AD 651, Islam entered China thereby many indigenous Chinese embraced it. In certain periods in the history of China including the time of the Mongols dominance in China, the acceptance of Islam gained more momentum.

Contrary to other religions, Islam is not merely a series of pure doctrine and a set of beliefs or religious rituals. Rather, it had within itself a splendid, developed, up-to-date, and flourishing civilization which had outstanding advancement in sciences and arts as well as in Philosophy, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine. At the time of importing and translating Greek books, these sciences were to a large extent flawed and they reached their peak with the attempts of well-known figures such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Khayyam, Birony, Al-Razi. In Medicine, for example, Avicenna's Canon and his Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing) in Logic, Philosophy, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences were for years the bases for learning these subjects in the east and in the Medieval Europe; his philosophical books are still the main sources of Islamic philosophy.

Although Iran used to be the center for such sciences (since the 4th century after Hejria) and the dynasties governing Iran used to support scientists and philosophers, in the regions around Iran, particularly in the Indian Sub-continent, such sciences as well as Persian Literature were quite widespread. The poets used to compose poetry in Persian the philosophers used to teach Avicenna's books and the region known today as Asia Minor (specially cities like Marv, Bokhoro, and Samarqand were parts of Iran and were reigned but Iranian Dynasties such as Ghaznavids, Samanies, Seljuks, and Kharazmshahian) was not different from Central Iran as far as possessing this culture, philosophy and science was concerned. In all these regions, Iranian and Islamic sciences and culture were widespread.

Although the Silk Road was a commercial path through which China needed to sell and exports her commodities, particularly silk, and it was the unique way to connect China to the outside world before the popularity of sea roads, it was through this read that Islamic scientific and cultural connection became possible for China and Iranian and Chinese scientists traveled to each other's countries and became familiar with each other's culture.

It was through this important road that the priceless Chinese inventions and experiences (such as paper and gunpowder) came to the Middle East along with silk and similar goods. On the other hand, a host of Islamic culture and ritual together with scientists and their scientific and philosophical books as well as western commodities traveled to China. The result of this transaction was the use of Chinese governments of the knowledge of these scientists.

According to kings and emirs, there were two sciences important and thereby useful and necessary for them, one was medicine that could maintain their health and the other was astrology which could tell them about fortune or ill-fortune of days and would keep them away from dangers. This astrology accompanied the knowledge of celestial bodies and measuring time, years and calendar.

It was probably because of this that the astrology of Muslims entered China as early as the Tang's period and dividing the calendar according to 60 degrees and considering leap year, which was the method belonging to Hakim Khayyam of Neshabour, were adopted by the Chinese. This has been clearly stated by the Chinese scholars as one of the most important services of Muslims to the knowledge in China. The name of the Iranian mathematician who was invited to China during the reign of Jiang Lung to correct the Chinese calendar and was honored aristocratic titles has been registered as Ma-yize.

During the time of Mongols' reign (Yuan Dynasty) in China, using the knowledge belonging to Muslim scientists along with their books in most fields gained more impetus and the Iranian scientists brought in with themselves many books in Astrology, Mathematics, Fortune-telling, Chemistry, Geography, Medicine, Literature, Philosophy and History.

Jamal-al-Din was one of the Iranian astrologists in AD 267 who offered the seven astrological instruments he had made, and which were quite unprecedented up to that time, to the emperor. Among his inventions was a globe which was quite new at that time as, contrary to Chinese scientists who believed the earth was flat, it proved that the earth was like a ball. On that globe, he had drawn the map of the earth according the experiences of Muslim scientists at that time.

With respect to Medicine, too, Muslims, who stood on the top at that time, exported herbal medicine to China by merchants and familiarized China with the new medicine. Iranian physicians, who used to go to china upon the emperors' requests for treating the ill and teaching medicine and pharmaceutics to the Chinese, caused the entrance of Iranian medicine, which was a combination of Galen's medicine and the Iranian traditional medicine and the Muslims' discoveries, to China.

In this regard, one of the Chinese scholars writes:

In AD 982, an emperor from the Sung Dynasty ordered to open the ports in Fujian province to 37 kinds of medicine. Most of these medicines used to be imported by Muslim tradesmen. The book Accounts in Sung's Period indicates that the amount of the imported medicines from the Middle East was very high. Accompanying the import of medicines from the Middle East, the methods of treating the ill entered China … and the books of famous Iranian physicians such as Al-Razi and Avicenna, which following the current tradition were written in Arabic, were brought into China. Documents reveal that one of the Chinese scholars came to Iran and learned some of the knowledge of medicine from Al-Razi.

The emergence of various branches of natural sciences, Astrology, Engineering, Medicine and the like in each period and in any individual manifests the existence of philosophy and theosophy in that person and in that period because experience indicates that in each period all sciences have flourished within philosophy and there after has continued its life. Philosophy and theosophy have logically been the mother of all sciences and for a scientist possessing one of the sciences was more or less a manifestation of his being a philosopher although, unfortunately, this relation has, to some extent, been disrupted since western modernization although, starting from the end of the 20th century, all sciences have taken refuge in philosophy and look for the solution of their problems in it.

It was based on this fact that philosophy, too, along with other sciences, which had become prevalent in China's neighboring countries since the Sung Dynasty and which was in the hands of Muslims in the 4th century after Hejria, found its way into China and Avicenna's and Al-Razi's books and those of their students used to reach Chinese Muslims. The spread of the Islamic philosophy in China caused Muslim philosophers to conduct a series of comparative studies between Islamic philosophy and culture on the one hand, and ancient Chinese philosophies such that of Confucius, Taoism, and Buddhism, on the other.

The intermingling of these two thought became more profound by the end of Ming's Period. The intermarriage between Islamic philosophy and the philosophy of Confucius among Muslim scientists and the philosophers who were familiar with both schools couldn't naturally avoid any mutual effects.

We do not exactly know to what extent these Muslim philosophers, who were acquainted with both the Islamic philosophy and the school of Confucius, have been in close contact with the Chinese experts in Confucius's thoughts, but we know for sure that knowledge knows no border and particularly within a country and among the people living in a city the interaction of thoughts and culture is a natural phenomenon. To understand the depth of the effects of Islamic philosophy and mysticism on Neo-Confucianism requires more investigation which should be carried out by Chinese scholars.

According to authentic documents, every now and then, some philosophers and theosophers from the Middle East, which basically means the Great Khorasan or The Indian Sub-Continent, used to go to China either for tourism, study or teaching upon the Chinese Muslims' invitations. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Iranians' travels to China have been registered. At that time, Safavids Dynasty used to govern Iran and the government in the Sub-Continent was in the hands of Indian Taimurs, who were strongly dependent on Iran as far as culture, literature and philosophy are concerned, it is clear that most of Mulla Sadra's books, particularly his Sharh al-Hidayah which is negligently known as Mulla Sadra, used to be taught there and were quite famous.

Among these theosophers and those familiar with Islamic and Sadrian philosophy, Xodang Ju is quite famous. He is known as the founder of Shanxi school of philosophy. There is another theosopher who is the founder of Shandong school of thought in a province with the same name. In his school, in addition to Persian language and other Islamic sciences, Islamic philosophy and mysticism along with Confucius philosophy are taught.

That era can be called one of the most splendid periods in China's philosophy and culture because many books in philosophy, mysticism, Gnosticism, ethics and even Persian and Arabic literature entered China. Some of them were translated into Chinese and the names Avicenna, Mulla Sadra, Sadi Shirazi, Sohravardi and al-Ghazzali became widely known. Some Gnostic sects or Shiite mysticism were created in China and titles such as Khouffiah (or Khofyah), Ghadariah, and Jahriah gained popularity.

One of the Chinese Muslim scholars called Wang Daiyu (1584-1670) in his book entitled Zhen Zhi Nan , Zheng jiao Zhen Qnan discussed Mulla Sadra's ontology and the absolute existence ands compared it with the Infinite Light. In the same century, i.e. 17th century, many other books were written about philosophy, ethics, mysticism in Persian and Arabic. Liu Zhi (1655-1745), The Chinese Muslim scholar, has referred to 67 Persian and Arabic books in his philosophical books entitled Tean Fang Xing and Li-fang Dian Tien.

One of the effects of this familiarity of the Chinese Muslims with Islamic and Iranian philosophy and mysticism and the comparative studies with the Chinese philosophies is the comparison they have made between Confucius five principles (Tien Ming) with monotheistic intentions and four Islamic principles (ritual prayer, Fasting, alms giving, Hajj). They have equated Taiji, which in Cofuciucism means the supreme existence and the origin of the world with monotheism in Islam. Islamic and Sadraian philosophy, however, was far deeper than these superficial comparisons. That is why Chinese Muslim philosophers have done their best to discuss ontology.

In Confucius' philosophy, the origin of the world and the hierarchy of existence starts with Tai-Chi from which two positive and negative factors of Yang and Yiin stem from. Due to the constant activities of these two factors and the incline of Yang and decline of Yiin in two opposite directions which result in the creation of material world, the items of which, according to that philosophy, are confined to 'water', 'fire', 'wood', 'mine', and 'soil',  all other phenomena and incidents come to exist.

Up to here, there is a common point between Islamic philosophy and Confucius' philosophy. However, as far as the interpretation of Tai-Chi, Yang and Yiin and other issues with the Islamic criterion is concerned, there appears certain fundamental discrepancy which may be because of the misunderstandings of Chinese philosophers from the bases of Confucius philosophy. According to Chinese interpreters, existence, or Tai-Chi stems from its anti-thesis, i.e. absolute non-existence, or Wu-Ji which is a wrong argument in the logic of Muslim philosophers because nothing can come out its anti-thesis except in a metaphorical and poetic way though it may get its initiation from it. This is particularly true about existence.

In Islamic philosophy, absolute existence is what which is absolute perfection in which there is no room for non-existence, potentiality, and anti-thesis unless we take Tai-Chi not as “absolute existence” but as the prime creature, or in terms of Islamic mysticism, expanded existence which is the father of the material world and other creatures. In this way, Confucius philosophy gets close to Islamic philosophy and mysticism.

Although there are some superficial differences between Neo-Confucius' philosophy and that of Mulla Sadra, the developments in that philosophy within recent centuries indicate the impact of Islamic philosophy, which had profound manifestation in Iran during Safavids Dynasty, in the Sub-Continent, and in China's neighboring countries within Mulla Sadra's school. For example, this is probably the case in the issue of Seiroorat which is very close to trans-substantial motion as Neo-Confucius' philosophy underwent the influence of philosophy of American Pragmatism  and even in the twentieth century Dewey entered the Chinese realm of thought via Hu-shih.

The difference which exists between Islamic philosophy and modern western philosophy with respect to Chinese philosophies is that western philosophies are neither in their basics of cosmology nor in their philosophical principles similar to the Chinese ideology. For instance, western philosophies are based on materialism, extremist humanism, an escape from absolute being, an inclination towards relativism, and love of the world. The principles in Chinese and Islamic philosophies are totally in contradiction with western philosophy, particularly with Buddhism and Taoism which are based on the negation of materiality and an ascent to spirituality.

Contrary to other schools and religions, Islamic philosophy, however, possesses such a deep and vast perspective that it can adapt itself to all Chinese schools, particularly Confucianism and can incorporate all of them. As a matter of fact, Muslim philosophers, including Mulla Sadra believed that all philosophies are born to one single mother and have come down from the Prophets. According to the Holy Quran, all Prophets had only identical word and all of them used to rely on common principles. The differences among ancient philosophies were due to the passage of time and the changes which have taken place in the beliefs and behaviors of people which have naturally taken place among human societies.

One of the features of the Islamic philosophy and mysticism which has stemmed from fundamental principles of Islam is that earthly life and being concerned about the Hereafter are two wings of one flight and are the two feet for walking and necessitate each other. Spiritual life is a prelude for prosperity in the hereafter. It has been narrated repeatedly in Islamic tradition that this world has been introduced as a field for cultivating for the hereafter. It has been narrated in another Hadith narrated from the Holy Prophet that “Try so hard in this world as if you have an eternal life, and think about the hereafter as if you are to die tomorrow.”

On the one hand, this Hadith, as far as the earthy life is concerned, reminds us of Confucius, and on the other hand, as it suggests us to be negligent about the world, reminds us of the other two schools, i.e. Buddhism and Taoism which encouraged people to leave earthy desires and to train themselves for the hereafter.

It is said that the main cause for establishing Neo-Confucianism by Chan-Tun-I (AD1017-1073) was his fear that the negativism philosophy of Buddhism would distract the Chinese society from social activities and would lead them to seclusion. According to these Islamic principles, to one dimension of which Confucius has paid attention, Islamic philosophy has been divided into two basic parts:

  1. The first part – is what deals with people's worldly life and for constructing individuals, organizing the household and establishing a just and concerned government in the society. In this way, it provides the practical aspect of philosophy in which government has a heavenly origin and the governor should be a man who is elected and is superior than others as far as his knowledge, practice, piety, and benevolence are concerned.

  2. The second part – is that which talks of soul, its evolution and its trans-substantial motion for an eternal life after death in a world which lack matter. It introduces four journeys or four spiritual stages called The Four Journeys for an individual who is inclined to have spiritual and mental perfection.

Its first phase is cosmology and knowing the material world and consequently finding the best way of life. The second stage is knowing God and His Attributes and His Power which take man to the border of the hereafter and familiarizes man with the life in the hereafter in a world which is closer to God, i.e. there fewer barriers between man and God. The third phase, or journey, is the understanding of the hereafter, death, and the eternal life after death. The fourth stage is the spiritual and mental return of the salik to the present world not in his premature form rather with an insight beyond this world towards this world and mankind.

In this phase, the person who has passed through these four journeys and who has, in fact, returned from the heavens, similar to prophets or theosophers, has some souvenirs for mankind and, before anybody else, for himself. He knows the secrets of this world and is familiar with its ups and downs. He can distinguish between right and wrong and he has found the right path for prosperity and good living and can show these to others. Most important of all, he loves all human beings and even all creatures because in this philosophical ideology, whoever loves God Who is the real existence) is inevitably in love with all His creatures.

This man, who is known as 'perfect man' in Sadraian philosophy and Islamic mysticism, has two important dimensions. One of his dimensions, which is internal, is that he is a philosopher that has reached reality and has positioned himself in the category of a perfect man and possesses all good attributes and is free from all faults. In his other dimension, which is external, man is a ruler who loves everybody and everything. He knows everything very well and, using his sound mind and good deeds, he can run the society and its policies in a way that all people enjoy from security as well as spiritual and physical health and remain on the path of constant perfection and get to eternal prosperity after their death.  The theory of 'perfect man' or 'wise ruler' used to exist in the philosophy of ancient Iran and its like can be seen in Confucius' philosophy.

Mulla Sadra called his famous book, which is a philosophical masterpiece, al-Asfar al-Arbaeh (The Four Journeys). He used an allegorical and philosophical language to describe the four aforementioned journeys and the two practical and spiritual dimensions of man.

In Mulla Sadra's philosophy, which is the representative of the perfected Islamic philosophy, similar attention has been paid to both practical philosophy and running the society in the best possible way as well as theoretical philosophy. He takes one as the pre-requisite and essential for the other.

According to Muslim theosophers, if practical philosophy, the program for social life, and the form of the government and politics, do not stem from metaphysics, it is like a rootless tree which breaks with a storm and which surrenders itself to any movement and social tension. It, therefore, cannot have any stability.

If theoretical philosophy does not have any program for social and practical life, societies lose their order gradually and the government will be left in the hands of unqualified and wrong persons. This is the problem from which the school of Neo-Confucianism escapes.

In Islamic tradition, knowledge without practice is taken as similar to a fruitless tree and practice without the support of thought and philosophy is assumed to be akin to the bubbles on the surface of water which do not last for a long time.

Islamic philosophy is both fundamentalist and pragmatic; it takes both the earthy life and the hereafter quite serious; it pays attention both individuals and the society and politics; it takes into account both man's material needs and his spirituality. Without causing any contradiction among these opposite issues, it positions everything in its due place. In this way, human discipline and the Divine order of nature correspond. Its objective is that the 'micro-man' and 'macrocosm' (also called 'macro-man') would come to complete adaptation so that people would be able to live in peace.

Religion and theosophy have come to train people wit sound soul. When people are spiritually sound, they can build up a sound society full of justice and peace. Moreover, when nations and human societies have a sound government, the global society will taste the sweetness of peace and ease along with justice and freedom.

Islam has divided the world into the two Divine and satanic, or goodness and wickedness. In ancient Iran, it was divided into Ahura Mazda[1] and Ahriman[2] Whatever leads man and human societies to war, corruption, poverty, and injustice is satanic and is the axis of evil, corruption, and insecurity in the world. On the other hand, whatever calls mankind to security, peace, tranquility and prosperity is Divine and heavenly. Islam and other Divine religions call all mankind to these values.

Islam has offered man the criterion for good and evil as well as being good-doers and wicked so easily that he can distinguish his friends from his foes and the right path from the wrong one. By using this criterion, man can distinguish the axis of good-doing from the axis of evil and can make a distinction between his friends and his foes even today in the arena of international politics.



June 2005


[1] Wise Lord

[2] Angra Manyu (Evil Spirit)


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