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Islam in China: History, Spread and Culture is a general overview of the rich contributions of Islam to Chinese culture and history extending back to the religion's earliest roots in the region. The book is intended for a general audience and provides a good entry point to the topic through a collection of essays that each tackle a different aspect of Islamic influence. The book includes stunning visuals to highlight and augment the text. However, the work does lack somewhat in scholarly rigor.
Islam filtered into the Chinese consciousness and sphere of influence almost as soon as it arose from the desert sands of the Middle East in the 7th century CE. Islam in China: History, Spread and Culture is a general overview of the rich contributions of Islam to Chinese culture and history extending back to these earliest roots. Compiled by editor P.K. Goya of the Islamic Book Trust in Malaysia, the meat of Islam in China is a collection of essays that each focus their lens on a different aspect of Chinese Muslim traditions and experiences. The scope of these essays is designed with the general reader in mind and they are intended to provide an introductory glimpse into the topic while covering a variety of aspects, including history, ethnography, biography, architecture, and art.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “China: Her and Her Gateway,” features three essays. The first establishes a basic understanding of the general Chinese history and culture, while the other two focus on the predominant ways that Islam found its way to the country. The first of these covers the famed Silk Road, while the second illuminates a lesser-known avenue of Muslim penetration – the sea and the maritime trade to the East that was dominated by Muslim merchants for centuries. Part II, “Islam in China,” is the heart of the book and features eleven essays, each tackling a different aspect of the Muslim presence and contributions in China. The final part, “Chinese Muslims in Nusantara,” features only one essay that combines a historical and sociological approach to examine Islam in Southeast Asia in general, and Malaysia in particular.
These essays vary widely not only in their content focus, both in the quality of writing and clarity of editing. Some, like “Silk Road,” “Islamic Education,” “Zheng He – The Muslim Admiral,” and “Chinese Muslims in the Malay Archipelago,” are written by established scholars and provide excellent (if sometimes somewhat shallow due to restraints of space and scope) analysis and interpretation of the topic. Others, most notably the opening essay of Part II, “Islam in Chinese History” but also including the majority of the eleven essays in Part II, are compiled from excerpts from a variety of non-academic sources, including Wikipedia, Travelchinaguide.com, and YouTube. Such choices in sourcing are questionable and are generally avoided among most scholars. These entries suffer not only from a lack of academic rigor, but also from often choppy and disjointed editing that can yield confusion in the reader and diminish the work's overall impact and credibility.
The book is written in English but edited and published in Malaysia, so some of the book's deficiencies in language, style, and construction can be attributed to a lack of deep familiarity with the language. However, such language shortcomings do not account for the overly laudatory tone of many of these patchwork essays, especially when the essays discuss more recent time periods. The general tone often seems hagiographical at best and politically motivated at worst and tends to downplay (if not outright ignore) some of the more controversial topics, such as the current state of things among the Uighur Muslim population in China. For the general reader, such faults would not be readily apparent, but under closer scholarly analysis they become glaring holes in the quality of the work.
Where this book shines, however, is in the richness and variety of photographs, maps, and illustrations that fill nearly every page. The pictures reveal the depth and breadth of the Muslim experience in China in ways that the written word simply cannot accomplish. While most of the pictures include detailed explanatory notes, there is also a slight editorial failure in this department as well. Nearly every other page features an example of Chinese Muslim art in the bottom left or right corner, all without any sort of note or tag to explain to the reader the context or content of the work displayed. Including such explanations would have added substantially to the overall quality and impact of this aspect of the book.
For those looking for a beautifully illustrated coffee table book that features detailed pictorial examples of Muslim art, culture, and history in China, this book is perfect. For the casual reader that is simply looking for a brief and simple introduction to the history and culture of Chinese Muslims, Islam in China provides a good entry point into the topic, even if it raises more questions than it answers. For those that desire a more substantial and scholarly analysis and approach that fully contextualizes the complexities of the topic, avoids overt bias, and does not shy away from controversy, Islam in China may be more frustrating than enlightening.
Goya, P. (2019, November 04). Islam in China: : History, Spread and Culture, A Pictorial Book. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/review/221/islam-in-china--history-spread-and-culture-a-picto/
Goya, P.K.. "Islam in China: : History, Spread and Culture, A Pictorial Book." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 04, 2019. https://www.worldhistory.org/review/221/islam-in-china--history-spread-and-culture-a-picto/.
Goya, P.K.. "Islam in China: : History, Spread and Culture, A Pictorial Book." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 04 Nov 2019. Web. 16 Apr 2021.