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Doctoral Project

Muslim Sanzijing: Shifts and Continuities in the Definition of Islam in China 

Roberta Tontini (M.A.)

What would a Chinese Muslim say, if asked to describe Islam in only three characters?
This project focuses on Islam in China and on the recurring appearance of a Chinese primer, the Muslim Sanzijing, also known as the 'Three Character Classic of Islam'. Updated versions of this Chinese Muslim text marked the evolution of Islam in China from Manchu times until the Peoples' Republic, with each version reflecting a new phase in Islam’s definition vis-à-vis changing political contexts.
Mindful of the interconnectedness of religion, language and politics, the work is underpinned by the notion that cultural meanings flow from two directions: 'Horizontally', as shown by the encounter of Islamic and Confucian values within the same geographical space, and 'vertically', as shown by later Muslim scholars' constant engagement in updating the earliest Muslim Sanzijing model created by this very encounter. In-deed, the complex work of redefining Islam around a single text has not ceased, even after China's subscription to the modernisation imperative, and its challenges to both Islam and traditional Confucian values.
This intricate puzzle of fluid meanings gains coherence through the presence of the Muslim Sanzijing in its multiple updated versions. Within this context, this project touches upon traditionally neglected social actors,including women and the low educated class, as well as a number of sensitive issues such as Chinese Muslims' understanding of Islamic law as subjects, and/or citizens of a centralised and tendencially secular state. The latter consideration seeks to inspire further historically-informed reflections on the politics behind culture and the role of religion – particularly Islam – to China's secular status.