Here’s How Chinese Philosophy Is Similar To Sufi-Islamic Thought
Abdul Qayyum Khan Kundi argues that Chinese philosophers emphasize hierarchy in existence flowing from individual to family to city to state to world to universe, which is also in conformity with the Islamic social ideals.
There is a famous Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) instructing the Muslims to seek knowledge even if they have to go to China.
Almost all commentators suggest that the Prophet (PBUH) named China because it was a far off place, and he wanted to lay emphasis on the importance of education. But it makes one wonder that China is as far from Medina as any European country or Greece. Why did he specifically name China?
So if the distance was not the reason then it is important to take a second look at this hadhith. Quran also proposes that every community and nation received Prophets to provide them with guidance. I recently found a book titled Great Thinkers of the Eastern World edited by Ian P. McGreal. The book talks about philosopher from China, India, Japan, Korea and Islam.
The thoughts of Chinese philosophers Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and others are very close to the Sufi thought of Islam. This has compelled me to think that Prophet (PBUH) proposed to travel to China for knowledge not just because it was a far off place but because it offered deep knowledge of existence that conforms with the philosophy of Islam.
Prophet PBUH may have come across traders from China during his years as a merchant traveling to Syria which was a node in the ancient Silk Road. This brings us to the question: what is the Chinese philosophical thought?
Some of the key elements of Chinese thought is Great Ultimate (the Great whole), Dao, yen (Jen), li, and Qi. Most of these philosophers agreed that all causes ultimately lead to a final cause that they sometimes called the Great Ultimate or a great whole. Most writings of these ancient philosophers are lost but whatever survived does not properly explain to reconcile the question of why did the great Ultimate decide to create the world and all those in it.
Dao is called the way through which a person can come into harmony with the hardship of the existence as well as please the great Ultimate. In Islamic lingo, we can say that Dao is the Sharia to lead a life of righteousness. Dao suggests that a person should act effortlessly to do the right thing but this state cannot be achieved easily and requires a process of meditation and self-control. To ensure no mistake is made, a person needs a teacher to help in embarking on the process. This is similar to the Sufi code of Islam.
Yen (Jen) is the humanity that demands that all those around us have to be treated justly or fairly. A person cannot achieve enlightenment until he learns to love those around him. In Islamic terms, we can call it emphasis on huq ul Ibad (rights towards the humanity).
Chinese philosophers emphasise that human existence is not individualist which is the main focus of Western philosophy, but there are relations around us that are important to achieve self-actualization. To be just and fair to all relations, the individual has to pursue Dao (the way). This is also quite close to Islamic thought that promotes the family as the basic unit rather than an individual but educates the individual.
Li is the omnipresence of God in everything that has come into existence. In scientific terms, this can be called the dark energy and dark force that we still do not understand.
Qi is the material reality that is nothing but the conversion of Li into a physical definite form. This again is very similar to the Islamic thought that there was God and then instruction Qun (be) was issued and everything came to existence. Qi is the physical manifestation of everything that is in Li but Li has other essences that may not exist in Qi.
Chinese philosophers emphasize hierarchy in existence flowing from individual to family to city to state to world to universe. It suggests that every person in the hierarchy should take care of those in their care and respect the authority of those above them. This is also in conformity with the Islamic social ideals.
This makes it clear to me that Chinese philosophy is quite close to the Sufi Islamic thought. The main significant difference is dealing with death. It seems Chinese philosophers struggle to define what happens to the soul after death. I have two qualifying comments about the Sufi and Chinese approach. First, both fail to properly explain the relationship between Creator and creation. They suggest that the creation can achieve enlightenment by absorbing oneself in the essence of the Creator.
This is impossible because there is a separation between Creator and creation that is not bridgeable. Here I want to remind you of the story of Adam (AS) when he was told not to touch the forbidden tree.
That condition was to remind him that there is a Creator that commands the ultimate authority which cannot be abrogated without consequences. Second, both Sufis and Chinese philosophers to some extent suggest withdrawal from living life to dedicate oneself to meditation for enlightenment which continues until the end of life.
Lives of the Prophets suggest otherwise. All of them were enlightened individuals but they lived a normal life in the community. Prophet Moosa (AS) was a shepherd.
Prophet Essa (AS) was a carpenter. Prophet Mohammad PBUH was a trader and statesman.
Islam proposes that every breath we take and every day that we spend going about our lives is meditation and no special efforts are needed for it. Salat (Namaz), Roza (fasting), and pursuing Rizk e Halal are prayers just like focused meditation for achieving enlightenment.