From 1938 to 1947, a Chinese Muslim scholar named Muhammad Tawāḍuʿ Pang (known in China as Pang Shiqian) lived and studied at al-Azhar, Cairo’s famed center of Islamic learning. During his time in Egypt, he produced his Arabic-language magnum opus, China and Islam, published by the Muslim Brotherhood in May 1945. In addition to introducing Arabic-speaking audiences to Chinese Islam, the book exhibited four important features. First, it sought to place Chinese Muslim history firmly within Islamic history generally. Second, it responded to the geopolitical crisis brought upon the Chinese Muslims by the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and by China’s war with Japan. Third, it equated the modern condition of Muslims in both Egypt and China and absorbed otherwise competing intellectual genealogies from al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Fourth, it synthesized these genealogies by calling for a return to the principles of the “golden age” of Islam and a revitalization of pre-modern intra-Asian relations as the surest path to modern “progress.” While this body of thought and sentiment had little in common with modern nationalism, elements of it were nevertheless soon co-opted by the nascent Third World movement.
Building on diverse fields including Chinese, Islamic, Middle Eastern, and global history, this essay seeks to decouple Chinese Muslim history from narratives of marginalization and to decouple histories of China and the Middle East from the fraught encounter between “West” and “non-West.” Through its reading of Tawāḍuʿ Pang’s China and Islam, it also attempts to recall a now unfamiliar world in which the nation-state did not yet enjoy the dominance it achieved once decolonization was fully underway.