Building a Bridge Between China and Her Muslim Minority: Confucianism as Understood by a Muslim Scholar

Source: Confucianism, A Chapter of a book, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth

Author: Mirza Tahir Ahmad

Courtesy: Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

(click to enlarge)

CONFUCIANISM is a treasure house of profound wisdom. A study of this religion reveals that rationality, revelation and knowledge go hand in hand in leading man to truth. Although many Chinese consider it to be a religion on the pattern of other Divinely revealed religions of the world, there are others among them who view it as a mere philosophy. In Japan, for instance, Confucianism has no geography of its own. The followers of Taoism, Shintoism and Buddhism equally believe in Confucianism as a philosophy compatible with their own. Hence they coexist in a diffused form, unheard of in the case of other religions of the world.

When we speak of Confucianism being treated as a mere philosophy, we particularly have in mind the question of the existence of God. Few followers of Confucius (550–478 BC) today have a clear belief in any Divine existence. Yet they believe in the world of spirits and souls, and some even practise ancestor worship. However we believe that a reappraisal of the currently popular understanding of Confucianism is vital.

Examining the early texts upon which Confucianism is founded, there is no doubt that this religion too is squarely built on a sound belief in the existence of God. It owes much of its philosophy and wisdom to revelation, rather than to the contemplations of wise men.

The extent to which this religion has deviated from its original course can be measured by the currently popular spirit-worship, so commonly found among the adherents of Confucius today. In the source material of Confucius however, there is not the slightest hint of any such superstitious beliefs and practices. Evidently therefore, as happened in the case of other religions, Confucianism also drifted away from its original sources with the passage of time. Many superstitions and erroneous practices crept into it at the cost of the belief in one Supreme God. A tragedy, alas, which is repeated only too often.

As for ancestral worship, they do not treat them as gods or saints, yet, many beg favours from them. But in Japan this worship does not have the same meaning as understood elsewhere. It is merely an expression of respect and loyalty to the memory of the dead. Not everyone begs for things from the souls of the dead, and do not treat them as independent gods. A perfect symmetry and coordination in the laws of nature prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that if this universe is created, it must have been created by a single Supreme Being. There is not an iota of trace of two or three creative hands at work in nature. It is quite logical to conclude from this that the deep innate desire to believe in something must have been created for the purpose of creating a linking bridge between the Creator and the creation. When this communion is not established the absence of Divine revelation leaves a void which must somehow be filled by that fundamental urge. It is that urge that creates gods for itself whether they are souls, spirits, ghosts or other ethereal beings. Hence to believe in superstitions is not accidental. The phantom figures of gods found among the superstitious people are like the images of ghosts born during the absence of light.


This decadent trend gradually pushes the image of God out of the arena of religious beliefs. The belief in God requires reformation in one’s conduct and consequent accountability, while the spirits, ghosts and other ethereal beings demand no submission to any moral religious code.

FROM an in-depth study of classical Confucian literature, it is not difficult to prove that Confucianism is not a man-made philosophy at its origin. It did embrace the idea of one immortal God, from Whom its teachings originated and Who is believed to govern the universe. “Heaven” is a manifestation of that God, and as such sometimes He Himself is referred to as Heaven. Confucianism considers true knowledge to consist of understanding the attributes of God and adopting them in one’s own conduct. This brings man closer to eternal truth and serves as a source of knowledge for his benefit.

The history of Confucianism and Taoism goes as far back as the time of Fu Hsi, (pronounced as Foo She) (c. 3322 BC), who was both a king and a great sage. Once, in a vision, he saw a horse dragon rising from the Yellow River which had a diagram on its back. This is not the only incident of Chinese history regarding a prophet learning things through his vision. Prophet Yu (c. 2140 BC) is also recorded benefitting from Divine revelation. In the vision of Fu Hsi he had the opportunity to study the diagram. The diagram consisted of eight sets of three male and female lines. The combination of these trigrams into upper and lower pairs provides sixty-four hexagrams. The significance of each hexagram is depicted by its name and is related to the particular arrangement of male and female lines. It is reported of a sage, King Wan (c. 1143 BC), that he was the first to write down the interpretations of these hexagrams. His son, Cheu Kung (c. 1120 BC), added to these explanations and later Confucius added his commentary to it in the form of appendices. This was the development of Fu Hsi’s vision into the Book of Changes known as I Ching (or Yi King).

An understanding of the principles of this theory (the theory of the eight trigrams) influenced the growth of many a science and discipline in Chinese life pertaining to all fields of human interest. It is said that in China this philosophy played a vital role in the development of agriculture, industry, medicine, economy, politics and many other fields of knowledge. One Chinese scholar, Chou Chih Hua, writes in his book Acupuncture and Science 1, that the theory of eight trigrams has the same relationship with Chinese medicine as mathematics has with European science. According to the book History of Medicine of China 2, Fu Hsi, the prophet who formulated the theory of the eight trigrams through revelation, also discovered the science of medicine and acupuncture. However, some believe that this knowledge was developed in a later period by the sage King Huang Ti, who in turn had derived his knowledge from the I Ching.

Master Sun’s Art of War, which also uses the I Ching, is famous in the military world. Military people throughout the ages have given importance to this book, which has been translated into six different languages. Chinese logicians and the various ancient classical schools of thought also based their theories on the principles outlined in the Book of Changes. To a minor degree the Book of Changes has also influenced the Western world, where the I Ching has gained in popularity, although some use it only as a kind of oracle for fortune telling.

According to Confucianism, formal academic study is not essential for the attainment of truth. God Himself is Truth, so whatever He creates He blesses it with this same quality central to His own identity. Thus human nature and eternal truth have become synonymous in Confucianism.

Mencius (372–289 BC) was a Chinese philosopher, theorist and educationalist. He was also a very religious man and a prominent personality among the followers of Confucius. He left a great impression on Chinese philosophy, so much so that some consider him to be a prophet. Explaining a way of reaching eternal truth, he is reported to have said:

‘Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished with them. And a different view is simply from want of reflection. Hence it is said, “Seek and you will find them. Neglect and you will lose them.”‘3

Here, the external source being denied by Mencius is not revelation. Rather, he points out that our moral qualities, which are an essential element of our being, do not come to us from outside. Mencius expressed the view that sensory experience does not give us a new message by itself. In the mirror of sensory experience, the human mind can see the external images of its inner nature. Thus he does not deny the benefit of objectivity, what he denies is its independent potential in leading man to truth. All the same he admits that objective experience can be greatly helpful in guiding us to the innate fountainhead of eternal truth. Mencius further expounded that nature, by which he means the entire cosmos, itself is not eternal but created for us by “Heaven” and “Heaven” is a sensible Creator. Explaining this, Mencius said:

‘It is said in the ‘Book of Poetry‘:
“Heaven, in producing mankind,
Gave them their various faculties and relations with their specific laws.
These are the invariable rules of nature for all to hold,
And all love this admirable virtue.” ‘4

The term “Heaven”, as understood by Mencius is a Conscious Being and it is interchangeable with our term of God. Heaven may be seen to symbolize the active and conscious creative principles of God. Thus he says:

‘This is illustrated by what is said in the ‘Book of Poetry,’—

“Be always studious to be in harmony with the ordinances of God,

So you will certainly get for yourself much happiness;” ‘5

Classical Confucianism, undoubtedly, presents man as a creation of God rather than just a product of unconscious nature. For Confucius, the ultimate goal in attaining knowledge of one’s own nature is to attain harmony with God, and this is the ultimate of man’s vision of heaven. This belief is quite similar to the Quranic teaching in presenting man as having been created according to God’s attributes.

… and follow the nature (attributes) of Allah after which He fashioned all mankind…6

Confucius further propounded that man has to make a conscious effort to first gain knowledge of this image of God, latent within his nature, and then to develop within himself attributes that accord with this image. If he does not make this conscious effort, then there is no guarantee that man’s moral development will, as a matter of course, be in the image of God.

According to Confucian understanding, knowledge as an entity does not exist in isolation from man’s actions and character (his virtue, dignity and propriety). The two are deeply linked, as the following reference reveals:

‘The Master (Confucius) said,
“When a man’s knowledge is sufficient to attain, and his virtue is not sufficient to enable to hold, whatever he may have gained, he will lose again.
When his knowledge is sufficient to attain, and he has virtue enough to hold fast, if he cannot govern with dignity, the people will not respect him.
When his knowledge is sufficient to attain, and he has virtue enough to hold fast; when he governs also with dignity, yet if he try to move the people contrary to the rules of propriety:— full excellence is not reached.” ‘7

It is also evident that Confucius was convinced that man’s Creator has great influence over him and that He alone was worthy of his worship. This is revealed by the following tradition:

‘Wang-sun-Chia saying, (to the Master Confucius):
“What is the meaning of the saying, It is better to pay court to the furnace than the southwest corner?”
The Master said, “Not so. He who offends against Heaven (God) has none to whom he can pray.” ‘8

To offend against the creative principles of God is to act contrary to the inner nature of man, which God has designed to be a reflective mirror of His own attributes. The one who turns away from God has none else to turn to.

The above quotes serve to illustrate that at its source, Confucianism cannot be treated as a man-made philosophy. At its core, it contained the essential belief in an externally existing Creator, whose ways are to be revered and emulated. They further illustrate that mere knowledge, devoid of the essential ingredients of seeking God and putting into practice His ordinances, was considered to be of no value.

Furthermore, as will become evident from the quotes furnished below, Confucianism presents God (or Heaven) as a Being Who takes an active interest in the welfare and development of mankind. The necessity of upholding the value of Truth is established by God, through His choice of suitable people to establish truth for the guidance of man.

The Chinese sages can be considered to be the equivalent of prophets as mentioned in the Quran or the Bible, i.e. men who are representatives or messengers of God. We find this similarity expressed in a statement attributed to Confucius.

‘The Master was put in fear in K’wang.
“He said, ‘After the death of King Wan, was not the cause of truth lodged here in me (Confucius)?
If Heaven had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal, should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of K’wang do to me?” ‘ 9

Here Confucius expresses his complete conviction that the eventual transcendence of truth was assured by an unchanging decree of God in whose safe hand he was a mere instrument. God does not allow those He has directly guided to perish without having accomplished their task of establishing truth, even though they may stand alone against seemingly all-powerful odds. This is exactly the picture given of the prophets in the Bible and the Quran. Those who are worthy to be chosen for such tasks are men who have excelled in emulating God’s attributes.

‘Confucius said, “Great indeed was Yaou as a sovereign. It is only Heaven that is great, and only Yaou corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it.” ‘10

In other words, through emulating God, his qualities became so great that people could not find adequate words to describe him:

Chang said, “I presume to ask how it was that Yaou presented Shun to Heaven, and Heaven accepted him; and that he exhibited him to the people, and the people accepted him.” ‘ 11

Again these verses make it clear that Heaven is not the cosmos, nor the inner micro-universe of a person, but an active and conscious being, synonymous with the term God. As Heaven chooses sages according to certain criteria, so God chooses the prophets. Our proposition that Chinese sages are considered to have the same qualities as those of the prophets of the Bible and the Quran, has been well served by the references presented above.

A further study of the Confucian text illustrates that revelation was not only a means of establishing the true philosophy of life, but was also of practical value in guiding man’s actions in everyday life. We have already mentioned Fu Hsi’s vision and its application in a practical way to many aspects of Chinese civilization—an influence that lasted for many millennia. Below we present some other examples where revelation played a role in influencing the material well-being of a nation:

‘ “… When the king speaks, his words form the commands for them; if he do not speak, the ministers have no way to receive their orders.” The king on this made a writing, and informed them, saying, “As it is mine to secure what is right in the four quarters of the empire, I have been afraid that my virtue is not equal to that of my predecessors, and therefore have not spoken. But while I was respectfully and silently thinking of the right way, I dreamt that God gave me a good assistant, who should speak for me.” He then minutely described the appearance of the person, and caused search to be made for him by means of a figure throughout the empire. Yue, a builder in the country of Foo-yen, was found like.
On this the king raised and made him his prime minister, keeping him also at his side.
He charged him, saying, ‘Morning and evening present your instructions to aid my virtue…’ ” 12

Here, it is claimed that the King had no way of knowing how, or by whom, his difficulties of government could be overcome, but he was granted an answer by God through a dream.

Again it is related of the great Sage, king Wan:

‘God said to king Wan,
‘Be not like those who reject this and cling to that;
Be not like those who are ruled by their likings and desires;”
So he grandly ascended before others to the height [of virtue].
The people of Meih were disobedient,…”
‘God said to king Wan,
“I am pleased with your intelligent virtue,
Not loudly proclaimed nor portrayed,
Without extravagance or changeableness,
Without consciousness of effort on your part,
In accordance with the pattern of God.”
‘God said to king Wan,
“Take measures against the country of your foes. Along with your brethren,
Get ready your scaling ladders,
And your engines of onfall and assault,
To attack the walls of Ts’ung.” ‘ 13

This illustrates the process by which God chooses His servants, who are to represent His cause. First, God guided and instructed King Wan, who responded by putting His advice into practice and thus rose in status in the eyes of God.

The concluding verses of the above quote are reminiscent of David in the Bible who was also a prophet and a king. Just as David was given permission to attack his enemies, who sought to wipe out the cause of truth, so too was King Wan. A comparative study of religious history reveals other similarities between the experiences of King Wan and the Prophet King Davidas, but we shall not enter into this lengthy discussion here.

With the help of the references quoted above, it should become amply clear that in the Chinese religions and philosophies, revelation has a significant place and is an important means of attaining the truth. Many other examples from the Chinese classics also demonstrate that Confucianism cannot be considered merely a man-made philosophy of life, which has no belief in an external God. On the contrary, God is an intrinsic part of this faith and whatever was received through dreams and visions, is most definitely attributed to communication from God.


  1. CHOU, C.H. [year unknown] Acupuncture and Science. 1st ed. Shi-Wei Typographic Co., Ltd., Taiwan
  2. ZHENG, M.Q. , LIN, P.S. [year unknown] History of Medicine of China. Shang Wu Printing and Publishing House, Taiwan, pp.2–3
  3. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, p.862
  4. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, p. 863
  5. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, p. 544
  6. Translation of 30:31 by the author.
  7. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, pp. 354–355
  8. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, pp. 152–153
  9. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, pp. 231–232
  10. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, p. 632
  11. LEGGE, J. (1985) The Four Books. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and the Works of Mencius. 2nd ed, Culture Book Co., Taiwan, p. 793
  12. LEGGE, J. (1865) The Chinese Classics. Vol. III, Part I, The Shoo King. Trübner Co., London. pp.248–252
  13. LEGGE, J. (1871) The Chinese Classics. The She King, Part III. Decade of King Wan Book I, Vol. IV, Part II, Trübner and Co., London. pp. 452–454


1 reply

  1. Strangly during Ibn Battuta s time the relationship between Chinese authorities and Muslims seem to have been a lot better.

    Now? Where there is a will there is a way ! Of course the relationship could be good if cooperation instead of controntation would be used.

    I am pessimistic about the future of China. See the book of George Friedman about the nxt century. He predicted that China will fragment. It looks as if they are working towards it I am afraid.

Leave a Reply