Contemporary uses of Ma Qixi’s sentences [Part 1/3], by Marie-Paule Hille
During his lifetime, Ma Qixi (1857-1914), the founder of the Xidaotang, produced sixteen parallel sentences. This literary genre and the materiality of the calligraphies, with their short and concise format, were particularly well adapted to spread his religious doctrine and an Islamic-Confucian morality. During the first half of the 20th century, these calligraphies were hung in places of worship, madrasa and communal rooms. These calligraphies conveyed all kinds of messages to the faithful, from the most spiritual to the most normative.
Today, the presence of these calligraphies in the various spaces that make up the mosque, but also in domestic spaces (living room, bedroom) or in hagiographies highlights the relationship to Ma Qixi’s thought within the Xidaotang. To understand what sainthood is made of in this contemporary Muslim community, it is important to examine the legacy of the founding saint both in its materiality and in its contextualized uses.
The short photo essay that follows each translation and commentary of one of the sixteen parallel sentences allows us to contextualize their different uses and meanings today.
As the light (of God) is great, it was able to spread and shine ten thousand lamps.
The Great Brush (of creation) was then alone able to create and shape the two worlds.
The creation of the world is the main theme of this sentence. The term liangshi 两世, ‘the two worlds’, seems to refer to the Qur’anic pair: ‘this world’ (ar. dunyā) and ‘the world after’ (ar. ākhira). In Wang Daiyu’s work, the terms used to name these two worlds are xiantian 先天 and houtian 后天, analyzed by Sachiko Murata as follows:
« The terms « before-heaven » (hsien-t’ien) and « after-heaven » (hou-t’ien) are Taoist expressions referring to the state of existence before this world and existence in this world. […] Wang is clearly using before-heaven to designate the realm of reality that is preparatory to the appearance of this world » (Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: 52).
In the first sentence, God is referred to with the image of light, a classic topos in Sufi Islam. Generally, in the work of Liu Zhi and other Muslim authors, the formless light of God is referred to as zhenguang 真光, shenguang 神光, yuguang 余光, yuguang of yuguang 余光的余光, etc.
The dissyllabic miaobi 妙笔 refers to the creation of the universe. Liu Zhi in his work speaks of dabi 大笔 which Murata translates as ‘Great Brush’
« This nature is the chief of all the spiritual awarenesses of the thousand antiquities. This wisdom opens up all the beginnings of the works and functions of the thousand antiquities. Both nature and wisdom act on behalf of the capability of the creative transformation.
Hence, all things having spirit are deeply rooted in this nature in order to begin; these are the kinds of humans, spirits, birds, and beasts. All things having action are deeply rooted in this wisdom in order to begin; these are the kinds of heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things. Thus, this chief level is also named and called “the Great Brush.” This is to say that all the principles and images of the thousand antiquities emerge from the writing of this Great Brush » (passage de Nature and Principle in Islam traduit par Murata, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi: 214-215)
This parallel sentence is probably the most widespread today. During my fieldwork, I was able to observe its presence in many spaces of different nature and it was often invoked in discussions.
This picture was taken in 2007 in Lintan in the small room where Han Laoshi and his wife lived. This couple was in charge of guarding the house of the shaykh Min Shengguang, even though over the years this house became a holiday retreat. Their living quarter, where they led a very frugal life, bordered a huge front yard guarded by a German shepherd.
Han Laoshi had a very special relationship with shaykh Min Shengguang, he had witnessed a period in the life of the shaykh when miracles were manifested. His wife is a descendant of the first lineage from a village in Qinghai to have followed the Xidaotang path.
On this picture, the parallel sentences drawn up by hajj Min Shengguang in 2002 comes to frame a poem that he composed in souvenir of his “fellow believer” Han Laoshi.
In November 2007, a major event was held in Linxia to celebrate the mawlid, the 50th anniversary of the death of shaykh Min Zhidao (1880-1957) and the inauguration of the Mosque. The person supervising the preparations in the foreground is the fourth generation direct descendant of Ma Qixi.
Ma Qixi’s parallel sentence was used to decorate the frame of the entrance door of the tent that would welcome the faithful to share the meal. On that day, more than 5,000 worshippers from all over the North West attended the event. Many personalities from the religious, political and academic worlds were also invited.
Architectural elements of mosques
The mosque in Mayin (Qinghai) was rebuilt and inaugurated in 2005. This place is an important stage in Ma Qixi’s hagiography because in the 1900s he began his missionary activities here, symbolized by a dream episode. The place where he made his retreat is still venerated today.
The family in the photo below is from the lineage of the man who saw Ma Qixi in his dream in the guise of a great sun. They are the descendants of the first Muslims in Mayin to follow the path of Ma Qixi.
The parallel sentence of Ma Qixi is inlaid in the ornamented parts of the mosque building, on the side of the door opening to the main prayer hall. The two sentences are separated by decorative elements, stone engravings, which represent floral motifs borrowed from Chinese culture.
This wall hagiography, written in chalk, was photographed in 2008 on the grounds of the Linxia mosque, one year after its inauguration. It is an account of the history of the Xidaotang community in Linxia, from the persecution of the martyred saints in the 1910s to the fundraising that enabled the construction of the mosque. Several lives and holy sayings (written in red chalk) are interwoven in this text to trace the chronology of historical events.
In this kind of hagiographic text, Ma Qixi’s parallel sentences are often invoked in a contextualized manner. The one studied here opens the last paragraph by referring to Ma Qixi’s injunction to hold on to the rope stretched by God, the need to remain united and the light that the umma represents.