By Eissa Dar
22 February 2017
Western media has always been saturated
with images of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but what we don’t hear about
as often is the relation between Islam and martial arts. The early trade that
led to a great relationship between Arab Muslims and the Chinese acted as a
pivotal role in the spread of Islam in the Far East as well as cementing the
Muslim-Chinese identity. Dating back to the 1200s, the roles early Chinese
Muslims played in military leadership positions forms the beginning of this
most unique connection.
Islam in China is well documented with the
Hui people acting as the largest Muslim minority within the country. From
approximately 19 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ? a relationship between
China and Arabia was already in place. It was the third Khalifah (Caliph)
‘Uthman who initiated the first conscious efforts to spread Islam in the
region, with subsequent trade missions also contributing to the spread of
The Hui Muslims came from this lineage, a
unification of Arabia and China to form this unique position of authentic
Chinese culture, infused with the Islamic tradition, the likes of which can
still be seen to this day in various parts of the country, though mostly
concentrated in the north-western parts of China. The practise of martial arts
still takes place in various Masajid (mosques) around the country, with Islamic
sciences being taught at the same time.
Not only did martial arts combine with
practical aspects of defence for long seafaring trade missions, but it also was
a spiritual tool of many Muslim masters. The need for self-control and
restraint reflect in both martial arts and traditional Islamic teachings.
The concept of Islamic self-control was
used by martial art masters in the physical realm as well. With practitioners
putting emphasis on both spiritual and physical aspects of training. The need
for calm and collected decision making is a tradition upheld by Muslims, as
seen in the tradition of The Prophet ? , “The strong is not the one who
overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls
himself while in anger.” The essence of Ijtihad (diligence) in maintaining
self-discipline is integral in both paths.
Various art forms such as Silat and Wushu
have been perfected by Muslims of the last few hundred years, with many
original martial arts being either created or adapted by Muslims as well, such
as Zhaquan and Piguquan. These original developments were tools that were
created often by army officials or to safeguard Muslims in China, being passed
down in secret through generations.
In the history of this marriage between
martial arts and Islam, there are many names to consider. We can see examples
of masters such as Wang Zi Ping (1881 – 1973) and Chang Tung Sheng (1908 –
1986) who trained in their discipline while retaining their faith and using it
as a means to come closer to Allah and the teachings of their religion.
Master Wang Zi Ping, acknowledged as a master of Wushu was also a
learned man in relation to the Religion. He was known to lift heavy stones
while reciting the Qur’an. A notable story tells of his opposition to German
forces who attempted to obtain the doors of Qinzhou Masjid that was inscribed
with the history of the Muslims in China. Master Wang was not one to let a
priceless part of Muslim identity be taken away, and so challenged the soldiers
to a weight lifting competition and subsequently won.
Also, a master of various other
disciplines, Wang Zi Ping was an inspiration to people, wang Muslim and
non-Muslim alike. His mastery of a variety of martial arts allowed him to gain
victory over various foreign opponents, leading to a great following of
students, thus also spreading the reach of Islam amongst Chinese people.
In reality, martial arts and the Islamic
tradition share a unique bond and history that within them both contain means
to achieve a greater purpose. Acting as reflections of each other, the history
of Islam in China led to the expansion of the Religion to the far eastern
corners of the world, and the practical nature of martial arts helped defend
this tradition in a way that kept the uniqueness of Chinese culture, with the
absoluteness of the religion of Islam.
Amjid Ali is Wing Chun instructor and also
a practising Muslim. In the video below he relates his journey of learning,
from travelling to Hong Kong and training with legendary martial artist Ip Man
and close friends of the late Bruce Lee. He provides an interesting insight
into the similarities between Islamic and martial art teachings.