Guggenheim Fellow Sachiko Murata Translating Chinese Text on Islam

From her trove of teachable moments, Dr. Sachiko Murata recalled a conversation with a student who unabashedly, and with what she hoped was benign ignorance, disparaged an Arabic title he’d spotted on her office bookshelf. “ ‘You’re such a nice person, how do you study this terrible thing?’” she was asked. “This was just seven years ago. Oh, that kind of attitude …”

Her voice trails off.

That a college student would be so reactionary troubled her, she explains, especially in an era when the essence of Islam is being obscured by terrorists twisting the message to serve their own purposes.

Japanese-born Murata, 68, has been studying Islam and its followers since the early 1970s, when she landed at Tehran University to get a doctorate in Persian literature. This was followed by a master’s degree in jurisprudence from TU’s Faculty of Theology (the first woman and first non-Muslim to do so) and a doctorate in Islamic and Confucian dictates over family life and structure.

A professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1983, Murata was tapped as one of this year’s Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellows — a nod to her authorship of several books on Islam, her teaching on the topic and a body of associated work.

“Being chosen for a Guggenheim Fellowship is a most esteemed honor and reflects the highest levels of scholarship and professionalism,” says SUNY-Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr.

For the past seven years she’s been translating and analyzing the cosmology, metaphysics, theology and spiritual psychology of the first known text on Islam written in Chinese, Wang Daiyu’s The Real Commentary on the True Teaching, published in 1642.

“It is my life’s work, one of the most important things I’ve done,” says Murata, a religious studies professor and director of Japanese studies for Stony Brooks’ Department of Asian and American Studies.

The $40,000 Guggenheim prize will grant her the time and resources to finish the translation by year’s end and to publish it within three years, she says.

“It’s quite hard,” she adds, citing, for example, the overflow of meanings in a single Chinese word. “I don’t want to misrepresent anything. I’m trying to be faithful to the author and be readable.”

The nearly 400-year-old tome spotlights the “dialogue” that ancient Chinese and Arabs created about Islam. It explores the common ground arrived at by what came to be known as Huiru, or “Confucian Muslims” who did not belabor the disjunctions between Confucianism and Islam, which Arab merchants introduced to China in 651 A.D., says Murata.

Murata’s books include Temporary Marriage in Islamic Law, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought and Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light. She has also co-authored books with her husband, Stony Brook religious studies professor William Chittick; and Tu Weiming, a Harvard University professor of Chinese history and philosophy. 

By the 10th century, China housed 10 geographically distinct communities of Muslims who today, by the religion-constraining government’s official count, total 20 million. “But this number has not changed in the last 50 years,” Murata says. “Chinese Muslims say it is much, much higher — 50 to 60 million.”

Murata says she hopes her translation and analysis of Daiyu’s text with help create an unvarnished history of Islam and also authenticate Islam’s place in modern life.

If ancient Arabs and Chinese managed to focus more on their shared religious tenets than their divisions, that is a lesson for modern times, she says.

“That attitude of a student took me into writing this book,” Murata says. “I explained to him, ‘You’re totally wrong.’ When you’re not educated on the matter, you can get it very, very wrong.”