As one of the political, commercial and intellectual centers of Asia, Japan at the turn of the twentieth century was an important arena for the intersection of ideas about modernism, nationalism and anti-colonial politics. Though Cairo, Istanbul and Mecca had long been the capitals of scholarship and cross-cultural interaction in the Islamic world, Meiji-era Japan was a site of key encounters between Muslims from China, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Drawn together by a common interest in Islamic revival and nation building that transcended linguistic and cultural differences, these activists established various Muslim organizations in Japan and saw Islam as a way to unify Asian peoples.
The Asian Congress (Ajia Gikai), founded in 1909, established Tokyo as an important hub of pan-Asian and Muslim activism. Founded by a group of Japanese intellectuals and a Russian Tatar Muslim, Abdurrashid Ibrahim (1853-1944), the Asian Congress promoted Muslim-Asian solidarity as part of a political program to liberate the East (from North Africa to East Asia) from European and American colonial power. Members of the Asian Congress sought funds from the Ottoman Empire to construct a mosque in Tokyo, as well as ulema to serve Muslims living in Japan. Other organizations like the Association in Tokyo for Islamic Call, founded by Muslim scholars from Egypt, India, Russia, Tunisia and China, also worked to promote Islam in Japan.
At the same time that political activists were converging on Japan, the country also attracted thousands of foreign students seeking modern education. China began sponsoring students to study in Japan after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. The number of Chinese students increased dramatically after the Boxer Rebellion, when a portion of the war reparations owed to Japan were paid via university tuition. The abolition of the traditional civil service exam in China in 1905 also precipitated a major shift in the Chinese education system and pushed more students to pursue education abroad. By 1906, over 10,000 Chinese were studying in Japan.
Among these students was a group of 36 Chinese Muslims, part of the first collective effort of Chinese Muslims to study abroad. Like other Chinese nationalists in Japan, the Muslim students sought a modern education for the purpose of political and social reform in China. Some of these students joined the United Allegiance Society, Sun Yat-Sen’s Tokyo-based underground revolutionary movement against the Qing government. For many Chinese Muslim nationalists, Islam was an essential element of their anti-colonial, pan-Asian politics, and the Chinese Muslim students sought connections with other Muslims by founding the Education Association of Muslims Studying Abroad in Tokyo.
The popular press was key to mediating encounters — both real and imagined — among diverse Muslims for a global audience and for sustaining the intellectual sparks ignited in Japan. In 1909, the Education Association published the journal Xing Hui Pian (Muslims Awake), which promoted Islamic modernism and the role of Islam in Chinese nation building. Muslims Awake also belonged to the literary revival of Islam in China, especially in the cultural capitals of Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing and Shanghai. Chinese Muslim newspapers like Zhengzong Aiguo Bao (A Newspaper of Authentic Patriotism) in Beijing and Zhu Yuan Baihua Bao (A Vernacular Newspaper of Bamboo Garden) in Tianjin discussed new styles of civil education and political activism. Though they covered issues of interest to Chinese Muslims, these papers also aimed to reach a non-Muslim Chinese audience.
Even though Muslims Awake was published in Tokyo, it circulated widely among Muslims in China, sometimes through republication in Muslim newspapers. The prologue of Muslims Awake was published in Zhengzong Aiguo Bao, prefaced by an enthusiastic endorsement of the journal and the students behind it: “The journal aims at reform and revival of Islam in preparation for establishing the constitution in our country…. What a noble objective and a well-thought endeavor!”
Muslims Awake also documented some of the links forged between Chinese Muslims and other Muslims in Japan. Ahmad Fadali (1874-?) was an Egyptian military officer who moved to Japan in self-imposed exile after witnessing British treatment of Sudanese during the Anglo-Sudanese war. Fadali married a Japanese woman and became involved with other foreign Muslims to promote Islam in Japan. Fadali often lectured on Islam with Abdurrashid Ibrahim at Waseda University, where they met the Chinese students and learned of Muslims Awake. Fadali contributed an Arabic translation of the title for the journal cover — Istiqaz al-Islam. The journal included this account of the meeting with Fadali:
Although our association is small, the members have very similar goals and are enthusiastic about this cause. At the beginning we did not know each other, but once we met we felt quite close with each other. Muslims scattered in different parts of China, but spiritually we are bonded together with great solidarity. Without our religion, how could we achieve this?… An Egyptian military officer, Ahmad Fadali, is a Muslim from a foreign country. He was introduced to us. When he heard about our project during the meeting, he was very surprised. He therefore wrote in Arabic for the cover as an encouragement to us.
The story of meeting Fadali as recorded in Muslims Awake and in other publicity about the journal both inside and outside China suggests how novel it was for Chinese Muslims to encounter a learned person from the Islamic heartland. Few Muslims in China spoke or read Arabic, and Muslims in Japan often communicated in Japanese. Yet Istiqaz al-Islam captured the common aspiration of many Chinese and Egyptian Muslims to build an Islamic nationalist politics.
Two years after the publication of Muslims Awake, the Xinhai revolution overthrew the Qing empire and most of the students of the Education Association went back to China to participate in the politics of the new republic. Chinese Muslims were an important political constituency during the Republican period and the Japanese occupation. The Kuomintang government sponsored several groups of Chinese Muslims to study at al-Azhar University in Cairo, and Japan later promoted a plan to establish a separate country for Chinese Muslims, run by a puppet government. Chinese graduates of al-Azhar became the first generation of Arabic language teachers in Chinese universities.