(Image: Al-Idrisi’s map of the world)
Historically the ulemas in the Muslim world (areas that were ruled by Muslim including the ones which did not have numerical majority of Muslims) divided the world into two or three categories. First there was dar-al-Islam or the land of Islam. This consisted of lands which were ruled by Muslims. A lot of people are surprised or even shockingly surprised when they hear that even three hundred years after the initial conquests by the rightly guided caliphs and the Ummayids at most only 15 percent of the population of the new lands had converted to Islam. The point is that the numerical majority did not matter in calling these lands dar-al-Islam. What mattered was that the rule of Islam held sway. The second category was dar-al-hard or the adobe of war. These were the lands which were not part of the Islamic empires. Additionally many ulemas also considered a third category dar-al-sulah or the adobe of accord. These were the lands in which Islam did not held sway but either Muslim rulers had treaties with these lands or Muslims were allowed to live in peace in these lands.
With the exception of the Mongol interlude and the loss of Spain and Sicily there were very few territorial losses by the Muslim empires for more than a thousand years. Thus the two systems of classification were employed for a long time. In case of territorial losses many Muslims migrated to Muslim empires or were forced to convert. One exception was Sicily where Muslims flourished for more than two hundred years after the end of Muslim rule but after two hundred years they were forced to move to Luceria in Italy but were not forced to convert. Luceria could have been an exception to the pattern of forced conversions but eventually the Muslims there were also killed or forceably converted there as well. The coming of Mongols put the ummah in an unprecedented situation because for the first time in its history large parts of the Islamic world were under non-Muslim rule. Some ulemas even advised the Muslims to migrate to ‘Muslim lands.’ From a logistical point of view this was next to impossible as millions of Muslims lived in these lands. The reversal of fortunes did not last for long as the Mongols converted to Islam and the lands were again ruled by Muslims. At the beginning of Western colonialism Muslims were again put in this situation and by this time the population of the world had risen greatly an migration was virtually impossible since by the end of the first world war most of the Islamic world was under non-Muslim rule so there was no where to migrate to even if one thought about migrating. Many ulemas were also of the opinion that Muslims did not have to migrate as long as they can practice their religion.
In the 20th century the situation became even stranger as it became difficult in some Muslim majority countries to practice Islam and easier in some non-Muslim countries to practice Islam. Many ulemas in the Islamic world (now defined as the countries where Muslims have a numerical majority) still held onto the old system of classification even though to many Muslim masses it was clear that the world had changed enough that the old dichotomies do not apply any more. This finally beings us to the topic at hand – the absence of dar-al-Islam vs. dar-al-harb or even dar-al-sulah rhetoric in the Chinese Muslim texts. Especially amongst the Hui Muslims (There are 12 ethnic groups in China which are Muslims, Hui’s are one of them), there was sometimes a tendency of being more Chinese than the Chinese. Thus in canonical scholarly texts by the Hui ulemas one never sees any dar-al-Islam vs. dar-al-harb distinction. They not only considered themselves to be Chinese but the Han Chinese were like their brethren who followed a different creed.
This also has to do with the fact that for the first thousand years the relations between Chinese Muslims and the rest of the community were amicable with almost no restrictions put on the Muslims so that they never felt as being stranger. Geographic isolation also helped. Many of the Muslim from ‘traditional’ Muslim lands who came to China married local women so that their descendants only knew of China as their home. It should also be noted that one of the reasons why many ulemas took the stance that one should migrate from non-Muslim lands is because of not-so-positive experience of many Muslims in some lands bordering the Islamic world. Thus the collective experience of some Muslim minorities became one of the basis of fiqh ruling in this case. However the collective experience of Chinese Muslims was quite different and thus the question of migration or how to live in a non-Muslim land was less relevant. Thus the question of dar-al-Islam vs. dar-al-harb never arose for the Chinese Muslims for more than a thousand years. This example is very relevant for Muslims in the West as most of them come from majority Muslim countries where many ulemas still use the old categories. The experience and scholarship of Chinese Muslims could be a guide for the new Muslim communities. Regarding the dischtomies of East, West, North, South one should heed the following verse from Quran (Suran Al-Baqara, verse 115).
“To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing.”
Addendum (November 22, 2007):
Let there be confusion I would like to add that one of the motivations for this post was to illustrate that the old dichotomies of Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb do not apply in the modern world and if we abandon or modify these categories then we as Muslims would not be going against our tradition since we do have a precedent in the case of Chinese Muslim ulemas who did not use these strict separation. Also another point was to illustrate that the origin of this dichotomy was historical circumstances rather than some timeless injunction.