Cambridge in Beijing: Peking University-University of Cambridge Arabic Studies Joint Conference

A conference exploring Chinese perspectives of the Middle East and the Islamic world, at a time when China’s interest in the region is growing, will take place in Beijing later this week.

Researchers from Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies will meet with some of their Chinese counterparts from Peking University for the third in an ongoing series of “Cambridge In…” events, which aims to bring together the views of scholars specialising in Islam around the world.

“Cambridge in China” takes place against a diplomatic backdrop in which that country’s interest and involvement in the Middle East is growing. With China becoming a major player on the world stage, some Middle Eastern and Islamic countries are beginning to see its leadership on issues such as trade, energy and international security as a viable alternative to that of the United States.

In addition, it gives researchers an opportunity to find out more about the study of Islamic society and culture in a country that has long-standing, but often overlooked, links with the Islamic world, as well as a large and established Muslim population.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Prince Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, said: “Like our own Centre, many of the Chinese researchers we will be meeting are interested in Islam less from a theological point of view than from a cultural, or socially scientific perspective.”

“At the same time, their view of the Middle East or the Islamic world is very different because of their different vantage point. Really, what we are trying to find out is whether point of view creates the object. In other words, how are these regions conceived differently in China – and why?”

Some of the papers that will be presented at the conference allude to the diplomatic resonance of understanding China’s perspective of the Islamic world. They include studies of China and the Gulf, and its impact on oil security and commerce in general. Further research will touch on the potential global reach of the Arab Spring, and the notions of trust that appear to underpin trade relationships between China and the Middle East.

The overall aim of the conference is, however, simply to build a closer relationship with researchers studying Islam, in the spirit of the Islamic saying, or “hadith”, which urges Muslims to: “Seek knowledge, even if you have to go as far as China.” Peking University itself was one of the first Chinese universities to dedicate a department to the study of Arabic and Islamic culture.

As a result, there will also be detailed studies of the language and cultural output of different parts of the Islamic world, such as Palestine and Iraq. The reception and perception of this material in China is of considerable significance. The country has had a Muslim population since the 7th century, and even conservative estimates place its current Muslim population at upward of 20 million – a figure which dwarves that of the United Kingdom and is the 18th largest in the world.

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