Uyghur Histories – By James A. Millward

James Millward on Rian Thum’s The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014, 336pp., $39.95
Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014, 336pp., $39.95
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Though Western media and political circles still tend to treat Islam in monolithic terms, informed observers recognize that in the recent waves of conflicts associated with Islam, anti-Western sentiment and actions are often secondary to struggles among some Muslims themselves over what is acceptable Islamic practice and what is not, who is a real Muslim and who is not. In particular, violent Salafi groups, extrapolating from the writings of the thirteenth-century Ibn Taymiyyah and eighteenth-century Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, have declared war on many aspects of culture common throughout Islamic societies, past and present. There is a “civil war” between Sunni and Shi’a, to be sure. But, more broadly speaking, extreme Salafi adherents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere have targeted gravestones, pilgrimages, festivals, birthdays, music, dance, chanted remembrance (dhikr), shrines, and saints honored by Sunni as well as Shi’a, denounced them as “innovation” and “idolatry,” and in places subjected them to violent persecution and destruction.

Until the mid-twentieth century, and to an extent still today, saints, shrines, pilgrimages to shrines, and hagiography manuscripts (known as tazkirah) were woven into the fabric of daily life and belief systems of the Uyghurs, the Muslim Turkic-speaking people who live in what is now Xinjiang, in the northwest of the People’s Republic of China. In part, that reflects the Sufist strains of Islam across Central Asia. Charismatic, miracle-working, shaman-like Sufi missionaries, revered as saints after their deaths, Islamicized Nomadic Turko-Mongolian peoples over centuries. In part, too, it reflects the nature of Xinjiang itself — or, to use the historically deeper indigenous term for the “six cities” ringing the Taklamakan desert, the nature of Altishahr. The Altishahr region is a “cosmopolitan cul-de-sac” (in Thum’s term), linked to the Islamic world by history and faith but relatively isolated from it by geography and controls enforced by China-based rulers from eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Uyghurs have practiced their faith in their own manner, distinct even from that of their close cultural cousins, the modern Uzbeks. More than simply detailing Uyghur religious practice, however, in this remarkable book Rian Thum shows how what he calls the “tazkirah-shrine system” — the nexus of saint, shrine, and pilgrimage with oral and written stories about hero-saints — comprised the framework of Uyghur understanding of the past and forged a collective Altishahri identity. This creative study thus contributes to our understanding of how the meaning and make-up of both history and identity.

The tazkirah-shrine system worked like this: Across Altishahr are found shrines large and small. These range from the grand, tiled Timurid-style mausoleum of the Afaq Khoja lineage outside Kashgar, to remote sites amidst shifting desert dunes, marked by a wooden crib or cluster of poles and flags, perhaps complemented by a devotee’s gift of massive Marco Polo sheep horns. (These haunting desert holy sites are beautifully photographed by Lisa Ross in her Living Shrines of Uyghur China; LARB author interview here.) Some shrines may occupy places that were already sacred in pre-Islamic times; other scholars have discussed these wild shrines’ “shamanic” features and pointed out similarities with Mongolian oboo cairns and Tibetan vernacular stupas, both of which are likewise marked with stones, sticks, animal bones, and flags. But in Altishahr’s Islamic understanding, each shrine marks the death-place of a saint. These saints were a diverse lot, from Siy­āvush, the legendary warrior exiled from Iran in Firdāwsi’s Shahnamah, to Satuq Bughra Khan, the Qarakhanid prince whose personal conversion sparked the mass Islamicization of Turkic nomads, to the enigmatic Seven Muhammads, who spoke and acted as one and journeyed to Altishahr in search of their own graves. Indeed, Altishahr seems to have been the place where holy heroes from across the Islamic world came to die. Very few of the saints were native sons, nor in most cases did they leave lineages of descendants, but deep roots grew in the place of each of their deaths, to be honored and appealed to locally and visited by pilgrims from other oases. The story of the saint became the town’s own origin story, the spiritual core of local history.

Shaykhs looked after the shrines, collected donations, dispensed prayers, and related the saints’ stories (accounts of heroic and holy deeds, culminating in martyrdom) to anyone who cared to listen. These hagiographies floated between textual and spoken media, a dynamic that Thum argues belies binary approaches to oral and written, elite and popular historiography. Many saints’ tales were derived from older texts, often originally written in Persian; but many had again been “inlibrated,” committed to written form, in tazkirah manuscripts treasured by the shrines. From the eighteenth century, Zunghar and then Qing conquest displaced the Muslim Chinggisid and Naqshibandi dynasties that had ruled parts of Altishahr. This made old Persian-style chronological, genealogical history-writing about political elites an uncomfortable enterprise: chronicling pre-conquest epochs might glamorize those condemned as enemies by the current overlords; writing about post-conquest politics would highlight that the current khan-emperor was an infidel. Thus vernacular Turki hagiographies of long-dead heroes became the primary form of historical writing in Altishahr from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century. Though hagiographies were a common genre in South and Central Asia in the same centuries, nowhere did they displace other historical writing as systematically as did tazkirahs in Altishahr.

Catalogs list relatively large collections of extant tazkirahs in a few institutional libraries in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumchi, but these are not easily accessed. Few have been reprinted. Thum thus chased down manuscripts in archives and private collections in Khotan, Beijing, Tashkent, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Oxford, London, Lund, Halle, Helsinki, Cambridge and Berkeley. Through deft analysis of the numbers of copies of manuscripts in this corpus, he draws robust conclusions regarding the circulation and popularity of various tazkirahs and their interrelationships.

Tazkirahs recorded the stories of the saints as told by shaykhs at shrines; moreover, the tazkirah manuscripts were themselves read aloud as a means of retelling the tales, often to large audiences at shrine festivals. The tazkirah stories could then be passed on orally to others — hence text and spoken forms coexisted in close and continuing relationship. Nor were authors and readers starkly distinguished: Copyists — who were, of course, also readers — of tazkirah manuscripts modified the text and added their own marginalia and colophons, often in response to previous copyists’ invitation to do so.

Shrine pilgrimage put this whole process in motion. Thum traces pilgrimage patterns through three sources: colophons in the manuscripts themselves; graffiti on shrine walls giving travelers’ itineraries and place of origin; and the common practice of anthologizing tazkirah manuscripts. The combination of tazkirah manuscripts, in particular, demonstrates how pilgrims visited shrines in different oases, copied their tazkirahs, and travelled home with new bundled manuscript editions that recapitulated their pilgrimage routes as well as other relationships between the shrines, their saints, and their localities. Pilgrimage circuits took in all Altishahr, but did not venture outside the region; moreover, few outsiders, not even those from neighboring Western Turkestan, participated in this Altishahri system.

When people made their own tazkirah anthologies, in effect they were juxtaposing hagiographies of patron saints of different Altishahr towns. Because only people from Altishahr did this, and they only did it in Altishahr, Thum argues that in this way a collective Altishahri historical consciousness and identity emerged from the modular units of individual saint-shrine-tazkirah complexes. Though not a “national” identity, this consciousness nonetheless fits the model of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community.”

The question of whether there was a collective “Uyghur” identity before the twentieth century has been a vexed one in the poplar groves of Uyghur and Xinjiang studies. Thum argues that the tazkirah-shrine system engendered a shared sense of community based in the modular local histories that became common property through pilgrimage and tazkirah anthologizing. His arguments counter the “oasis identities” proposition that Altishahr’s desert geography divided inhabitants of different Altishahr cities from each other. He also dismisses concerns that Altishahris lacked a specific ethnonym before the application of the historical tribal name “Uyghur” to the Altishahri people in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Even if referring to themselves with such apparently generic terms as yerliq (local) or musulman, Altishahri works from at least the time of the Qing conquest clearly distinguish neighbors and conquerors with distinct terminology.

The advent of rule by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 fundamentally disrupted the tazkirah-shrine system, as the party-state nationalized the endowments (known as waqf) that supported the shrines, restricted or banned pilgrimage and festival gatherings, stripped shaykhs of their positions, and razed or repurposed mosques and shrines. Some traditional Uyghur practices, including shrine visitation and open saint veneration, have returned in limited fashion since the 1980s. But the shrines’ tazkirahs have all been lost or confiscated — shaykhs asked Thum if he could supply them with copies. In many cases, these works have been branded as “illegal religious materials” since they fall outside the narrow confines of Islamic literature permitted by the Chinese State Islamic Association. Though some shrines still function as religious sites, Thum notes, many have been shut down or commercialized as gated tourist destinations for Han tourists.

Despite the loss of two legs of the tripod (shrines and tazkirahs), Thum argues, the key role of personage in Altishahri historical memory has reincarnated within a new, modern genre: the biographical novel. In his final chapters, Thum shows how recent novels, though centrally printed and thus not interactive in the wiki-like manner of serially recopied manuscripts, have nonetheless continued the tazkirah tradition. For one thing, many Uyghur-language novels concern such heroic figures, as Satuq Bughra Khan, who were themselves the subject of important tazkirahs. For another, when the Chinese state bans and burns novels, as has often happened, the stories within are recycled orally to inform the common Uyghur understanding of the past. History emanating from Chinese sources being entirely untrustworthy to many Uyghurs, a Uyghur book that has been officially burned is, ipso facto, reliable. Again, printed and spoken history coexist in fluid symbiosis.

The CCP is now engaged in a very public argument, both with its Uyghur subjects and with a critical international community, about which aspects of Uyghur religious practice are native, and thus permitted, and which are foreign, and hence dangerous and banned. The party-state claims that Uyghur unrest arises entirely from infiltrated foreign jihadi ideology, as manifested by long beards, veils, and Ramadan fasting, rather than as a reaction to its own policies. Whatever the role of Islamist propaganda in Xinjiang today, the painful irony is that China’s own efforts to centralize and thus control Uyghur Islam have worked for six decades to undermine precisely the same characteristics of Uyghur religion that Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk fulminate against. But really, what more could Beijing’s culture police hope for than a religious tradition that carefully eschews politics, values locally-produced and -circulated sacred texts, replaces hajj to Mecca with regional domestic pilgrimage, and whose nativist tazkirahs, drum and pipe music, ecstatic chants, mudbrick cenotaphs, fluttering flags, bundles of sticks, and horns of mountain sheep could form a great wall against the Talibanization of Xinjiang? The solution to Beijing’s anxiety about foreign Islam could in fact be Uyghur Islam.