Pilgrimages to Muslim Shrines in Western China
What Is Holiness?
This question should be the first asked by scholars, artists, or whomever approaches a holy site—usually called a mazâr
in Central Asian languages, from the Arabic—especially in the Muslim world, where saints and their shrines, more than mosques perhaps, arouse the most widespread, dramatic, and powerful experience of religious devotion. Often, trying to answer this question, the scholar consults classical spiritual texts and/or interviews pilgrims as well as religious specialists (mazâr
guardians, mullahs, etc.), but the artist—the photographer in particular—is probably the person best able to capture impressions, instants, sensations. While the scholar may not feel the emotion behind what he understands academically, the artist may not understand the historical significance behind what she sees. Yet both ponder the same question.
Lisa Ross, photographer, Rahilä Dawut, ethnographer, and I, historian, tried not to consider this question from separate angles: we tried to seek one syncretic answer together as we visited holy places throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China. Rahilä and I felt that our scholarly explanations of these sites alone could not convey what pilgrims experienced during pilgrimage, while Lisa thought that some historical or ethnographic knowledge was necessary background for approaching holy places, both artistically and intellectually. The photographer could expose the silent side of religious life while the scholars could explain the somewhat mysterious facts and deeds that accompany it. This book is an attempt to introduce mazârs
in a comprehensive way that employs both perspectives.
Lisa’s photographs go far beyond the usual approach: visiting photographers taking picturesque images of exotic people and places with little explanation, or scholars composing illustrated academic publications for other scholars. Based on knowledge provided both by Rahilä and by me, Lisa was able to reach isolated places only locals frequent, and she also was able to learn about what she was witnessing. Conversely, we two scholars began to observe more carefully as well, to get closer in a sense: the object of our study was to exceed the emotional depth of our earlier experiences. Thus, we three were compelled to literally put ourselves in pilgrims’ shoes, to let our travels progressively become more like pilgrimages than duties. Lisa’s photographs do not merely illustrate this process and the knowledge we gained; they summarize the ideas behind them, they convert them into meditation. This book, therefore, becomes the narrative of a discovery of holiness.
The Islamization of Western China started in the tenth century with the conversion of rulers of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty. Brought by merchants and missionaries (mostly Hanafi Sunni but including Shii) coming from Central Asia or Persia, the new faith progressively replaced shamanic beliefs, Christian Nestorian communities, and above all, Buddhism, which was spread across the Tarim Basin. Throughout the history of Islam in the region, believers have venerated the heroes of this religious heritage, that is to say convert kings, great proselytizers, holy fighters, learned men, pious zealots, mystical figures, and so on. These saints of Islam in Western China not only aroused the devotion of the masses but received material as well as spiritual support from the elite. Considered “friends of God” (Ara. walî,
), or intermediaries between Allah and the faithful, the saints became a major part of Turkestanese society, and they were respected, listened to, and praised during their lifetimes and afterward. They played different societal roles: they were believed to be able to cure, to help, or to punish people; also to have the power to determine the course of events. For instance, in the early fourteenth century, after the oases had been damaged by the invasion of the Mongols, it is recorded that the saints “contributed to the rehabilitation of sedentary life in Eastern Turkestan.” Very influential at the Chaghatayid court, they fostered the (re)construction of villages and the repair of the irrigation system. In the late seventeenth century, at the time of the Yarkand Khanate, we find a dynasty of Sufi saints, namely the Naqshbandi Khwâjas, who seized power, reorganized religious life, and tried to set up a theocracy based on Sufi values and ideals. During the mid-nineteenth century, with a large group of followers and allegedly guided by God, Muslim saints like Khwâja Rashîd al-Dîn launched several holy wars (ghazât
) against the Qing conquerors. To sum up, the saints and their descendants have occupied a central place in the history of Eastern Turkestan from the medieval period to the present day.
Genealogical charts and legal documents both show that mazârs
retained their religious authority and their socioeconomic importance, at least at the local level, from generation to generation until the early twentieth century. For example, in a Reformist newspaper published in the 1930s, the seventeenth-century mazâr
of Âfâq Khwâja in Kashgar is noted for attracting large revenues from endowments. Later in the century, the case of the Naqshbandiyya Jahriyya Sufi lineage presents several “modern” saintly shrine custodians, or shaykhs,
such as Tâhir Khân Khwâja (d. 1947), Tukhsun Îshân (d. 1997) or ‘Ubayd Allâh (d. 1993). Some of these Sufi saints or their ancestors are buried in family shrines where small groups of disciples still go
on pilgrimage. Even after the critical year of 1949, when Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, the dedication to saints continued despite atheist campaigns, the secularization process, and reformist Islamic opposition to saint veneration in the region. Another sign that the current populace intends for the memories of saints to be maintained is that fact that shaykhs
keep oral legends alive about their life and their deeds. Although, needless to say, the province’s absorption into the People’s Republic of China caused a certain decline of religious trends and institutions, there is clearly a continuing interest in the cult of saints.
Types of Muslim Shrines in Xinjiang
Veneration of saints is performed in the countless mausoleums located throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Size and nature distinguish different types of mazârs
. According to the standard Uyghur descriptions, the main monumental shrines, composed of one tomb or several, a mosque, and a building for mystics (khanaqâh
), are the following (in alphabetical order): 1) Altunluq mazâr
in the old city of Yarkand, 2) Apaq Khoja mazâr
in the village of Häzrät near Kashgar, 3) Imam Asim mazâr
close to the village of Jiya in Lop County, 4) Imam Jä’färi Sadiq mazâr
to the north of Niya, 5) Ordam Padishahim mazâr
in the southeast of Harap, near Yengisar County, 6) Tuyuq Khojam mazâr
(also called Äshabul Kähf) at Yalquntagh in Pichan County, 7) Sutuq Bughrakhan mazâr
in the village of Suntagh, near Artush. This last site has become a museum and has lost its spiritual dimension. However, individual pilgrims still visit; the adjoining Friday mosque is also functional. These additional shrines cannot be counted among the official mausoleums, since there are no pilgrimages today and no remaining religious character, although they are authentic historic sites: 1) Mähmud Qäshqäri mazâr
in the village of Opal, east of Kashgar, 2) Qomul Wangliri mazâr
at the entrance of the old city of Qomul, 3) Yüsüp Khas Hajip mazâr
in the city of Kashgar. Aside from these large holy complexes, pilgrims visit innumerable “secondary” shrines frequently, smaller places with simple architecture, often situated in remote rural areas. A last type of shrine is the small local mazâr,
which is often just a single tomb, or sometimes only a sacred spring or cave, with a rudimentary shrine structure.
Rituals of Pilgrimages
The pilgrimage to a holy tomb, called a ziyârat,
literally “visit,” is to be distinguished from the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj
). They are clearly not equivalent in the religious consciousness of Muslim believers. However, as we shall see, visits to shrines share several similarities with the hajj
. If not mandatory, a ziyârat
is recommended as a meritorious deed (sawâb
In Xinjiang, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, ziyârats
take place at various times and occasions. People visit saints at religious festivals like mawlid
(a birthday celebration for a holy figure, especially the Prophet Muhammad or of a Sufi saint) and qurban
(when an animal sacrifice is made as a rite performed during the Great Festival (‘ayd al-kabîr
); at specific religious periods in the year like ramadân
(the fasting month), muharram
(the sacred month) and barat
(a night of worship during the eighth month of the Islamic calendar); starting seasons, in spring mostly; on specific days, particularly on Fridays, after the Friday prayer and sermon at the mosque. The usual ritual acts at shrines consist of: 1) prayers of request to God (du‘â
); 2) the devotional circumambulation (tawâf
); 3) less frequently, animal sacrifices (sheep, but also goats, chickens, and other birds) and various offerings seeking the intercession of the saint in order to obtain a divine favor. There is no particular fixed order for these different rituals.
The most popular religious practices are an offering and a vow. To glorify the saint and ask for his blessing or protection, pilgrims bring various ritual objects to his burial place. An important ceremony peculiar to Xinjiang is the “pole fixation” (in Uyghur, tugh körüshtürüsh
, lit. to make poles face each other): people place a wooden pole (often a tall branch) at the foot of a tomb and tie colored flags (‘alam
) to the pole. There are usually several tugh
above a tomb. The flags and all the small pieces of material tied to the poles or to the trees or bushes nearby are basically ex-votos, but they are also believed to scare away evil spirits. One may find many other ritual offerings near a saint’s tomb: goat horns or bones, horse tails, sheepskins, handsewn talismans, metal crescents, incense sticks, bricks, pebbles, etc. Another popular practice, apparently exclusive to Xinjiang (in the context of the Muslim world), regards the making of dolls: women create little dolls (qorchaq
) from scraps of cloth that they leave on shrines to signify to the saint their wish for pregnancy. These figurines are also used by shamans to cure children and to assist or to chastise people in love affairs. In general, mazârs
in Xinjiang are known for curing disease and assisting with fertility. Certain shrines even have specific treatment functions. For instance, one is visited specifically to cure skin diseases, mainly warts; at another, people leave old shoes to heal leg or foot problems.
Pious visitors enjoy various spiritual as well as secular activities during the ziyârat
. Since the cult of saints is intimately associated with Sufism, it is not surprising that some pilgrimages integrate Sufi performances, in particular collective ceremonies of psalmody and dance (dhikr-samâ‘
) and devotional singing sessions (munâjât
). On the other hand, during the most popular pilgrimages, often attended by thousands of visitors, communities set up trade fairs and festivals. Such was the case at the Apaq Khoja mazâr
and at the Ordam Padishahim mazâr
(between Kashgar and Yarkand). Most of these festivals are now prohibited in China, yet an annual pilgrimage like the one to Imam Asim mazâr
remains an extraordinarily large and lively event. From Wednesday through Friday throughout the month of May the shrine is surrounded by bazaar booths and food stalls, and a wide range of activities like camel riding, wrestling, tightrope walking, magic shows, storytelling, and musical performances are available.
The Cult of Saints, Cultural Patrimony, and Identity
Today, the status of continued pilgrimages to Muslim shrines in Xinjiang is uncertain. The state, anxious to struggle against any “illegal religious activities,” tends to tighten its control over shrines and visits to shrines, going so far as to ban certain important pilgrimages (as it did with the Ordam Padishahim mazâr
in 1997), but saint veneration is still very widespread throughout Xinjiang among Uyghurs and the other Muslim minorities in the region (mainly Hui, Kazak, and Kirghiz). This is the result of long-term as well as more recent processes; the cult of saints in the Tarim Basin is a religious institution in the sense that it has historically been promoted by local political and religious authorities, Sufis in particular, insofar as it fulfilled various socioeconomic functions. In other words, the cult of saints became—as in many other parts of the Muslim world—a central, omnipresent aspect of religious life. Such an institution does not vanish in a few decades. And, clearly, this is no longer the time of atheist campaigns in China. Indeed, the successive political upheavals that occurred after 1949 did not put an end to the cult in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, even though they led to a relative reshaping of rituals and beliefs. Moreover, since the 1980s and the new attitude of the Chinese state toward minorities and religion, a very large number of Muslim shrines have been endowed with the status of “cultural patrimony site” (mädäniyät yadikarliq orun
), that is to say an administrative label that enables the protection and, occasionally, restoration of their mausoleums. It implies that, from now on, mazârs
belong officially to the cultural heritage of the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang; they are admitted to be an essential part of their identity.
Such recognition of a Muslim religious tradition is not without danger. When defined as a patrimonial object, a shrine could lose its spiritual function by being declared inaccessible to pilgrims and pious visitors for reasons of preservation. This kind of “museification” process has already taken place at several important mausoleums. Worse, since the late 1990s, many Xinjiang mazârs
have started to be listed in guidebooks for casual travelers to the region; several “cultural patrimony sites” were indeed recently turned by Han private firms into tourist attractions. The emergence of this third interest, namely tourist companies (the two others being the Muslim minorities and the state), is increasing the rate of forced secularization and taking the control of mazârs
away from religious groups. Many holy sites now ask for an entrance fee, which the majority of local citizens just cannot afford; every visitor also has to fill in a registration book, giving his or her full name, nationality, address, and occupation. The violent events of August 2008 (four attacks on Han policemen by small, isolated groups of Uyghurs) led to a reinforcement of controls and regulations, notably around mazârs
. Such rules complicate, if they do not completely repress, the pilgrimages.
Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Xinjiang Muslim minorities, the picture is, perhaps, less black than it first appears. This concentrated attention on holy places by multiple interests—i.e. the Muslim minorities, the state, and the tourism business—also reactivates the historical meaning of saints, that is, their traditional and multifaceted role in the history of Central Asian societies. Whether venerated or disregarded, the saints are indisputably historical presences who call for a social, political, and religious response. They represent the heroes of a prominent faith and the very ideals of its believers. They remain an irreducible part of the Muslim minorities’ identity, linking them not only to the local cultural environment but, beyond, to the legendary history of Islamization and to the mythical geography of the Muslim world (dâr al-islâm
). From the believers’ point of view, even if politics or economics are able to affect the shrines, they are not able to affect the saint. It should be reinforced that, in Islam, the saint transcends burial and is not considered deceased—the Muslim “friends of God” never die.
Excerpted from Living Shrines of Uyghur China by Lisa Ross. Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Ross. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.