In 1929, a young Swedish librarian arrived in the Silk Road city of Kashgar. He was there to study a language and a people at the time both called “Turki,” which are now generally referred to as Uyghur. The librarian, Gunnar Jarring, would recount some decades later in his Return to Kashgar (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986) the vibrant and lively city, in which the local Turki population went about their daily business in ways that were inextricably intertwined with Islam. He does not use those exact words, but it is very clear from both his account and many of the texts he brought back to Sweden, that Turki and Islamic culture were inextricably intertwined to the point that one could not talk, or even think, about one of them without running headlong into the other. The version of Islam that Jarring describes was not one of highly-educated mollas trained in one of the great centers of Islamic learning (though they certainly existed, too) but one of people, and more precisely one of people going about their daily lives.
Turki and Uyghur religion fit, in many ways, with broader patterns of Central Asian Islam and devotional practice. As with essentially all Islamic traditions, the Qur’an was a foundational text—it was, after all, the word of God, manifested through the Prophet. Stories of the prophets (qiṣaṣ al-‘anbiyā’) were enormously popular, as were pilgrimage practices that took individuals to the tombs of saints to pray for intercession with the almighty. Much has been written about this in the case of both Uyghurs and other Central Asians. However, most of this has only dealt with what the elite had to say and took the time to commit to paper. To my mind, there is a broader thread running through Uyghur Islam—one that allows some voices often left neglected to speak their piece.
Much Turki and Uyghur Islam, at least at the everyday level, was enmeshed with what might be called “survival-work.” That is to say that it was closely linked with those things which were necessary for ensuring the continuance of one’s community: the production of food and goods, manufacture of tools, caring for children, undertaking occult practices like divination, and even dying. Each of these was (ideally) carried out in a way that was, at once practical and oriented around the day-to-day, but also just, appropriate, and, moreover, drenched in such a torrential outpouring of Islamic figures, images, and socio-cultural mores that to remove Islam from the manual of the bakers, for example, would have simply been to burn every copy of the book.
To continue to survive and flourish was in every way synonymous with being a Muslim. One might be tempted to say that Islam was the lens through which people viewed the world, but I do not think that this metaphor stands up; a lens can become tinted or scratched, broken or taken away entirely. It is something outside of individuals, something external. A lens in this metaphorical sense implies a choice to look through it. To extend the metaphor, Uyghurs did not look through a lens at the world; they walked through a world that did not need a lens to appear to them with a touch of wonder, the divine, or the holy. It was how, for the vast majority of Turki Muslims and, later, many Uyghurs not only saw, but moved through the world.
There were notable exceptions to this rule. Some were swayed by Christian missionaries in the area. Some surely did not manage to perform their duties as elaborated in textual sources. Some were educated abroad, primarily in the USSR, and had a dim view of religion. Still others were more interested in pursuing various Uyghur national projects. But the vast majority of the people living, working, dying, and most importantly surviving in Kashgar in the years of what might be called “traditional Uyghur religious practice” would likely have recited the formulaic prayers to be said when kneading dough, if only because that was simply how bread was baked.
Almost a century later, Kashgar’s location is now the south of an administrative division within the People’s Republic of China that is officially called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Roughly coterminous areas have been called Altishahr (lit. six cities) and Eastern Turkestan, but regardless of name, at roughly one-sixth the area of the entire country of China, the region is immense. Those who have followed the news with some regularity over the last few years will likely be familiar with the system of concentration (“reeducation centers”) camps that pepper it, and which hold upwards of one million individuals. They are incarcerated, most often without any sort of due process, for any number of seemingly-arbitrary reasons, from having recordings of Qur’an recitation to expressing a desire to travel abroad. The one commonality among the detainees is that they are members of ethnic groups that the state would lump in the category “mostly-Muslim.” In large part, they are the would-be inheritors of the traditions, equally Islamic and practical, briefly outlined above.
I noted earlier that to separate Islam from the survival-work it was such a fundamental part of what would be to “burn every copy” of the manual of the bakers. Yet such a separation seems to be the ultimate goal of the Chinese Communist Party, as they continue to repress Uyghur (and other) manifestations of religiosity. They have confiscated (and no doubt destroyed) countless traditional religious manuals and texts. But in so doing, in cracking down on “religion,” or “Islam,” the government essentially cracks down Uyghur culture as a whole, allowing precious little space for the kind of tradition that once permeated the region.
Michael Krautkraemer is a PhD candidate at Indiana University. His research focuses on Uyghur Islam and survival work in the early twentieth century.