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Uighurs, Religion and Identity of the

Rian Thum
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Uighurs, Religion and Identity of the

The roots of Uighur identity are to be found in Islamic religious practices. By the eighteenth century, long before the arrival of nationalist thought, settled Turkic Muslims in the region of Altishahr (Six Cities, the southern part of Xinjiang) already saw themselves as a distinct group. They fashioned this sense of belonging in part through the production of sacred local histories and a network of shrines that encouraged the circulation of pilgrims. While these texts and pilgrimages were explicitly Islamic, they also differentiated the people of Altishahr from the numerous other Muslim groups with whom they interacted. In the early twentieth century, when nationalist ideas from Russian-controlled Central Asia began to penetrate Altishahr, this identity was reshaped as the “Uighur” nation, a construct that was eventually embraced and supported by the ethnic policies of the People’s Republic of China. Despite the prominence of secular approaches in later nationalist formulations of Uighurness, Islamic practices remain inseparable from Uighur identity today, both in popular understandings of what it means to be Uighur, and in structures of social interaction that maintain Uighur identity. It must be stressed that, while many recent studies of the Uighurs have focused on identity issues, the field is still very much in its infancy, and many conclusions remain tentative.

Qing Indirect Rule (1760–1911)

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the intertwining of religious and ethnic identity was reflected in the ways the settled, Turkic Muslims of Altishahr talked and wrote about themselves. When distinguishing themselves from members of other identity groups, they employed several terms. In the written sources, the most common of these was Musulman, although Turki was not rare, and other terms, namely yerlik (local) and Altishahrlik (person of Altishahr) were occasionally used. The common Musulman, while sometimes used in the general sense of someone who adhered to the religion of Islam, was very often used as a term of ethnic significance. It frequently distinguished the Turkic oasis-dwellers of Altishahr from Chinese-speaking Muslims, and sometimes from other Turkic Muslims, such as the Kirghiz and Kazakhs. As in Russian Central Asia, the term Musulmancha (Muslimese) was used to indicate “our” language—in the Altishahri case, the Altishahri dialects of Turki.

Locally specific religious practices and textual traditions, especially those connected to Altishahr’s Islamic shrines, promoted the creation of a shared historical consciousness among people of all classes. Shrines were usually centered on the purported graves of Islamic saints, and the biographies of these saints formed the core of a regional Altishahri historical tradition. During pilgrimages, shrine personnel, professional storytellers, and pilgrims recited aloud the histories of the saints, giving wide access to knowledge of the local past. Over time commemoration of the saint in a written biography, called a tazkirah, came to be seen as necessary for a shrine of importance. In response, new tazkirahs appeared, some created by repackaging sections of other texts that mentioned saints of Altishahr, some by writing down oral tales, and others by composing new narratives through revelation.

The recitation of local history that took place at shrines was a particularly powerful means of information dissemination, because the shrines attracted large numbers of pilgrims, and these pilgrims came from widely varied backgrounds, economically and geographically. Important shrines received a steady flow of pilgrims throughout the year, and attracted huge crowds, sometimes estimated in the tens of thousands, during special festivals (sayla). Pilgrims often traveled many hundreds of kilometers to shrines and documented their journeys with graffiti on shrine walls, achieving both a mixing of individuals from Altishahr’s various oases, and a public record of that continued mixing.

The influence of the tazkirahs extended beyond the shrines themselves through the widespread production of manuscripts for personal use. Copyists and readers bound together the histories of several saints, drawing together the local heroes of multiple oases in custom regional histories that provided a narrative of Altishahri origins. Generally these anthologies laid out a story of powerful friends of God, often holy warriors, who came to Altishahr from the wider Islamic world and died after miraculous efforts to propagate the faith. For example, in the eleventh century, the Four Sacrificed Imams came from Iraq to help a local king in his holy war against the Buddhists, and were martyred near Khotan. Another saint, Muhammad Sharif, came from Sayram (in today’s Kazakhstan) in the sixteenth century, discovered the tombs of other saints in Altishahr, and used his connections to deceased saints to aid the king of Yarkand in a war against the Kirghiz. Such sacred biographies provided the only widely available vernacular account of Altishahr’s local history, a fact that firmly tied Altishahri understandings of the communal past to the sacred landscape of shrines.

Nationalism (Early Twentieth Century)

Today’s Uighur identity is profoundly shaped by nationalist thought that entered Xinjiang from outside, especially from Russian-controlled Central Asia. Exiles in Soviet Yettisu, well-traveled scholars, and internationally connected merchants, many of whom became proponents of Pan-Turkism, educational reform, and other programs of political and cultural change, were among the most important vectors of nationalism’s transmission to Altishahr. The jostling of these intellectuals and ideological entrepreneurs eventually led to increasing agreement that the settled Turkic Muslims of Altishahr, along with the Taranchis (descendents of Altishahris who had been forcibly moved to the Ili Valley) and the people of the Hami oasis, constituted a nation of “Uighurs.” The name was a mostly forgotten historical term, the ethnonym of a people who had been scattered across Inner Asia centuries before, that was revived via the writings of European orientalists. The old Musulman identity of Altishahr did not align cleanly with the new Uighur nation, but its shared historical consciousness and rough geographical overlap likely facilitated the construction of the Uighur nation.

With the foundation of the short-lived Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (1933–1934), the new Uighur nationalism received official support. In the pages of the national newspaper, East Turkistan Life (later called Free Turkistan, then New Life), people were exhorted to stop calling themselves simply Musulman and start identifying themselves by the word Uighur. A serial history of the Uighurs gave Islam a backseat to the glories of empires that proved the strength of the nation, for example the empire of the pre-Islamic Kök Türks. But Islam was not extracted from the Uighur identity. An essay on the importance of the ulama to the nation, a harangue on the dangers to the nation of immoral behavior like playing music with women, and a report of a Qur’anic recitation that included a prayer for the nation all appeared in the same paper. After the collapse of the independent state, the paper continued to promote the connection between Islam and the nation under the autocratic rule of Sheng Shicai, a Han Chinese ruler who was nominally loyal to the Republic of China but frequently closely allied to the Soviet Union. For example, a 1937 essay argued that the nation as a general form of social organization was commanded in the Qur’an. Islam was thus presented as both a justification for and a component of Uighur identity.

Communist Party Rule (1949–Present)

The Chinese Communist Party embraced the Uighur identity, enshrining it as one of the many official minzu (national/ethnic) groups that make up the official multi-minzu nation of China. However, this recognition provided little protection to Uighur cultural practices, religious or otherwise. The first thirty years of communist rule in Xinjiang were marked by frequent swings between periods of reluctant toleration for cultural difference and aggressive campaigns to assimilate the Uighurs to Han culture and atheism. During these first three decades, both assimilation and toleration tended to be aimed equally at all cultural difference, whether seen by the Han-dominated state as Islamic or not.

The reform era, beginning in 1979, brought new freedoms of religious practice, and with them a revival of mosque building, Islamic publishing, and public worship. But the changes came with their own restrictions, most notably the enforcement of “normal” religious forms, a category defined by state bodies like the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Since the reform era, policies of the People’s Republic of China have often ignored both the local particularities of Uighur approaches to Islam and the close connection between Islam and Uighur identity. The state has invested heavily in ethnic categorization schemes that have contributed to the reification of Uighur identity. The inclusion of ethnic (minzu) identity on identification cards, the use of affirmative action policies in provincial university admission, and the enactment of ethnically targeted cultural restrictions, for example, have all served to reinforce the Uighur identity. At the same time, the state has attempted, with little success, to extract Islam from that identity and to bring Uighur religious practices closer in line with the homogenized national Islam of Beijing’s China Islamic Association. Thus state restrictions of religious practices central to Uighur identity have undermined efforts to present the state as a defender of that identity.

The Chinese state’s understanding of an appropriate Islamic orthodoxy has driven its restrictions on religious practices. State-controlled religious bodies have generally lent little support to particularly Uighur approaches to Islam. The vast majority of religious books legally produced in the Uighur language reflect the Islam of the China Islamic Association, a party-approved interpretation of international Sunni orthodoxy. Texts that fall outside of this vision of Islam, for example Turkic “trade manuals” (risala) and hagiographies of local saints, have rarely been approved for publication. The exceptions have appeared in literary journals or in editions as “ancient texts” with limited circulation, presented as historical sources rather than sacred texts. However, these and other works are propagated illegally by manuscript and photocopy. Textual restrictions have also been accompanied by restrictions on “unorthodox” practice. For example, local governments have closed many major shrines, and brought an end to all of the shrine festivals.

At the same time, the state continues to restrict the reach of even official Islam among Uighurs. Thus, while large numbers of Muslims of the Hui ethnicity are granted permission to make the Hajj, such permission is almost impossible for Uighurs to receive. Uighur post-secondary students are forbidden from fasting during Ramadan and are policed by their classmates. Private Islamic elementary schools have been closed, and the police, who see Islam as a crucial element of a terrorist threat, have confiscated large numbers of religious books from private residences. Official depictions of the Uighur minzu elide or deemphasize the fact that nearly all Uighurs identify as Muslims.

Contemporary Expressions of Identity and Religion

The Musulman identity of Altishahr, competing nationalist visions of Uighurness, and the Communist Party’s delineation of the Uighur minzu have all influenced Uighur understandings of religion and identity. Due to government restrictions on research in Xinjiang, reliable quantitative sociological data on identity is in short supply. What little survey work has been done has provided tantalizing insights into the continued interaction of identity and religion. However, most of our understanding of Uighur identity relies on qualitative and humanistic research, such as limited ethnographic work and studies of Uighur literary and artistic output. These approaches have detailed widespread Uighur nationalism of various strains, much of which takes Islam as a presumptive element of Uighurness.

In a 1989 survey in Turpan, Justin Rudelson (1997) asked informants to rank the salience of five identity terms: Turk, Uighur, Junggoluq (Chinese), Turpanlik (person of Turpan), and Musulman. Most of the forty-seven peasants who responded listed Musulman first and Uighur second, but “insisted that Uighurs and Muslims [Musulman] were the same” (Rudelson, p. 118). While Rudelson interpreted this as evidence of linkage to an international Islamic ummah, it more likely indicated the persistence of the old Altishahri use of the term Musulman as a combined ethno-religious identity, now equated to the new Uighur identity. Respondents whom Rudelson categorized as “intellectuals” most often considered themselves Turks foremost and Uighurs second, reflecting a Pan-Turkic nationalism that would not have been unfamiliar to the reformers of the early twentieth century. Merchants with close connections to interior China tended to declare themselves “Chinese” first, probably a reflection of official policy that the Uighurs are one minzu in the multi-minzu nation of China.

More recent studies have shown that Islam is embedded in Uighur identity across classes and geographical contexts. A large survey by Zang Xiaowei found a significant correlation between “religiosity” and “Uighur ethnic consciousness” across professions (Zang 2013, p. 2070). Ethnographic work in the last two decades has consistently shown that the vast majority of Uighurs both consider Islam to be central to their identity and see Islamic practice as a means of protecting their ethno-national distinctiveness. At the same time, particular expressions of this phenomenon are governed by varying understandings of the Uighur nation. Uighur literature also reflects the layered influences on Uighur identity. The popular genre of biographical fiction continues the hagiographical traditions of the tazkirahs, but focuses on a new set of nationalist heroes. Much fiction, poetry, and song have been strongly nationalist in content, often relying on allegory to slip visions of a sovereign Uighur nation past government censors. In these works Islam tends to be an unquestioned element of Uighur identity.

Identity in Uighur Islamic Texts

Just as Uighur identity has very much been shaped by Islam, Uighur understandings of Islam have sometimes framed the religion as a kind of identity. A catechism called Shara’it al Iman (“Stipulations of Faith”) was used in primary schools from at least the 1920s and is still a popular work among the black-market, homemade religious books that are widely available in Altishahr. It teaches students that they have been Muslims since the misaq, a moment in pre-eternity when the souls of all humans submitted to God. Unlike a competing black-market catechism by the Altishahri reformer Abd al-Qadir Damollam, first published in 1911, the Shara’it al-Iman does not discuss Muslimness as a state of belief, but rather as a core identity. Although Abd al-Qadir Damollam’s catechism promotes a more modernist approach to religious identity with faith at its center, it also connects the nation to Islam, concluding its introduction of basic Islamic tenets with a passage on the importance of the nation.


The close connection between Islam and Uighur identity has important implications for the relationship between the Chinese state and the Uighurs, among whom discontent with Chinese rule is predominant. One effect of the connection is that Uighurs see state attacks on Islamic practices not just as the application of atheistic policies of the Communist Party, but as ethnically targeted assaults on the core identity of the Uighurs. The second important ramification is that Chinese officials often view Uighur resistance as an expression of Islamic extremism rather than an organic expression of discontent and disempowerment. When Uighurs persist in repressed religious activities that are central to Uighur identity, officials mistakenly attribute their actions to foreign Islamic extremist influences. These prejudices are frequently shared by Western policy analysts, obscuring not just the centrality of Islam to Uighur identity, but the nature of Uighur resistance.


  • Bellér-Hann, Ildikó. Community Matters in Xinjiang 1880–1949: Towards a Historical Anthropology of the Uighur. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
  • Bovingdon, Gardner. The Uighurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Brophy, David John. “Tending to Unite?: The Origins of Uighur Nationalism.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2011.
  • Dautcher, Jay. Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uighur Community in Xinjiang China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009.
  • Finley, Joanne N. Smith. The Art of Symbolic Resistance. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2013.
  • Newby, Laura. “‘Us and Them’ in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Xinjiang.” In Situating the Uighurs between China and Central Asia, edited by Ildikó Bellér-Hann, et al. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007.
  • Rudelson, Justin J. Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Thum, Rian. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Wang, Jianxin. Uighur Education and Social Order: The Role of Islamic Leadership in the Turpan Basin. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2004.
  • Zang, Xiaowei. “Major Determinants of Uighur Ethnic Consciousness in Ürümchi.” Modern Asian Studies 47, no. 6 (2013): 2046–2071.

An exhaustive description of Altishahri culture before the arrival of PRC rule, with thorough coverage of religious practices.

The most important study of contemporary Uighur resistance to Chinese rule, including analysis of the role of Islam.

The preeminent account of the formation of Uighur nationalism, with particular focus on connections to the Russian-controlled side of Central Asia in the early twentieth century. A book based on revision and expansion of the dissertation is in the works.

Dautcher’s book provides an intimate portrait of life in Ghulja in the 1990s, including Islamic practice.

This Urumchi-centered book presents valuable ethnographic details and quotations from interviews, as well as an analysis of what Finley sees as a recent Islamic revival among Uighurs.

This article provides a concise argument for the existence of a regional identity in Altishahr before the advent of Uighur nationalism.

The central argument of this book—that local oasis identities have prevented the success of a larger Uighur identity—is viewed with skepticism by most specialists in the field today. However, Rudelson’s book was the first ethnography to appear after the reopening of Xinjiang to foreigners, and though many of his interpretations are problematic, much of the data presented in the book remains extremely valuable, as does Rudelson’s introduction of nationalist literary works.

A study of Altishahri and Uighur understandings of the past as they developed from the eighteenth century to the present, with particular attention to manuscript culture, shrine pilgrimage, and historical novels.

The product of extensive fieldwork among Uighur clerics in the Turpan area, this is one of very few ethnographically informed studies to focus on any aspect of Uighur Islam.

With nine hundred subjects, the survey that forms the basis of this article represents one of the very few useful and systematic sociological analyses of Uighur identity.

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