Mystics seem to have a penchant for seeking out remote locations. Perhaps out-of-the-way spots are more conducive to contemplation, and they add an element of enigma when chosen as a final resting place. The tomb of Imam Asim, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province, conforms to type. North of the oasis city of Hotan, the tomb lies amid windswept sand dunes on the edge of the forbidding Taklamakan Desert, whose name is best translated as “enter and you will not come out.”
A steady trickle of Uyghur pilgrims come here to venerate the Sufi imam and soldier who is said to have led the Muslim conquest of the region in around 1000 A.D. Serving under the khan of the Turkic Karakhanids, Imam Asim was part of any army that brought an end to the Buddhist kingdom of Hotan, ushering in an era of Islamic dominance of the oasis cities that ring the Taklamakan. The renowned 11th-century Karakhanid scholar and lexicographer Mahmud al-Kashgari later rattled off a doggerel verse about the conquest quipping how the victors had torn down “idol temples” and “shat on the Buddha’s head”.
From plots of pencil-slim poplars on the edge of the agricultural village of Jiya, Uyghur men in distinctive four-pointed doppa skull caps and women in headscarfs make their way to the imam’s tomb along a sandy path under an unrelenting sun. Their measured stride brings them to a series of burial mounds topped with votive flags, scarves and fabric offerings on the desert fringe. The dunes of the Taklamakan roll beyond, on to a horizon that melts in the hazy distance.
Mustafa Ali, a Uyghur silversmith making his first visit to the tomb, watches as a villager arrives clutching a live chicken for slaughter as an offering to Imam Asim. The sacrifice of an animal at a tomb such as this is usually accompanied by a request for the intercession of the Sufi saint, something that is forbidden in more orthodox interpretations of Islam. “This is totally taboo,” Mustafa comments, appalled. He remarks that such practices are unheard of in his native Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road hub and centre of Uyghur culture and tradition. “This is superstition. It is not real Islam,” he laments.
Continuing towards the mosque at the heart of the Imam Asim complex, Mustafa mutters dismissively about the “corruption of Sufism.” His scorn is directed not only at the idea of animal sacrifice but also the colored flags which flutter in the breeze above the tombs of the imam’s disciples and family members.
Sufism and Sufi mystics, however, played an important role in the arrival and spread of Islam amongst the Uyghurs. Venerated as “friends of God,” Sufis were seen as intermediaries to Allah and were looked up to as community leaders, as well as being noted for their healing powers, for freely proffering wisdom, and channelling baraka (blessings). Revered in life as well as in death; the mazars (tombs) of Sufi notables became sites of ziyarat (minor pilgrimage) across many Uyghur-populated areas. Lisa Ross’s recently published Living Shrines of Uyghur Shrines, in a series of magnificent photographs, some of the mazars, many of them centuries old, that are sprinkled through the backwoods and little-visited corners of Xinjiang.
Making a ziyarat remains a common practice up to the present day, and the concept of the mazar retains a potency even in modernising China. During our time at Imam Asim, two American Peace Corps volunteers arrived at the tomb, having made their way from the centre of Hotan on local transport speaking no Uyghur or Mandarin. Having caught several different buses they had simply asked for the “mazar” at each transport connection to be ushered in the right direction by helpful local Uyghurs.
For all of his dismay at the sight of a villager bearing a sacrificial animal to the imam’s tomb, Mustafa keeps a respectful distance so as not to disturb a group of women who sit reciting prayers under a vine-shaded trellis. And despite his condemnation of these seemingly folk-religious practices, he sees Islam as an important unifying factor in Uyghur identity. The Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic minority living throughout Xinjiang, have long struggled for autonomy in the People’s Republic of China. “Religion makes us united,” Mustafa asserts. He, in turn, prays quietly standing before the tomb, his hands upturned and his head slightly bowed.
Cultural identifier Islam may be, it is also something that Chinese authorities are extremely wary of. The US Congressional Executive Commission on China has documented Xinjiang government directives to increase oversight on mosques and Uyghur religious figures during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as well as directives to prohibit government workers, teachers and students from observing the Ramadan fast.
Such official curbs on religious practices stem from Beijing’s conviction that Islam remains a rallying point for separatist forces within the Uyghur community. Chinese government figures are quick to highlight links between al Qaeda and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group widely regarded as a terrorist organisation and one with the stated aim of establishing an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang. The government accuses ETIM of fuelling intra-communal violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese throughout Xinjiang in July 2009.
Mustafa Ali sees Chinese governmental scrutiny of Islam as more than just a measure designed to circumvent terrorism but as a means to smother Uyghur identity and communal cohesion. “The government wants to make us unreligious so we become faceless and disloyal to each other,” he remarks.
While the appeal of ETIM is difficult to gauge in Xinjiang, groups such as al Qaeda apparently enjoy little support amongst the broader Uyghur community. Another Uyghur, speaking on condition of anonymity, argues that there is little that is inherently appealing to the Uyghurs in the ideology of Al Qaeda. He claims that government-imposed strictures placed on the practice of religion enhance the influence of radicals who espouse utopian Islamist models as a cure to societal and political ills and as a means to liberation from oppressive powers.
“We don’t ever hear or think about al Qaeda,” Mustafa remarks, adding that very few Uyghurs speak Arabic, thus few are directly exposed to al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology. In his acclaimed travelogue Shadow of the Silk Road, the writer and historian Colin Thubron recorded similar sentiments on a visit to the mazar of Imam Asim in 2005. Locals were unmoved by talk of Osama bin Laden, yet dutifully recited prayers in Arabic without understanding what they were chanting. As Thubron saw it, for Uyghurs prayers in Arabic constituted a connection with the divine but not identification with the Arab world or its ideologies.
The writer and historian Colin Thubron visited the mazar in his acclaimed travelogue, Shadow of the Silk Road. During Thubron’s visit, local policemen kept a close eye on pilgrims. The police claimed to be “rooting out Wahabbis”, invoking a catch-all grouping of firebrands, and in so doing clumsily equated piety with intolerant readings of Islam. During our visit to the tomb of Imam Asim we witness various forms of piety, but nothing that could be construed as intolerance or as evidence of extremism. Here, villagers, urban Uyghurs and a handful of foreign visitors intermingle respectfully and without rancour, appreciating the drama of the desert landscape and the solemnity of the location.
Besides that, the quivering flags and offerings that ring the mazars would be abhorrent to seething literalists. These practices are evocative of nothing so much as Buddhist traditions in neighbouring Tibet. So while Mahmud al-Kashgari may have jested – somewhat uncouthly – about doing away with Buddhism, an echo of Buddhist tradition, 1000 years old, lingers over the grave of Imam Asim and other mazars throughout the region. Indeed, it is claimed that Imam Asim’s tomb lies on top of that of a Buddhist mystic revered for centuries before Islam arrived. Islam in Xinjiang, as elsewhere in Central Asia, has always proved accommodating and accepting of diverse traditions and practices. Here the Sufi imam fetched up in the same place as the Buddhist holy man, no doubt lured by the stark beauty of the desert but also by the sanctity that already hovered over the site.
The desert – its vast spaces, silences and its holy sites – still exerts a powerful draw. The villager who has made the ziyarat out here readies himself to slaughter his chicken, sharpening his knife, and preparing to request the help of the long-dead Sufi saint. Nearby, the head-scarved women continue to pray, their murmured incantations rising gently between the colourful flags to be blown by the buffeting winds across the Taklamakan, and eventually heavenward.
William Gourlay is a writer and editor with a particular interest in the Turkic and Persianate worlds. His PhD research at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, is focused on cultural and ethnic identities in 21st-century Turkey. He blogs at The Gypsy Plays and the Kurd Dances.