Uighur - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Several religious traditions influenced the emerging Uighur Kingdom. Buddhism was introduced into Central Asia during the first century B.C. During the following centuries, Zoroastrianism, an Indo-Iranian religion based on the duality of light and dark, and Nestorianism, a Gnostic sect of Christianity, spread throughout much of Central Asia. Such religions coexisted in the region for centuries, but Manicheanism was adopted as the official state religion of the Uighur in 762.

The Manichean religion combined aspects of Zoroastrian, Nestorian, and Buddhist traditions. Like Zoroastrianism, its cosmology centered on the struggle between the dualities of light and dark, associated with good and evil. As in Gnostic Christianity, the soul, which was imprisoned in darkness, sought reunification with Light. As in Buddhism, the soul traveled through successive stages of reincarnation in this journey.

Although Manicheanism was practiced by the elite for several centuries, other religions persisted and prevailed among the Uighur. Shamanism, a religion which called upon spirits of nature for healing and divine intervention, continued to hold sway among the populace. By the time the Uighur Kingdom was reestablished in the Turfan oasis region to the southwest, Buddhism had eclipsed Manicheanism as the state religion.

By the tenth century, however, following the expansion of the Arab Empire, Islam made inroads into eastern Central Asia, and by the fifteenth century, Islam superseded other belief systems or gained a stronghold throughout Central Asia. After the Uighur migrated to the Soviet Union from China, their superficial acceptance of Islam intensified. The majority of the Uighur are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi branch, but some are adherents of Sufistic sects. In recent years, large numbers of Uighur from the People's Republic of China have been making the hajj to Mecca and other sites sacred to Islam.

Religious Practitioners. Despite the all-encompassing influence of Islam, pre-Islamic practices persisted under Islam. In fact, the Central Asian cult of saints ( mazar ) attests to shamanistic influence. Shamanism, common throughout Inner and Central Asia before the influx of Buddhism and Islam, revered holy places and objects as manifestations of the divine. Among the Uighur, Islamic mullahs and shamans alike were called upon to perform healing trances. During some pre-Soviet rituals, the shaman circled around a rope suspended from the ceiling while uttering Quranic passages and other chants. Afterward, the healer would beat the patient's body with a dead chicken, in an attempt to transfer the evil spirit to the bird.

Ceremonies. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union conducted widespread campaigns to replace religious celebrations with secular ritual. Muslim celebrations, such as Qorban (Great Sacrifice of Abraham) and Roza (the fast of Ramadan), were downplayed but (sometimes) carried on unofficially. For a period there was a largely unsuccessful attempt to merge the pre-Islamic new year's holiday of Nawruz with the Soviet secular new-year celebration.

Arts. The Uighur, whether through indirect legacy or direct history, claim a long tradition of achievement in the plastic and performing arts. In the oasis kingdom near Turfan, cave paintings featured Buddhist dieties, princesses, and noblemen. After Islam gained influence and discouraged direct depiction of human and animal figures, decorative art prevailed. Plaster carving and embroidery alike featured geometric forms, arabesques, and plant motifs. Although few examples of Uighur architecture exist in the former Soviet Union, the delicate decorative work is prevalent in China's Kashgar. Pomegranates, flower buds and vines, and interlaced tendrils carved in panels are among the most popular designs. Blue, aqua, saffron, and white are the most popular hues, rendered on plaster, tile, and wood. A wider range of colors (including bright red) and naturalistic flower and landscape motifs often derives from Chinese or Western influences of the past few centuries. Whereas applied arts are minimally developed among the Soviet Uighur, they flourish in China's Uighur community of Kashgar. Dozens of embroidery styles on caps formerly varied with locale but now seem to be merely identified with gender: delicate white stitchery on a green background or embroidery of moons and arabesques on black (male caps) contrast with elaborate beadwork on purple velvet, needlework in a multihued patchwork mosaic, and flower designs in metallic fabric (female caps).

Modern Uighur literature ranges from short stories, essays, and love poetry to epic folk legends ( dastans ), historical-heroic songs and oral narratives, proverbs, and riddles. Drama is a flourishing genre as well, with a separate Uighur theater housed in Alma-Ata, where musical (or dance-drama) and spoken plays are performed. The Uighur trace the beginnings of their literary tradition to the seventh to eighth centuries, with the runic inscriptions of the Orkhon texts in southern Siberia. These ancient Turkic epigraphs include the Moyun-Churu text, which mentions the emergence of the ancient Uighur state.

Uighur literary tradition combines two separate historical trajectories/legacies. The northern oasis area of eastern Central Asia, adjacent to the Chinese Empire and Mongol region, was heavily influenced by Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Nestorianism. In the tenth century, Buddhist writings such as the Sutras of the Golden Luster were translated from Sanskrit into the old Uighur script, which was derived from Sogdian (an ancient language of eastern Iran). Poetry, narrative plays, and the epic of Oghuznama, a tale common in northwestern Turkic-speaking areas, were also prevalent.

The classical tradition of Uighur literature that developed in the south in the following centuries reflects a strong Islamic influence. Many of these works were written in Chagatay, a medieval Turkic language written in script derived from Arabic. Foremost among such works is Mahmud Kashgari's Dictionary of Turkic Dialects of the eleventh century. Other important works include didactic and ethical poetic writings, including Yusuf Khass Hajib'e Balasaghuni's "Knowledge Which Gives Happiness" of the eleventh century and Iagnaki's "The Gift of Reasons" of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Medieval Uighur literature includes Islamic religious (devotional) works and legends as well: Rabghuzi's Tales of the Prophets of the fourteenth century and Oghuzname (Legend of Oghuz Kagan) of the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, the Timurid Turkic poet and philosopher Alishir Nowai, now claimed by Uzbeks as well as by Uighurs, based epic poems on the Irano-Central Asian love stories of Leyla and Majnun and Farhad and Shirin.

In the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, in spite of political decline throughout Central Asia, lyric genres such as the ghazal and gasida flourished. In addition to themes of heroism, romantic imagery was popular. Motifs of the beloved and lover alternately expressed earthly love and divine union, a Sufistic theme. Famous poetic works of these centuries include "Muhabbatnama we Mihnetkame" (Love and Bitterness Intertwined) by Hirkit, "Wandering" by Nowbit, "Gul we Bulbul" (The Rose and the Nightingale) by Shah Yari, and "Muhbbatnama" (Love Letter) by Molla Abdureyim. In the nineteenth century Uighur literature included songs of resistance as well as tales of love.

Uighur classical music, influenced by Persian and Arabic musical theory (al-Farabi), features the Twelve Mugam , an elaborate suite of over 120 songs, interludes, and so forth. Folk music varies according to occasion, and varied folk genres are associated with the meshrep (informal gatherings of music and activity, often held during the evening) and toy (weddings and other celebrations). Official and informal organizations alike promote musical and dance performances. Young people who receive training from specialists in Tashkent join the Uighur Musical (Comic) Drama Theater in Kazakhstan and smaller ensembles. In Alma-Ata Oblast, "Uighur Cultural Days," attended by Uighur, Kazakhs, and Russians alike, feature musical performances and staged events. The Uighur Theater in Alma-Ata offers performances of Western drama translated into Uighur (including plays by Shakespeare and Molière), as well as time-honored Central Asian and Persian classics (the tale of Laila and Majnun). Weekly Uighur television programs aired in Alma-Ata include comic vignettes and musical performances by Uighur pop singers. Such song-and-dance numbers, which feature bucolic scenes and coy lovers, borrow heavily from Indian musical cinema, which is popular in Uzbekistan.


Medicine. Classical medicine was influenced not only by folk cures, but by Islamic and Greek philosophy and science. In the seventeenth century, Imaddidin Kashgari and his disciples advanced surgery, skin and eye treatment, and medical research.


Death and Afterlife. Traditional Uighur beliefs about death and afterlife have been influenced to a large extent by Islam. After a death, Quranic prayers are chanted, and the body is cleansed and wrapped in white gauze. The tombs of Islamic holy men are revered as sacred places. Islamic practices continue to provide a vital link among members of Uighur communities.

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