With a population of over nine million, the Uighurs (also spelled Uygurs or Uyghurs) are the second largest ethnic Muslim group in the People’s Republic of China after the Hui. They are mainly concentrated in a northwest province of China (officially known as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region but called Eastern Turkistan by Uighur nationalists). Originating from Tiele-Turkic nomads in the steppes of the northwestern Mongolia Plateau around 300 BC, the Uighurs migrated to northwestern China around the mid-ninth century after the Uighur empire (774–840) was overthrown by the Kyrghiz tribe as a result of a famine and civil war; they settled mainly in contemporary Gansu, Xingjiang, and west of Tieshan Mountain. The Uighurs’ Islamic identity began with the Qarakhanid Khanate (around 960–1209, also spelled Karakhanid), the West Turkic dynasty established by a group of those migrated Uighurs based in Transoxiana and Tarim Basin of Central Asia. From their conversion to Islam in 934 under the rule of Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan (920–56) until the later years of Mughal rule in Chinese Turkistan (late 15th century), Islam gradually replaced Shamanism, Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Nestorian Christianity and became the sole religion of the Uighurs living in Xinjiang.
The political thoughts of Uighur Muslims can be viewed in three historical stages: (1) Islamic statecraft and virtue politics during the Qarakhanid dynasty; (2) religious activism and quasi theocracy during the rule of the Eastern Chaghatay and Yarkand khanates (also known as Mughulistan) from the late 14th century to the late 17th century; and (3) modern ideologies of Pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism, and Uighur nationalism from the late 19th century into the early part of the 21st century. The first stage of the Islamization of Xinjiang under the Turkic and Mongol khans resulted in a blossoming of indigenous Uighur literature and culture by absorbing influences from Indo-Persian, Islamic, Chinese, and even ancient Greek traditions. Yusuf Khass Hajib’s Wisdom of Royal Glory (Kutadgu Bilig), completed in 1069 in Kashgar and often acclaimed as a Mirror for Princes, is a long prose work on political virtues, statesmanship, religion, and the art of war and was first presented to the prince of Kashgar in the hope that it would guide his rulership. This masterpiece was originally written in the Uighur language (mid-Turkish) and contains the authentic folk cultures of the different Turkic peoples, with the ambition to reconcile the diverse traditions of the region, including Islamic, Indo-Persian influence. By featuring four major characters who represent four virtues or principles—the king Rising Sun (justice), the vizier Full Moon (fortune), the sage Highly Praised (wisdom), and the ascetic Wide Awake (piety)—in a poetic story of the king’s search for the best way of life as he asks others how to rule, Kutadgu Bilig recommends Islam as the protector of law and grounds the institution of justice on virtues, fortune, and religious piety. The work emphasizes that piety and wisdom are keys to a good kingship and echoes the perennial debate between Islam and politics by asking whether it is better to withdraw into solitude for religious contemplation or actively engage in worldly affairs. Ultimately, the author advocates for a symbolic but not actual withdrawal from politics, or “solitude in the multitude,” in order to live a fulfilling life and attain success in the hereafter.
The second stage is related to Sufi orders and the reformminded Khojas (religious-political leaders) during the Eastern Chaghatay (13th to 16th century) and Yarkand (1514–1680) khanates. Xinjiang was fully Islamicized by the 15th century, and most of the population ruled by the Chaghatayid (the Turkic Mughals related to Chaghatay Khan, the second son of Chingiz Khan) converted to Islam as a result of their ruler Tughluq Temur’s (1347– 63) embrace of Islam and the mass da‘wa (Islamic missionary activity) by the Sufi shaykhs and missionaries. During the Yarkand Khanate (established by Sultan Said Khan, a relative of the Chaghatay nobles), branches of the Naqshbandis, a Sufi order originating from Central and South Asia, were able to seize control of political affairs with their religious activism and revivalism. One important leader, Baha’ al-Din, taught that Sufis need not seclude themselves from the political community in order to maintain a strong relationship with God. The Naqshbandis rejected religious quietism and accelerated their missionary efforts in search of political support to advance their religious influence among the Mongol nomads and Uighur oasis dwellers. Their teachings had a pronounced Sunni bent that combined political activism, adherence to the law, and propagation of the religion, and soon became a divisive banner in the political struggles between two powerful Naqshbandi groups, Aq Tagh and Kara Tagh, whose leaders, called Khojas in the Turkic language, wielded both spiritual and political power and pushed the Chaghatay and Yarkand khans to adopt their brands of Islam. One prominent doctrine of Naqshbandis among the Uighurs (developed by Khoja Taj adDin), especially in the Altishahari and Mawarannahr branches, is the emphasis on “miracles” (karāmāt) and the veneration of saints and their tombs. Those tendencies were banished and labeled heretic in the 18th century when neo-orthodox fundamentalists became one of the major ideological sources for Uighur resistance