Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam

by Rachel Harris

Published by: Indiana University Press

China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is experiencing a crisis of securitization and mass incarceration. In Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam, author Rachel Harris examines the religious practice of a group of Uyghur women in a small village now engulfed in this chaos. Despite their remote location, these village women are mobile and connected, and their religious soundscapes flow out across transnational networks. Harris explores the spiritual and political geographies they inhabit, moving outward from the village to trace connections with Mecca, Istanbul, Bishkek, and Beijing. Sound, embodiment, and territoriality illuminate both the patterns of religious change among Uyghurs and the policies of cultural erasure used by the Chinese state to reassert its control over the land the Uyghurs occupy. By drawing on contemporary approaches to the circulation of popular music, Harris considers how various forms of Islam that arrive via travel and the Internet come into dialogue with local embodied practices. Synthesized together, these practices create new forms that facilitate powerful, affective experiences of faith.


“Over two decades of research, Harris has witnessed the Uyghur soundscape flourish and shrivel in response to the systematic oppression of people, exercised in part through sonic engineering by the Chinese authorities, alongside the institutional coercion of the faithful by the forces of globalized, Islamic conservatism. Harris shifts from in-situ fieldwork in Xinjiang, to work in the Uyghur borderland sites of migration in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and via the internet where social media platforms convey both the construction of individual and collective subjectivities as well as the destructive forces of globalized, radical Islamism. From Quranic recitation to Uyghur music and dance, to the use of insidious song as torture for the incarcerated, Harris invokes notions of repetition and layering to intertwine the ways in which sounds are produced and embodied. Her long-standing interest in music and gender is reflected in a woman-centered approach to ethnography that  prioritizes collaborative relationships with female colleagues and interlocutors, and foregrounds the multiple perpetrators of slow violence to women and women’s ways by both religion and the state. Beautifully theorized and fluidly written, Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam is a model for ethnomusicology in the 21st century.”

Professor Anne K. Rasmussen (author of Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia)

“This book does more to explain the relationship between Uyghurs and Islam in the 21st century than any other scholarship to date. By juxtaposing and interweaving ethnographic analyses of secret Sufi rituals, Quranic recitation, horror-film-influenced supernatural rumors, and state-enforced dance, Harris reveals the mutable stratigraphy of Islams under China’s colonial rule. An utterly necessary book, and a fascinating, nuanced read that deserves the attention of scholars, policy makers, and general readers alike.”

Dr Rian Thum (author of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History)

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