Continuity of Musical Tradition: Performance of Islamic Stories among the Uyghur

Mutellip Iqbal  (PhD Student, Sociology Department, Istanbul University)

Uyghur religious narratives are full of heroic stories and magical events.  With the spreading of Islam in Central Asia, worshippers not only accepted Islamic doctrines, but also enjoyed stories about the foundation and transmission of Islam.  The Uyghur people have been influenced by all kinds of Islamic ideas, including orthodox Islam and the Sufi path. As we explore the Islamic experience of the Uyghur, we are readily able to find various forms of Islamic rituals, including recitation of the Qur’an, Sufi gatherings, women’s hikmet, and story-telling. Among those rituals, performance at large religious events is the most prominent.

Karbala. Recorded by Rahila Dawut, June 2009, Qaraqash town. Performed by Anwar from Kashgar. The lyrics tell the story of the death of Imam Huseyin, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Through my research on religious gatherings, I have found that religious poetry has become a common way of conducting Sufi rituals. Poetry is sung by Sufi masters to a melody. Sometimes, verses are accompanied by musical instruments. Besides this, religious songs and oral descriptions of religious events are also popular in the religious traditions of Uyghur Muslims. Themes range from the Prophet Muhammad’s experiences to local Sufi expressions of spiritual love for Allah. All of this religious story-telling has musical features. When I investigated Sufi activity in Khotan, I found that their zikr was accompanied by various melodies sung by a hapiz. All the Sufi gatherings are organized by a master who can recite the poetry of Islam. Within Uyghur society, the stories of Prophet Muhammad, Fatima’s activities, Caliph Ali’s magical deeds, the death of Imam Hasan and Huseyin are very popular. In the majority of Sufi activities, these stories are performed in poetic form. This is because Sufi philosophy is fully aware of the power of the human voice to bring out powerful emotion. Many stories are told which illustrate the power of the voice, starting with the effect of the recitation of the Quran, the divine names, and religious poetry.

Another musical tradition of performing religious stories among the Uyghur are the dastan. The dastan is an important form of oral literature among all Turkic peoples. Uyghur dastan, or epic oral narratives, are long, eventful works, using narrative prose and poetic descriptions to richly depict social life. Dastan demand specialist performers (dastanchi) who are musically and instrumentally adept. Dastanchi usually recite in places where people gather together, namely on the bazaar days in villages, at meshrep gatherings and mazar festivals, or in front of mosques around the time of Friday prayers.

Mansur al-Hallaj. Recorded by Mutellip Iqbal, August 2013 at Hebibe Henim’s house in the Khotan region. Al-Hallaj was a 10th century Persian mystic famous for his poetry, who was accused of heresy and executed at the orders of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir.

Most of the religious stories are attributed to Khoja Ahmad Yassawi who plays a critical role in disseminating religious stories into the Uyghur religious community in the form of poems and epic narratives. Ahmad Yassawi (1093 – 1166) is the earliest poet whose putative verses appear in the Uyghur Muqam repertoire. He was born in Sayram, and lived in and was named after the town of Yasi (both in contemporary Kazakhstan). His fame as a Sufi shaykh and proselytizer of Islam became so great among Turkic Muslims that the name Shaykh-I Turkistan was often applied to him. This caused his hometown itself to be renamed as Turkistan (Light, 1998:192). Other popular poets for Uyghur Sufi orders are Nawa’i, Huwayda and Sufi Allayar. When I visited some famous contemporary Sufi masters in Khotan, such as Hebibe Xenim and Nezerbaqi, they recited poems by Nava’i , Huwayda and Sufi Allayar very fluently. They claimed that they could recite any of their poems according to the mood of the audience at Sufi gatherings.

(This video is also available on our Sound Islam China Youtube channel:  Muqam: recording provided by Hebibe Henim. A group of Chistiyya Sufis from Khotan Sufi perform the first meshrep section of Charigah Muqam as part of their sama ritual gathering. The contemporary professional versions of the Muqam texts have moved away from these oral traditions. However, it is not hard for researchers to recognize the links between the Uyghur Twelve Muqam and Sufi performance. When I investigated the Chishti Sufi tradition in Khotan, I found a short piece of amateur video that showed a Sufi group performing a piece which is widely known as the first mashrap section of Chahargah Muqam as part of their spiritual practice. This provides further support for the work of musicologists which shows that the final mashrap sections of the Twelve Muqam are musically closely related to the hikmet prayers of the Sufis and the ashiq religious mendicants (Harris and Dawut, 2002: 111). These practitioners believe that music is a weapon for connecting people with Allah. I heard a Sufi master (Pir or Murshid) claim that music is the true way of expressing their love for Allah and claiming that musical instruments were created by the revered head of his Sufi order. Evidence shows that public places of performing religious stories have been declining in Uyghur society in recent years. Dastanchi and Sufi perform stories in particular places, such as mosques, Mazar and individual homes where is conceived as safe places to talk about Islam. This is due to the results of tighter regulation by the local authorities on transmitting Islam in Uyghur society. However, the continued performance of musical narratives is welcomed by the lower classes who seek to know historical and religious events, and delight themselves by a spiritual journey.



Harris, Rachel & Dawut, Rahile (2002) ‘Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs: Music, Islam and the Chinese State’. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11/1. pp101-118.

Light, Nathan (2008) Intimate Heritage: Creating Uyghur Muqam Song in Xinjiang. Berlin: Lit Verlag Dr. W. Hopf.


Categories: Conference, Field work record, Paper summaries, Sound map, Sound map contents

Tags: ,


  All rights reserved © Sounding Islam China  (SiC)  2013.