Uygur’s Islamization

Turkic Muslim historians recorded that their descent from Noah’s son Japhet (Yafes) who, after the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat (Now on the Turkish-Armenian border), was sent east by his father with a jade stone. One of Japhet’s sons was Türk. Some generations later, according to legend, the land allotted to Türk was divided between two sons, Tartar and Mughol (Mongol).
According to Mahmud Kashgari, an eleventh-century Uyghur scholar and composer of the first Turkic dictionary Divanul-Lugat-i Türk, God himself gave the Turks their name, regarded them as his private army, and put them in charge of ‘troublemakers in the east’. He gave them the loftiest place in the world to live in, and the purest air to breathe. ‘Moreover, one can observe among them such praiseworthy qualities as beauty, friendliness, good taste, good manners, filial piety, loyalty, simplicity, modesty, dignity, bravery.’ Mahmud Kashgari is buried on the edge of Opal, a pretty oasis south-west of Kashgar, with a long view of the Pamir Mountains.
Coming closer to verifiable history, the first Türk empire was founded by two brothers, an event commemorated by an unknown author on the stone stelae by the Orkhon river: ‘When high above the blue sky and down below the brown earth had been created, betwixt the two were created the sons of men. And above the sons of men stood my ancestors, the Kaghans [kings] Bumin and Ishtemi.’ They set out to conquer everyone within reach, and between the years 552 and 744 they built an empire that stretched in a long, narrow swathe of territory from Mongolia to the ‘western sea’ (the Caspian) and from the border of China to the edge of the Byzantine empire.
Out of the welter of Turkic tribes, one name stands out, this is the Uygurs. In AD 744, the Uygur tribe, comprising ten clans, took over the leadership of the Eastern Turks, itself a confederacy of nine tribes. They built themselves a new capital at Karabalghasun on the upper reaches of the Orkhon River, and settled down to a more sedentary – and civilized – life. The Uygurs were in those days a specific group whose name meant ‘joiner’, ‘follower’ or ‘supporter’.
At these times, the Arabs under their general Qutayba (Cuitaiba) bin Muslim, the Umayyads’ Caliphate’s commander and his army had already came to western Turkistan, taking Bokhara in 712 and Fergana, come near to the Kashgar in 713. Some of the Turkic tribes’ rulers, the Buhar-hudat Tughshade and the Samarkand Ruler Gurek , sent a delegation to China and asked for help against the Arabs. A Chinese general Gao Xianzhi marched across the mountains, sacked the city of Tashkent and had its ruler executed in 750. The ruler’s son fled to Samarkand for help, and Gao found himself facing an Arab army. With Turkic troops in support, he confronted the Arabs on River Talas, north of Tashkent in modern Kazakhstan. But the Turkic troops changed sides at the last moment and the Chinese were defeated.
The Battle of the Talas was not a big battle, but it had far-reaching consequences. It scotched China’s ambitions for western empire, putting eastern Turkestan beyond her grasp for the next thousand years. In groups and groups of Turkic people, who were living in Central Asia began to convert Islam rapidly from that time on.
Islam spread to the kingdom of Kashgaria (today’s Eastern Turkestan or Xinjiang) the Uygur area in the 8th to 13th centuries. The way the local people accepted Islam was different from the way people in other parts of China accepted it. Islam did not spread quickly after Muslim groups were formed, but after the nobles were converted to Islam and claimed it as the state religion. The nobles preached Islam to their people. Among them the greatest figure, who played the most important rule at the time of Uygur’s conversion, indeed was Satuk Bughra Khan.
Satuk was 12 years old, according to the Muslim chronicler, waiting to succeed his date father to the throne of Kashgar, and plainly destined for great things. Not only was he precociously wise, but on the day of his birth there had been a great earthquake: flowers blossomed, even though it was winter, and springs gushed forth.
On the same day, on the other side of the Pamirs, a merchant called Abu Nasr Samani had a vision of the Prophet (pbuh) who told him to perform religious exercises for twelve years and then cross the mountains on a special mission. As the day approached for Abu Nasr’s journey, Satuk was out hunting near Kashgar. ‘A hare started from under a thorny bush, and Satuk, bow in hand, giving chase got separated from the others. The hare now suddenly stopped, and assumed the form of a man, and thus addressed the youth.’ This age, or angel, warned the boy that if he failed to acknowledge Allah and His Prophet, he would suffer hellfire. But if he did, he would qualify for paradise. A few days later, Satuk met Abu Nasr and after only a short conversation, the boy was converted.
Meanwhile Satuk’s uncle Harun, who was acting as regent, had a dream about a tiger cub which he identified as his apostate nephew. He ordered the boy’s execution. Satuk’s distraught mother begged him first to prove the boy’s conversation by waiting to see whether Satuk would carry out a planned engagement to lay the corner stone of Buddhist temple. Naturally, as a good Muslim Satuk no longer wanted to take part in the ceremony. But Abu Nasr advised him to go ahead: so long as he pretended he was in a mosque while he recited the prayers, said his mentor, Allah would forgive him.
Seeing Satuk’s compliance, Harun spared the boy’s life, but he soon realized his mistake. The battle that followed lasted seven days and seven nights, with terrible loses on both sides, and Satuk proved invincible. His sword stretched 40 yards when drawn against infidels, and long flames belched from his mouth when he charged at them. Coming upon his uncle while he was asleep, the young victor woke him up, gave him a chance to convert and, when he refused, chopped off his head and threw it out of the window on to a dung-heap. Emerging from the palace, he proclaimed himself king and Islam the official religion of Kashgaria in 932.
After a career of conquest in which he carried Islam as far as Turfan, Satuk fell ill. Before dying he took a rose from a tray and sniffed it, an apple and ate it and a goblet of sherbet and drank it. He then stood up and recited the Muslim creed, turned round three times and sang a Persian song: ‘A drop taken from the ocean makes it none the less, and a soul quitting its body rends but its covering veil.’ He died in 958. The progress of Islam was nowhere near so rapid or so wide-spread as Satuk’s story implies.
As everyone knows, Satuk Bughra Khan was one of the Khan [king] of the Kara-Khanid dynasty, which was a Turkic Khanate founded by the Karakhanids or Qarakhānids, who were a Turkic dynasty. The Khanate ruled Transoxania in Central Asia from 840-1211. Their capitals included Kashgar, Balasagun, Uzgen and then Kashgar again. So, some of the historians called it Kingdom of Kashgaria or Eastern Turkestan.
Early in the 11th century the unity of the Karakhanid dynasty was fractured by constant internal warfare. In 1041 Muhammad ‘Ayn ad-Dawlah (reigned 1041-52) took over the administration of the western branch of the family, centred at Bukhara. After the rise of the Seljuks at the end of the 11th century in Iran, the Karakhanids became nominal vassals of the Seljuks. Later they would serve the dual suzerainty of both the Kara-Khitans to the north and the Seljuks to the south.
Kuchlug, the last ruler of the Kara-Khitan Dynasty, was especially harsh on the Muslim populations under his suzerainty. He went so far as to forcing conversions from Islam to Buddhism, the dominant religion of the ruling Kara-Khitans. In 1215, the Mongol’s leader Genghiz pursued and defeated him at Kashgar, chased him to Khotan. And soon Kuchlug was killed by the Mongols when they conquered the region in 1218.
Eastern Turkestan was conquered in 1218 but was spared the worst of the Mongol terror. The Uygur khans submitted quickly, and many of their soldiers joined the nomad army. But the Uygurs’ contribution to a brutally achieved Pax Mongolica went further than mere submission. The Mongols were illiterate, and when Genghiz came to write down his people’s customs and law, the yasa-yusun, it was the Uygurs who supplied him with their Sogdian script. They took on much of the new rulers’ administrative and clerical work, just as in modern times the Palestinians ran the affairs of the uneducated Bedouin sheikhs of the Gulf. Uygur culture exerted great influence on development of Mongolian culture (script, literature, religious traditions were borrowed wholly or partially from the Uygurs. Educated Uygurs were taking important positions at the Mongolian court).
Before his death in 1227, he Genghiz had divided his empire between his four sons. Eastern Turkestan was included in the middle part of the realm allotted to Chagatai (1185-1241), who was the first khan and origin of the names of the Chagatai Khanate, Chagatai language and Chagatai Turks. The Mogol Empire later came to be known as the Chagatai Khanate. The true founder of the state was Chagatai’s grandson Alghu. The state was much less influenced by Islam, there were Muslims within the state and some did convert. The first Mongol ruler who actually converted to Islam was Mubarak-Shah (note the Arab name). His conversion occurred in 1256.
Some of the Mongolian tribes became Islamized at the hands of Sufi saints. The Mongols had been religiously and culturally conquered, this absorption ushered in a new age of Mongol-Islamic synthesis that shaped the further spread of Islam in central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
In the 1330s the Mongol ruler of the Chagatai Khanate converted to Islam, causing the eastern part of his realm called Moghulistan to rebel. However during the next three centuries these Buddhist, Shamanistic and Christian Turkic and Mongol nomads of the Kazakh Steppe and Xinjiang would also convert at the hands of competing Sufi orders from both east and west of the Pamirs. The Naqshbandiyya are the most prominent of these orders, especially in Kashgaria where the western Chagatai Khan was also a disciple of the order. The Naqshbandi order in Central Asia, to preserve true Islam from the ravages of the Mongol invasions, succeeded in keeping them within orthodoxy.
Wandering Sufi masters started to spread Sufism through Central Asia from the eleventh century, during the Karakhanid, Ghaznavid, and Seljuk periods. The Sufi custom of building spiritual guesthouses (khanaqah) around religious masters, open to all travelers, and with not only individual spiritual seekers wandering from one to another, but even the entire community of such a house, including the master, wandering together on spiritual journeys for months on end, appealed greatly to the Turkic nomad tradition. Through such means, Islam gained ever-increasing popularity among the Turkic masses. The rapid growth of Islam in Central Asia at this time, then, was not due to conversion by the sword, but by several great masters’ skillful adaptation of the religion to Turkic culture. Sufism had an important part in the formation of Muslim societies as it educated the masses and met their felt needs, giving spiritual meaning to their lives and channeling their emotions. Sufis were also great missionaries who converted new regions to Islam.
The Naqshbandiyya order spread east across the trade routes and by the middle to the fifteenth century gained ascendance over other Central Asian Sufi orders in the oasis cities of Altishahr, surrounding the Tarim river basin in what is now southern Xinjiang. The Naqshbandiyya order that gained the most prominence in the Tarim basin and played an important role in later eighteenth and nineteenth-century politics in Xinjiang was Makhdumzada, established by Makhdum-I Azam (also known as Ahmad Kasani, 1461-1542).
The Sufi brotherhood in Uygur area mainly belongs to the Naqshbandiyya. The spread of Sufism across Central Asia played an important part in the strengthening and revival of Islam in China in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


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