In the wake of the Qianlong emperor’s invasion of Xinjiang in the mid-eighteenth century, Qing-appointed Muslim governors preserved certain trappings of Islamic rule while serving alongside a rotation of Manchu and Mongolian ambans. In the 1780s, one of the local aristocratic families in the oasis of Kashgar commissioned Muhammad Sadiq Kashghari to pen a description of the events that had led up to this transition to Qing rule. The result was In Remembrance of the Saints, a Chaghatay-language work that blends the genres of hagiography and history to depict the struggle among Naqshbandi Sufi lineages and non-Muslim empires to fill a political vacuum in Xinjiang’s oasis.
Kashgari’s work has long attracted interest as one of very few sources to depict Tarim Basin society on the eve of its incorporation into the Qing empire. Naturally, it figures prominently in interpretations of this crucial period. Nineteenth-century visitors to Xinjiang such as Chokan Valikhanov and Henry Bellew were the first to engage with the text, generally accepting its depiction of dynastic Sufi rule: “an undisguised religious despotism,” as one early precis put it. In 1905, the German Orientalist Martin Hartmann gave his partial translation of the work the title “A Holy State in Islam.” Later scholars such as Joseph Fletcher retained this focus on Sufi state building, linking Xinjiang’s Naqshbandi Sufis to trends in Islamic activism elsewhere in the early modern world. This led to more positive appraisals of the Sufi khojas (masters) as a force for the centralization, not the fragmentation, of local society.
Kashgari’s work has long attracted interest as one of very few sources to depict Tarim Basin society on the eve of its incorporation into the Qing empire.
Modern Uyghur views of this period have been less sanguine, seeing devotion to Sufi charismatics as a key factor in their society’s failure to resist foreign invasion. At the same time, Kashghari himself has become something of a literary hero. A modern Uyghur version of his work, published in 1988, presents it as a didactic proto-national text in which Kashghari is said to offer a critique, not a celebration, of its central Sufi actors.
This Uyghur publication was the product of a relative thaw in discussion of Xinjiang’s religious traditions. The 1980s saw a flurry of both Uyghur- and Chinese-language scholarship on the khojas, much of it influenced by Kashghari’s work (albeit often reliant on a Chinese translation of an English precis). In the early 1990s, however, historian Wei Liangtao penned a strong critique of this use of In Remembrance of the Saints, arguing that an overly literal reading of Kashghari’s hagiographic style had led scholars astray and that a “holy state” or “khoja period” in Xinjiang’s past was nothing but an illusion.
This debate ostensibly rested on questions of source criticism, but Wei also hinted at vague political motivations behind the “holy state” hypothesis, and in his attack on the concept he highlighted its foreign origin. Evidently, a historical image of local Muslim charismatics exercising independent rule was raising certain political sensitivities in the present.
Whether as a historical source or as a work of literature, the question of how exactly to interpret Kashgari’s work remains intriguing.
Whether as a historical source or as a work of literature, the question of how exactly to interpret Kashgari’s work remains intriguing. Although he titled it a tazkira (remembrance), Kashghari did not intend his text to fulfill the usual function of a Sufi tazkira, i.e., to sustain ongoing claims to spiritual pre-eminence in the present. Those who might make such claims had been wiped out by the violence surrounding the Qing invasion. His task was therefore a complex one: to commemorate the historical role of one faction of Xinjiang’s Sufi elite—to which his patrons were dedicated—while drawing a line under past conflicts and legitimizing a new, quite different status quo. From his work’s structure, one senses that Kashghari himself was not entirely sure how best to do this: In Remembrance of the Saints begins with a typical hagiographic structure, including abstract doctrinal digressions on the nature of sainthood, yet ends with a fast-paced story of intrigues and battle scenes in which the Tarim Basin’s local aristocrats, the begs, play as decisive a role as their Sufi co-conspirators.
Judging from the number of surviving manuscripts, In Remembrance of the Saints was successful in establishing a dominant narrative of the events it described. Notwithstanding the controversies surrounding its depiction of saintly rule, it remains a valuable window onto the political, religious, and literary life of eastern Turkistan before its transformation into a Qing dependency. My translation seeks to do justice to these different dimensions of the work while also emphasizing the need to interpret it as a product of its Qing context and the ideological balancing acts that were required of Muslim officials and their retainers during the reign of the Qianlong emperor.