Fragment of an Anti-Hagiographic Discourse: Visit to a Yarkand Shrine, 2000 by Alexandre Papas
In 2000, Abduwäli Äli published a historical novel (tarikhi romani) written in Uyghur and completed in 1998, about Afaq Khoja, the famous Sufi who ruled over Kashgharia in the late seventeenth century, along with other novels dealing with his ancestors (the Makhdumzadas) and his heirs (the so called Turghaq Khojalar). The two-volume book is a highly critical narrative of Sufi holy men in Eastern Turkestan; it belongs to a subgenre that I suggest to call ‘anti-hagiographic literature’. In the foreword, after introducing himself and presenting his approach to the political and religious history of the Uyghurs, the author reports his visit to the Altunluq mazar in Yarkand in 1998, accompanied by a district official named Muhämmäd Tursun Mäjiddin. Together they went to the shrine complex and admired the tombs of Sa’idi khans, who are described as symbols of courage and virtue. They stayed, kept silent and showed respect to the buried rulers — we read. As opposed to this official side of the mazar, which is usually quiet and almost empty, there is a series of graves of holy men named ‘Seven Muhammads’ (Haft Muhammadan), visited by pilgrims on a regularly basis and occupied by all sorts of devotees. This is where we find an interesting fragment of an anti-hagiographic discourse (ref. Äbduwali Äli, Apaq Khoja, Urumchi: Shinjang Khälq Näshriyati, 2000, vol. 1, pp. 12–14).
Translation from the Uyghur
On the way to Haft Muhammadan, I saw some people lying and rolling in the dust of the road. They looked miserable and lifeless, they had long hair and dirty necks, and did not even look human. Among them, you could see men and women, old and young people. Intrigued, I asked to Mäjdiddin Äpändi who was beside me: ‘Who are these people? Why do they stay like this in the dust?’ My companion answered very naturally:
— They are ashiqlar.
Listening to this, I thought, we were at the threshold of the twentieth-first century and, back to 300 years before, it was as if I was watching the shade of the souls of the miserable Khojas roaming around! I was shocked. Suddenly, one of these guys said:
— Oh friend, Naqshband the Evil Killer is my master!
He was a young man, an ashiq diwanä, raising his disgusting hands toward me and asking for alms, for repentance of sins or whatever! I put my hand on my breast pocket and I lowered to ask him:
— What’s your name? How old are you?
— My name is Khoja Abdulkärim Rahman Supi, Sir. I’ve just turned twenty-five.
He kept staring at my pocket with his gleaming eyes full of humiliation. I asked him:
— What are you doing here? How do you feed your stomach?
— If I find something I eat, if I don’t find I’m hungry.
Hearing this, I immediately remembered an Äpändi anecdote saying ‘you look like the stray dogs of my city’. So, I said spontaneously:
— You’re young and you have all your faculties. Don’t you have relatives? Wouldn’t it be better if you could spend your energy and eat your fill until instead of humiliating yourself like this?
He answered with no shame:
— Mister, what are you talking about? I am a poor mystic on the path to God the Exalted, I give my life to God and His saints. If God has given you the goods of this world, He has given us the goods of the other world!
Hearing that, what could I do, laugh or cry? Pulling me, my companion said: ‘Let’s go now.’ I took some money from my pocket and I gave it to another crippled beggar who was holding his hands next to the ashiq. After returning to the hotel, I had dinner, watched some television and I started writing my diary. I recorded the above incident in the sections of my diary.
This short scene is not imaginary and most probably did happen. Anyone who has visited the Altunluq shrine — as I did several times in the early 2000s, before the crackdown on Muslim minorities and the opening of concentrations camps in the region — recognizes the atmosphere of the holy place: this is a typical mazar of the Tarim basin, with families in prayer, pilgrims performing the circumambulation, fortune tellers and healers, dervish beggars but also shrine attendants and Sufi shaykhs receiving people. All this sounds too familiar to be invented. The fact that Abduwäli Äli details the conversation and shows indignation has a clear purpose: Muslim piety and mysticism are relics from the past that should be treated with both pity and severity; dervish beggars especially are viewed as dirty, lazy, marginal, and antisocial citizens who should be forced to go back to work. The figure of the ashiq diwanä (lit. madly in love [with God]) embodies the ‘degeneration’ caused by the Khojas. Such a hostility towards devotional Islam and its representatives is far being new as we find the same rhetoric, almost verbatim, in Muslim Reformist literature, which circulated in Eastern Turkestani oases from the early twentieth century onwards. The ‘visit to the shrine’ appears as the opening scene par excellence of the anti-hagiographic discourse.