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The Universal and the Particular in Rural Xinjiang: Ritual Commensality and the Mosque Community

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Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 6)

Abstract

Hann exlores the complex articulations between Islam, the Chinese socialist state, and the market thrrough a consideration of ritual in two Uyghur contexts in Western China, approached here as a component of Central Asia. Rituals held inside mosques and in cemeteries (in the case of an upland community) are based on the sharing of food, some of it produced at home and some of it acquired through market transactions. These rituals have an economic component, but Hann argues that Uyghur villagers disconnect them from other fraught domains of life, including the new consumerism and discourses of ethno-linguistic difference. Rituals are invested with significance as expressions of a universal egalitarian Muslim solidarity, devoid of the politics of ethnicity which lie behind the violence that has affected this region in recent decades, and antithetical to the increasing differentiation of the socialist market economy.

Keywords

  • Communist Party
  • Cultural Revolution
  • Modern City
  • Asphalt Road
  • Upland Community

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Uyghur and Han each comprise around 40 % of the regional population; see Toops (2004). For more detail concerning the consolidation of Uyghur ethno-national identity in the socialist era, see Bovingdon (2010).

  2. 2.

    It is especially unusual for any of these Turkic minorities to share a mosque with Hui, (also known as Chinese Muslims or Tungans), who adhere to the Shafi’i school. Hui are officially recognized as an ethnic group (minzu) all over China on the basis of their religious difference, although the great majority share a language and many customs with their Han neighbours (see Gladney 1991). Since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Hui have benefited greatly from the softening of socialist power. They have been able to renew their entrepreneurial as well as their religious traditions, with Communist Party approval. In some regions nowadays Hui cadres have considerable freedom to practise their faith, but this is not the case for Hui in the XUAR who are, at least formally, subject to the same strict controls as other Muslims. Relatively numerous in many cities of the XUAR, few Hui are able to communicate easily with Turkic speakers.

  3. 3.

    Qumul is the Uyghur name of this ancient settlement. This fieldwork was part of a project ‘Feudalism, Socialism and the Present Mixed Economy’, undertaken jointly with Ildikó Bellér-Hann, in cooperation with Xinjiang University, in 2006–2009. I am also grateful for the assistance of Busarem Imin. Professors Arslan Abdulla and Rahilä Dawut at Xinjiang University were constantly helpful in dealing with formalities; unfortunately the joint Workshop that we tried to organize in 2008, and then again in 2009, could not take place for political reasons.

  4. 4.

    Näzir is a generic term for domestic ritual. If the term is used without qualification it refers to commemoration of a death (first held 7 days after the death; then again after 40 days, 1 year, and annually thereafter). Other types of näzir can be joyful, notably the halis näzir, which is celebrated to express thanks (e.g. for the safe return of a relative after a long journey). See bellér-Hann, 2008.

  5. 5.

    The questionnaire was almost entirely devoted to economic issues and cooperation. Religion and ritual were only broached with families I knew well. Village imams were reluctant to spend time with me; like state cadres, they are repeatedly warned about the limits of ‘normal religious activities’; they were aware that religion was not a part of my official research project with Ildikó Bellér-Hann.

  6. 6.

    The term mähällä, which in parts of ex-Soviet Central Asia specifies the lowest level of state administration and the mosque community, is frequently used but does not correspond exactly to any of these units. Rural Uyghurs tend to be more familiar with jämaät boundaries than with secular names and boundaries, which, both in the mountains and in the villages of the oasis, to be discussed in the next section, have been changed several times in recent decades.

  7. 7.

    By contrast, in the upland villages it was possible to revitalize rainmaking rituals (yada), which draw the community (including women) together for commensality and prayer beside a stream or river in a very similar way (Hann n.d.).

  8. 8.

    The passive formulation is unsatisfactory but I was unable to ascertain exactly who initiated this revival and when.

  9. 9.

    Instead, young and old alike are made aware nowadays of a corresponding secular ritual: Noruz celebrations on 21st March. This equinox ritual is promoted by the state, especially in schools, as a national holiday for all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. It is marked by elaborate folklore performances, stripped of all religious content (Hann 2012).

  10. 10.

    Each jämaät is obliged by law to keep accounts and make them available for inspection annually by officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau. In the mountain communities the expenditure is minimal (often only coal, which has become the main fuel for heating the mosque in winter, is listed). In Shähärichi the official accounts are likely to include additional items, such as expenditure to maintain buildings.

  11. 11.

    They told me that the event had been a great success: the Damollah had not attended, but their own imam had given a very good sermon and the guests had been impressed by the collective hospitality. When I asked about the state officials I was told that they were merely doing their jobs; it was by no means inconceivable that these men were themselves contributing financially to the costs of the same even in their own jämaät, even though their jobs prevented them from any active participation.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Äsäd Sulaiman, Turdi Qayum, and the Editors of this volume for comments on a draft of this chapter.

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Hann, C. (2012). The Universal and the Particular in Rural Xinjiang: Ritual Commensality and the Mosque Community. In: Marsden, M., Retsikas, K. (eds) Articulating Islam: Anthropological Approaches to Muslim Worlds. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 6. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4267-3_8

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