The Uyghurs (or Uighurs, pronounced WE-ghurs) are a Turkic people numbering around 11-12 million, most of them living in the western half of modern Xinjiang province in China , in an area that is sometimes called Uyghuria. The Uyghurs first appear in history as a nomadic people living in the fertile fringes west and south of the Taklamakan Desert . The earliest religion of the Uyghurs was shamanism, the animistic worship of nature spirits, variations of which still exist among many Central Asian and Siberian peoples, including folk beliefs and traditions of the Uyghurs themselves.
Politically the Uyghurs formed a major power in Central Asia in the eighth through 11th centuries, often dominating their neighbors. Their central location on the international trade route known as the Silk Road, which connected China with the Middle East and Europe, created widespread cultural and religious contacts with surrounding peoples.
By the seventh century, Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity had all been established in Uyghuria. As early as the second century B.C., Buddhism was brought into Central Asia by merchants and monks who were underway from India to China. By the eighth century some Uyghur aristocrats had converted to Mahayana Buddhism and established important monasteries in Uyghuria.
In 742, the Uyghur kaghan (king) Tengri Bögü encountered Manichaean priests, who converted him. Thereafter Manichaeism became the official state religion for the next few centuries, though other religions still flourished. Manichaeism was a dualistic, gnostic religion founded in Iraq by the third-century prophet Mani, creating a syncretistic blend of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. (The famous St. Augustine was a follower of Mani before converting to Christianity.) Numerous Manichaean texts have been discovered in archaeological sites in Central Asia — creating the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Manichaeism.
Nestorian Christianity (the Church of the East) entered Uyghuria and China in the seventh century, carried by Iranian Christian merchants traveling the Silk Road. Kashgar, the Uyghur capital, became a Nestorian metropolitan see in the 12th century. Although the Uyghur state never became officially Christian, Christianity spread among other Central Asian tribes, such as the Mongol tribes of Keraits and Naimans. Christian Mongols played an important role in the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan.
Jewish merchants from Bukhara and Samarkand also reached Kashgar, making it one of the most religiously cosmopolitan cities in the world, with Shamanism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all practiced side by side.
Today, however, Islam is the most important religion in Uyghuria. It first appeared there in the 10th century, brought by merchants and mystics. Muslims gained influence as economic, diplomatic, and scholarly advisors to Uyghur princes. By the early 11th century, the Muslim Kara-Khanid Turks from the west conquered Uyghuria, bringing Islam with them as the new official state religion. Thereafter the Uyghurs were seldom politically independent, usually dominated by other Turkish or Mongol states.
Spread first by conversions, then by state patronage, Islam became the dominant religion of Uyghuria by the 15th century, and by the 18th century only small non-Muslim minorities remained. Uyghurs today are mostly Sunni Muslims, with strong influence from the Naqshbandi Sufi movement.
The conquest of Uyghuria by the Qing Chinese dynasty in the late 18th century brought a new era of strong Chinese influences in the region. The most dramatic change occurred in 1949, when Mao’s Communist Chinese conquered Uyghuria, bringing their new anti-religious state ideology with them. The Chinese hoped to destroy all religious beliefs in their Communist utopia, leading them to suppress Islam in Uyghuria precisely as they tried to suppress Buddhism in Tibet.
Today the Uyghurs live in a Chinese police state, persecuted for the “religious extremism” of owning Uyghur books, growing a beard, praying or not drinking alcohol. There have been radical jihadist terror attacks on the Chinese, which the Chinese have used as an excuse to suppress Islam as a whole, rather than just its radical forms. Exact numbers are uncertain, but today there are around a million Muslim Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps, representing perhaps as much as 20% of the adult population. These “reeducation camps” attempt to force the Uyghurs to abandon their language, culture and religion, becoming obedient socialist collaborators with the Chinese. The ongoing Communist Chinese violations of human rights against the Muslim Uyghurs, Buddhist Tibetans, and other minority groups in China are certainly among the most egregious examples of religious tyranny today.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.