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Linda Benson
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Approximately ten million Sunnī Muslims of various ethnic groups live in China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. Turkic-speaking Uighurs are the most populous, numbering 8.2 million in 1998. Other Muslim groups include 1.2 million Kazakhs, 782,000 Hui (Chinese Muslims), and smaller numbers of Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Tatars. Before 1949, Uighurs accounted for an estimated 80 percent of the region's population; by 2000, that figure dropped to less than 50 percent, largely as a result of the immigration of Chinese who now constitute 40 percent of the region's estimated eighteen million people (Toops, p. 255).

Muslims first arrived in Xinjiang via the Silk Road as early as the Tang dynasty (618–906 CE). The earliest record of conversion within the borders of present-day Xinjiang dates to the tenth century, when the Karakhanid ruler Satuk Bughra Khan of Kashgar accepted Islam. Following his death (circa 955 CE), the Karakhanid became the first Turkish khanate fully to adopt Islam. In the major towns of southern Xinjiang's Tarim Basin, Islam competed with Buddhism and Nestorianism. In the mid-1100s, power shifted to the Karakhitai (Qara-khitai), slowing the spread of Islam, but, a century later, Mongol conquest of the region brought a resurgence of Muslim traders and, with them, Ṣūfī missionaries.

The first Sūfīs represented the Yasavī order, but in the fourteenth century, the Naqshbandīyah displaced them as the dominant tarīqah (Sūfī order). Local histories credit the latter with the rapid spread of Islam in succeeding centuries. According to the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī, when Khiz¨r Khwājah of the Central Asian Chagatayid state conquered the Xinjiang towns of Qara Khodja and Turpan in 1390, he forced their inhabitants to become Muslim (as cited in Foltz, p. 141). Voluntary conversions by Sūfī shakhs proved more enduring, and by the mid-fifteenth century, most of the population of the Tarim Basin had converted to Islam.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) conquered the whole of the Xinjiang region, beginning with the nomadic lands of the north and completing their conquest of the southern Muslim oases in 1759. The new rulers allowed local religious authorities to administer Muslim law and serve as tax collectors, while the Qing held military and political power into the twentieth century.

The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 did not bring immediate changes. A succession of Chinese warlords controlled the region, suppressing local attempts to found a separate state, first in 1933 and again in 1944. Religious as well as secular leaders participated in these efforts against the Chinese, whereas other Uighurs sought an alliance with the Guomindang (Nationalist Chinese) in hopes of securing autonomy from the Chinese Republic. These efforts ended with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 inaugurated widespread changes. Although the new Chinese constitution affirmed the right of citizens to believe or not believe in religion, the CCP gradually increased pressure on Muslims to abandon their faith. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) witnessed the worst attacks on Islam; mosques were closed and public religious practices halted. Influential Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders suffered enormously, enduring imprisonment or forced labor.

Following Mao's death in 1976, policy shifted. Public religious observance resumed, and mosques reopened. After 1980, an increasing number of Uighurs and other Muslims made the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. The Arabic script (first replaced with the Cyrillic and then with the Latin alphabet) was restored as the policies of the Cultural Revolution were repudiated by China's new leadership.

Development and Status of Islam in Xinjiang.

Islam's spread to Xinjiang was an extension of the Islamicization of Central Asia, primarily through the Āfāqīyah and Naqshbandīyah Sūfī orders that linked Xinjiang to major Muslim centers on the major east-west trade routes. China's impact was less important. Despite the Qing conquest of the 1750s, the number of Chinese present in the region remained small (estimated at less than 5 percent as late as the 1940s). Religious practice, therefore, continued with little government interference. However, under the Republic of China, the rise of the USSR curtailed contacts with Muslim communities, and the founding of the PRC in 1949 completed the region's isolation which lasted through the Maoist period.

When China reopened to the outside world in the early 1980s, a religious revival ensued, spurred in part by a resumption of overland trade, particularly with Pakistan. A number of Xinjiang Muslims enrolled in Pakistani madrasahs, initially with Chinese government support, and a small number of Uighurs sought religious and secular education abroad. Opportunities for religious education in Xinjiang remain limited; only the Institute for the Study of Islamic Texts, in the provincial capital of Ürümqi, is officially approved by the authorities.

Although the majority of Xinjiang Muslims continue to observe dietary guidelines and other religious practices, ethnic divisions remain salient, principally between the Uighur and the Hui. The latter are perceived by some Uighurs as more Chinese than Muslim, despite the fact that Hui also are subject to forms of discrimination that Muslims feel are pervasive throughout the region.

Since September 11, 2001, government surveillance of religious activities has increased, and there has been a crackdown on illegal religious activities, especially unregistered Qurʿānic schools. Nonetheless, local mosques remain at the core of neighborhoods and communities, and Friday services at major urban mosques such as Kashgar's Idgah Mosque draw large numbers of worshipers, predominantly older men. Chinese law prevents anyone under the age of eighteen from attending religious services.

Overall, religious practice in Xinjiang is deeply affected by government policy that views Islam negatively, regarding it as superstition held over from the region's feudal past. Despite government efforts to limit the influence of Islam through secular education and other means, its current vitality suggests such efforts may have had the opposite affect and, thus far, seem unlikely to diminish Islam's importance in the region.


  • Benson, Linda. The Ili Rebellion: The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944–1949. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990.
  • Dughlat, Muhammad Haydar. A History of the Moghuls of Central Asia; being the Tarikh-i-Rashidi of Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Dughlát. Translated by E. D. Ross, edited by N. Elias. New York: Praeger, 1970 (1895).
  • Fletcher, Joseph. “Ch’ing Inner Asia c. 1800.” In Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank, eds., The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 10, Part 1. London: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
  • Foltz, Richard. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  • Golden, Peter. “The Karakhanids and Early Islam.” In Denis Sinor, ed., The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Fuller, Graham, and Jonathan N. Lipman, “Islam in Xinjiang.” In S. Frederick Starr, ed., Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, pp. 320–352. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
  • Roberts, Sean R.“A ‘Land of Borderlands’: Implications of Xinjiang's Trans-Border Interactions.” In S. Frederick Starr, ed., Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, pp. 216–237. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
  • Toops, Stan. “The Demography of Xinjiang.” In S. Frederick Starr, ed., Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, pp. 241–263. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
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