Sufi Masters of Southern Xinjiang

[ Go To Part 1: A Brief History of ETIM and al-Qaeda ]

To understand the motives of Islamists and other traditionalists in Xinjiang we must examine the traditional societies that they wish to revive.

Six Cities on the Silk Road

The main setting of our present history is in the southern part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Separated from the north by the Tianshan mountains, Nanjiang (South Frontier) has been known by many names in its long history. We will concern ourselves primarily with the Six Cities, called Altïšahr in Turkic languages: Aqsu, Uch Turfan, Kashgar, Khotan, Yarkand, and Kucha. These were ancient oasis settlements along the western edge of the uninhabitable Taklamakan Desert.

The Taklamakan sits in the Tarim Basin, a geologic depression shaped like an eye. It is bounded by mountain ranges in three directions: north are the Tian, west are the Pamir, and south are the Kunlun. In the east, at the inner corner of the “eye,” the mountains open up into the Gobi desert. For almost 2,000 years the southern route of the Silk Road has passed, east to west, through the oasis towns that ring the desert.

The Great Master

We will enter this history after the death of Ahmad Kasani, known as Makhdum-i-Azam (“Great Master”) in 1542 CE. Kasani was a famous Sufi mystic in Central Asia who won patronage and wrested concessions from khans. Enormously influential, he is known to have published 30 major religious treatises and to have acquired vast estates in Central Asia and in Altïšahr.

Script representing the Naqshbandi Golden Chain. From

Kasani’s spiritual and political prominence grew out of two deep roots: he was a Sayyid, a descendant of Muhammad, and he was a link in the Naqshbandi Golden Chain. This is a lineage of Sufi masters which starts from Muhammad and his first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Each generation of Sufi receives the teachings of a master from the previous generation, eventually passing on this legacy to their own students. In this way Ahmad Kasani was both a spiritual and a blood descendant of Muhammad.

The Khojas of Altïšahr

Two of Kasani’s sons became patriarchs of their own branches of the Naqshbandi lineage. These two lines of descendants are known to us as the Khojas, from a Persian root translated as “master”. They would become the ruling powers in Altïšahr.

The elder brother, Mohammed Amin, remained in Bukhara and held a position of influence with the Uzbek court. The younger brother, Ishaqi Wali, would travel east through the mountains and find success in Altïšahr.

Tomb of Abdulkerim Khan, who invited Ishaq Wali to do missionary work in Yarkent. Abdulkerim would be succeeded in 1591 CE by his brother Muhammad Sultan, a follower of Ishaq. From Wikipedia Commons

Ishaqi Wali rose to prominence in the courts of Altïšahr, where he and his descendants had close relations with the ruling Mughal Khans. The Khans were descended from Chaghatai Khan, the son of Chinggis Khan. Here in Altïšahr these families married into one another. Future generations would be both Sayyid and Chagatayid: children of Muhammad and Chinggis Khan.

Muhammad Amin and his son, Muhammad Yusuf, would eventually lose influence to another of Makhdum-i-Azam’s spiritual successors(Iranica, kasani), the Jaybari Sufi. Muhammad Yusuf left Bukhara and headed east, to the lands of his uncle and the Mughal princes.

Upon his arrival in the Taklamakan Muhammad Yusuf had already been accumulating followers and patrons. This naturally presented a challenge to his uncle’s family, the Ishaqqiya: an alternative link to the Prophet and his teachings had become available to local rulers. This may have been a motive for the murder of Muhammad Yusuf, which his followers claimed had been carried out by Ishaqqiya poisoners. Shortly after his death in 1653, Muhammad Yusuf’s son Khoja Afaq was exiled by Ismai’l Khan, a close ally of the Ishaqqiya.

The Afaqiyya and Dzungars Ascendant

Khoja Afaq fled Kashgar for Kashmir, due south across the Pamir and Himalaya mountains. From there he journeyed east over the mountains into Tibet, where he made contact with the 5th Dalai Lama in the hope of gaining allies.

The Dalai Lama passed the invitation to his student, Galdan, whom he had anointed as Khan of the Dzungar people in 1671. The Dzungar were a Buddhist, Tibeto-Mongol people whose Khan ruled the lands north of the Tianshan. Dzungar Khans drew wealth from tributes and trade on the Taklamakan trade routes, and so they maintained cordial relations with the Muslims of the region. The ongoing feud between the two lines of Khoja had caused disruptions in this trade, giving Galdan both a spiritual and a material cause to intervene.

In 1678 the Dzungars invaded the Tarim Basin and captured the cities of Altïšahr. Galdan raised Khoja Afaq and his sons to high positions in the local administration but maintained the Chagatayids as local rulers at Yarkand. The tension between the Ishaqqiya and Chagatayids on one side, and the Afaqiyya and Dzungars on the other, would continue for the next 80 years.

The Qing Empire Eclipses the Dzungars

Ayusi, a Dzungar warrior who defected to the Qing empire in 1734. Led a Qing attack on the Dzungar Khan’s camp in 1755. Via Carl Zha.

This period came to a close after the Ten Great Campaigns of the Qing dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor. Three of these military campaigns had been directed at the Dzungar Khanate. In 1755 the Qing armies entered the Dzungar capital at Qulja. The Qing soldiers found two Afaqiya brothers held hostage to secure the loyalty of their family: Qilich Burhan al-Din and Khoja Jahan. They would decline Qing offers of vassalage and left for Altïšahr to raise armed resistance. They were defeated in 1757 and Qilich Burhan al-Din was executed in 1759.

The Ishaqqiya and Chagatayids returned to prominence in Altïšahr under Qing rule, while the sons of Khoja Burhan al-Din and Khoja Jahan would flee to the west. They took up residence at Khokand in the Ferghana valley on the western slopes of the Pamir mountains. This city also sat on the Silk Road and the arrival of the Afaqiya Khojas had provided the Khan of Khokand with some leverage in his relations with the Qing.

Starting in 1794 the Afaqiya began raiding Altïšahr from their base in Khokand. They gained support from the Khan’s forces in 1824 until he made his own peace with the Qing in 1826. The Afaqiya jihad against the Qing continued through the 1800s, becoming less and less popular in the Tarim Basin as they resulted in more senseless deaths and looting for no discernible gain. Whatever the opinions of the common people had actually been, the Afaqiya continued to rise up in sympathy with the Muslim revolts taking place across China in the 19th Century.

Afaqiya forces revolted against Qing armies in 1757.


Before continuing with our history of Xinjiang we should consider the material basis of Altïšahr’s ruling classes.

Our sources note that Ahmad Kasani and his descendants held many waqf. These are religious endowments which we can compare to non-profit charitable foundations. The waqf receives donations of land or treasure which it is responsible for keeping in perpetuity. Any profits made from the holdings of the waqf are then invested in projects that benefit the community. These have historically included mosques, markets, and madrassas, in addition to charitable relief works. Waqf are fundamentally religious works and find their basis in the Qur’an and Hadith.

Given the religious nature and social function of the waqf it is natural that they would be entrusted to Sufi masters. Sufi spend their lives dedicated to spiritual practice and study, and some are renowned as saints and scholars. Their authority in religion makes them authorities in law and the social good.

The Khojas of Altïšahr had a particularly strong claim to religious authority. They were links in the Naqshbandi Golden Chain which preserved the living teachings of the Prophet; through them the true and original teachings of Islam could be verified. Beyond this they were also certified as blood descendants of Muhammad, bearing his hereditary legacy.

The ideologically privileged position of the Khojas made them masters of the law and of the land. From the economic basis of the waqf they built schools and mosques to teach the people to be devout and socially active muslims. From their positions in the sharia courts they exercised power over the legal superstructure of society. The Khojas were from divinely ordained bloodlines and they controlled the means of reproducing society. They served as advisors and courtiers under the Chagatayid Khans, belonging to that aristocratic class which was eligible to govern and to marry into the Khan’s family.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. (1984, December 15). AḤMAD KĀSĀNĪ. Encyclopedia Iranica.

Togan, I. (1991, December 15). CHINESE TURKESTAN v. Under the Khojas. Encyclopedia Iranica.

Elverskog, J. (2013). Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Encounters with Asia) (Illustrated ed.). University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brophy, D. (2016). Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier (1St Edition). Harvard University Press.

Bregel, Y. (2003). An Historical Atlas of Central Asia (Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 8 Uralic & Central Asia Studies) (Illustrated ed.). Brill.

Featured image: tomb of Khoja Afaq in Xinjiang.


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