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Podcast: Talab, Rihla, Ghaza: How Central Asian Sufis Rediscovered India and China

Eurasian Empires Seminar Series Lecture by Alexandre Papas, CNRS, Paris

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Duration: 51:40


According to an apocryphal tradition (hadith), the Prophet would have promised Muslims the conquest of India. In another famous yet disputed tradition, he enjoined believers to seek knowledge even as far as China. Between scriptural quotations and religious imaginaries, what was the historical reality? Close neighbors of both Mughal and Ming-Qing empires were the Central Asian Muslims, especially those living in Eastern Turkestan. Although they were certainly not terra incognita, India and China exercised a fascination over Turkestani Sufis who, from the early 16th to the late 19th century, joined the trade caravans across either the Pamir Mountains or the Taklamakan desert. Instead of consumer goods, they brought with them books, letters, artefacts, and relics. Exploring the three practices of search (talab), peregrination (rihla), and holy war (ghaza/ghazat), this paper tells the story of intrepid mystical travelers in quest of new converts as well as foreign disciples, but also of religious competition and imperial prestige. In addition to written sources, I make use of oral accounts collected among current Sufi actors that show that the initiatory lineages established by the Turkestani Sufis have outlived the empires, linking until today Xinjiang with Gansu, Qinghai and Northern India.

Alexandre Papas is Research Fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. A historian of Islam and Central Asia from the 16th century to present, he has published: Soufisme et politique entre Chine, Tibet et Turkestan (Paris, 2005), Mystiques et vagabonds en islam (Paris, 2010), Voyage au Pays des Salars (Paris, 2011), Central Asian Pilgrims (Berlin, 2012, co-ed. with Th. Welsford and Th. Zarcone), L’Autorité religieuse et ses limites en terres d’islam (Leiden, 2013, co-ed. with N. Clayer and B. Fliche), and Family Portraits with Saints (Berlin, 2013, co-ed. with C. Mayeur-Jaouen).