Claiming the mystical self in new modernist Uyghur poetry

Byler, D. (2018). Claiming the mystical self in new modernist Uyghur poetry. Contemporary Islam, 1-20. Link



By recuperating the Sufi poetics of the Uyghur past, “avant-garde” Uyghur poets such as Tahir Hamut and Perhat Tursun are claiming a right to speak as heirs to both a religious and a literary tradition. For these modernist poets, finding one’s own way forward through the past is a way of reclaiming the discourse surrounding Uyghur identity, and the cultural symbols built into it, as an extension of the self. By channeling affect in such a way that it appears to derive from conventional Uyghur imagery, these poets demonstrate a measure of self-mastery that restores a feeling of existential security in the midst of political and religious change. This article argues that the purpose of their poems is to force the reader to accept new interpretations of images of Sufi embodiment and spirituality as valid and powerful. It further claims that the new indexing of Sufi imagery in this emerging corpus disrupts the unity of Uyghur poetry in the genres of Chinese Socialist Realism and ethno-nationalist Uyghur tradition, not in a negative process, but in order to create new forms of thought and subjectivity. It forces the reader to interpret the world not by trying to return to mythical Uyghur origins or reaching for a Socialist or an Islamic utopia but instead as a means of self-determination and affirming contemporary life itself.


The more I read this paper the greater my excitement grew, to the extent where I realised I had not felt this much enthusiasm about academia in years; perhaps I need to change my field lol. Personally, I enjoyed this paper most because it explained so much about the intersections of Uyghur culture, religion, poetry, modernism, and the effects of Chinese occupation, and also recounted what the avante-garde poetry scene in Urumchi is/was like (fascinating!). Byler also describes that thing I’ve been noticing in Uyghur poetry where the author puts their name into the last part of the poem. He explains it in this excerpt where he talks about modern poets referencing Meshrep, a famous Sufi mystic and disciple of Afaq Khoja:

…But the most frequent thing they referenced was the way Meshrep wrote himself into the text of Sufism. They were drawn to the way he ended his poems with a reference to himself in the third-person. One famous example of this was how Meshrep wrote of his dexterity as a derwish who leads other derwishes. He wrote: “Dropped into any pot, I will boil. Hence I am called Meshrep” (Light 2008:120). By naming himself, Meshrep is claiming his position as a mystic who can boil with passion in any context. For contemporary Uyghur poets, this “name dropping,” often found at the end or takhallus of a ghazal, is a way of claiming a position within a Sufi lineage.

Closure at last lol.

It’s interesting to see how modernist poets and traditional(-ists?) don’t see eye-to-eye on various issues, and I think it would be really interesting to see what Uyghur traditional poets/literaries have to say about the avante-garde writers. Give me a literary battlefield any day, I am so ready to watch.

It was particularly interesting when he compared Dilber’s writing (which I loved!) to modernist writing and said how it reflects the yearning for the past and the hope that this Uyghur landscape can be brought to the future, whereas modernists speak more of living in the present (despite still being rooted to the past) (perhaps evolving with the times?). Growing up very much embedded in traditional Uyghur-ness but living in the West and influenced by all sorts of cultures, I feel like understand (and want) both? I would like to read more of both either way, that’s for sure.

Perhaps one day when I’m more fluent I’ll be able to read Uyghur academic papers on Uyghur literature that explores current trends in Uyghur poetry, as well as traditional poetry in the modern context; however, this paper was more than anything I could have hoped for at this point and I am beyond hungry for more.

Also the poems/translations in this paper were gr9

Coincidentally, Kafka is mentioned in there too – I’ve noticed a lot of the things I read (most recently Murakami and Omar Musa I believe?) reference or seem to be inspired by Kafka and I’d literally read some of his work yesterday… I’ll probably talk about him in another post (basically, I think he’s hilarious). Another reference I saw in there was Edward Said which has been recommended to me a number of times in the last few months. Once I finish this degree it’s over for you all…


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