“Sunni” Veneration of the Twelve Imams in Khotan

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Rian Thum



Over a century ago European explorers in Eastern Turkestan (southern Xinjiang) made a remarkable discovery: the Sunni inhabitants of Khotan were engaged in elaborate veneration of the Shiʿi twelve Imams, whom they believed to be buried at various holy sites in the Khotan region. This paper investigates Khotan’s net work of holy sites and the narratives that were attached to them, from the sixteenth century to the present. While the political landscape of the present may sometimes make the Sunni-Shiʿi divide appear natural, the case of Eastern Turkestan, which had its own, idiosyncratic approach to sectarian identity, reminds us that the maintenance of such a Sunni-Shiʿi consensus on sectarian designation was dependent on networks of knowledge reproduction that did not embrace the entirety of the Muslim world. Pre-Islamic sacred geographies, the power of locally networked holy sites, the phenomenon of textual appropriation, and a popular and eclectic manuscript tradition overwhelmed weak sectarian distinctions, bringing Muslim followers of the Hanafi legal tradition to pray at the purported tombs of Twelver Imams.

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