Sunday, 10 March 2013

NPR | Lisa Ross' Sufi Shrines in China

Photo © Lisa Ross-Courtesy NPR
Here's another Sufi-related blog post following the one of yesterday. It features the work of Lisa Ross, which recently appeared in NPR's The Picture Show. These photographs document the shrines created for and during pilgrimages by the Muslims of Western China, many of which have been maintained over several centuries.

Some of my readers will know that this is not a haphazard coincidence, but relates to my forthcoming Sufi Saints of Kashmir & Rajasthan Photo Expedition in May.

An important distinction to note is that orthodox Sunni Islam (as with Saudi Arabia's Wahabism) prohibits the worship or recognition of saints, and the erection of shrines or tombs for anyone is not allowed. This austere version of Islam forbids grave markers or tombs in burial sites and the building of any shrines. However, the burial practices (and the recognition of saints) varies from one Islamic country and sect to the other. Sufism, the more liberal of Islam's doctrines, does recognize saints, and sees no shirk (the sin of idolatry or polytheism) in such a practice.

I recall being in the Muslim area in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), and having been to Hindu temple a few days earlier, had around my wrist the red threads granted to those who make an offering or visit. A Muslim shopkeeper told me that wearing it was shirk. My facial expression in response was one of "get a life, buddy".

Sufi shrines are known as mazar, an Arabic word meaning ‘a place for visit’ or a ‘place of paying homage’. Its equivalent Persian word is ‘dargah’. In India and Pakistan, to name but two in South Asia, shrines are built on the graves of sufi saints.

Lisa Ross is one of the few foreign artists permitted access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region since it fell under Chinese rule in 1949. Via Ross' relationships with an Uyghur anthropologist and a French historian studying Central Asian Islam, she was allowed to explore the province for the past eight years as it modernizes and transforms.