SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Majnun - Classical Traditions of the Uyghurs


Abdulla Majnun is a Maqam Master from the old Silk Road city of Khotan. On these recordings, he performs sung and instrumental excerpts from the Uyghur Twelve Maqam alongside some lighter pieces from the folk repertoire. He performs on three different long-necked Central Asian lutes: the traditional tanbur and dutar, and his own innovation, the extraordinary bowed diltar.

The word majnun came to Central Asia from the Arabic. It denotes intoxication or infatuation, most famously in the tragic epic tale of Leila and the lovesick Majnun, which is told across the Islamic world. Among the Uyghurs, a majnun is a type of musician akin to the dervishes. The infatuation of these majnun is understood in the Sufi sense of longing for the divine, but they are also feared, said to frequent graveyards at night, and set apart from normal society. The intoxication of the majnun borders on madness.

The Uyghurs

The Uyghur homeland is a region of oasis towns separated by great distances and, until the last few decades, accessible only by arduous journeys by camel train through deserts and over mountains. In times of peace, the oases dwellers of this region traded in the goods which passed along the Silk Road from China to the Near East and to Europe, while its nomadic peoples frequently held the Chinese empire to ransom with their feared raids within its borders.

Contemporary Uyghurs trace their ancestry back to the Uyghur Turks, whose steppe kingdom flourished on China's north-western borders during the eighth and ninth centuries. After the fall of this kingdom,a portion of its people fled westwards into the region now called Xinjiang, where their descendants mingled with the indigenous inhabitants and established a series of local kingdoms and khanates.

Islam first arrived in this region under the Qarakhan khanate in the tenth century. Historically, Sufism has been a strong influence amongst the Uyghurs, as it has across Central Asia.

Uyghur Music and the Twelve Maqam

The Twelve Maqam (On Ikki Muqam) are a prestigious set of musical suites which the Uyghurs trace in their present form back to the sixteenth century and the court of the Yarkand Khanate, though they also claim continuity with roots of considerable antiquity. Each of the Twelve Maqam are characterised by mode, melodic patterns and modulations, but a Maqam is basically a suite structure which comprises a series of vocal and instrumental pieces.

The lyrics of the Twelve Maqam are drawn in part from the great Central Asian poets who wrote in the literary Turkic language Chagatay. They also draw on epic stories and popular folk lyrics, and much of the poetry is linked to the imagery and ideals of the Sufis