Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road

Johan Elverskog

University of Pennsylvania Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016 https://dannyreviews.com/
Elverskog takes "the Silk Road" quite broadly, from northern India through Central Asia to China, with glances at Persia and Tibet, and covers more than a millennium. He makes no attempt to be comprehensive, however, and instead each chapter focuses on a broad theme in a particular region, picking out a few figures or works to illustrate that. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road is a scholarly work, but one that provides enough background to be accessible to those without specialist knowledge, of the region or of either religion.

There is a myth that has the end of Buddhism in India a result of the destruction of the Buddhist monastery of Nalanda by Muslim raiders in 1202. This is bookended by the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 and "in the popular imagination there are probably no two traditions more different than Buddhism and Islam". But, as Elverskog explains in his introduction, the reality is both more complicated and more interesting: Nalanda and Buddhism in India lasted centuries longer and those statues had stood in Muslim lands for thirteen hundred years.

"Contact" begins with some background history, with a thirty-five page introduction to Buddhism and its early history and historical context, emphasizing connections with trade networks and empires and touching on the rise of tantra and the Mahayana. Then it turns to the arrival of Islam and the response of Buddhism to that and to Muslim rule. In north-west India:

"Arab rule was thus not aimed at conversion or the disruption of the status quo; rather, the Muslim state's fundamental goal was to enrich both itself and its subjects by overcoming any and all impediments to the circulation of commodities. ... This was something Buddhists understood."

"Understanding" surveys early transfers of ideas and attempts at understanding. The Barmakids, descended from a distinguished Buddhist family, provided the Abbasid caliph with viziers in the second half of the 8th century, and there is a fascinating account by Yahya ibn Khalid of travels in India in the early 9th century (unfortunately surviving only as a copy of a copy). From the other side:

"although much of the Kalacakratantra is clearly anti-Muslim it also contains positive evaluations of Islam. In particular, the Buddhists praise the Muslim doctrine of equality and its complete rejection of the caste system. Muslims are also respected for their ferocity and heroism in battle, as well as their monogamy and their attention to hygiene."

These early contacts were followed by a "split", however, as the Buddhist world reoriented towards the East, and:

"By the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries Muslim thinkers had neither contact with, nor interest in, the East. In fact India and the broader Asian world was no longer a place that had something to offer. It was simply a wealthy fantasy land far far away."

"Idolatry" sets the scene with the story of a Chinese embassy to Bukhara in 939, the conversion of Turkish groups to Islam, the rise of the Khitan and a Qara Khitai buffer between the Muslim world and the "Tantric Bloc", and the origins of Tibetan Buddhism.

"one important factor in this development was, oddly enough, the Muslim invasion of India. It was this event that set in motion the brain drain of tantric masters that ushered in both the withering of Buddhism in India and the simultaneous growth of the Dharma in Tibet."

The Mongol conquests "brought the Muslim and Buddhist worlds back together again for the first time after centuries of separation", but a cosmopolitan world with an open religious policy also produced a polemical sharpening of doctrines, within as well as between religions. Rashid al-Din (a Jewish convert to Islam) wrote a Compendium of Chronicles in which

"[his] awareness of a Tibetan Buddhist canon encapsulates the world of Buddhist-Muslim exchange ushered in by the pax Mongolica. Yet the Mongol empire ... also brought together for the first time Buddhists of many different cultural backgrounds and religious affiliations."

"Jihad" describes moves towards more violent interactions, in the context of Timurid attempts to balance Chinggisid and Islamic sources of authority in the post-Mongol world. The Naqshbandiyya sufi order adopted the rhetoric of shari'aism to undermine the alliance between the Timurids and the Yasaviyya order and

"by 1430s the city of Turfan had essentially been purged of all its Buddhist inhabitants. The same fate would befall Hami over the coming decades. The city where mosques and temples had stood side by side would be emptied of its Buddhist population by the 1480s."

There are parallels to this in the Oirad adoption of Tibetan Buddhism: "much as had happened in the Islamic world the Dharma was thereby superimposed on the traditional matrix of the Mongol legacy and the Chinggisid principle". And the Fifth Dalai Lama, trying to consolidate his power in Tibet, "found what he was looking for in the Upper Mongols, who in many ways became his fundamentalist Gelukpa death squad".

The final chapter, "Halal", focuses on the role of dietary practices in relationships between the Chinese state and its Muslim minority, going back to the Yuan dynasty and incompatibilities between Mongol and Islamic sheep-killing practices. Under the Qing, questions about halal were inextricably tied up with politics, with "the introduction of revivalist Islam, the official categorization of Muslims as violent and anti-Qing, and the militarization of northwest China along the border of Mongol territory". More positively, the Mongol writer Injannashi (1837-1892) looked at Muslim foodways within a cross-cultural and comparative approach to ritual and religion. Which leads into a brief conclusion looking at how nineteenth century Western travellers and explorers helped to create some of the myths about Buddhism and Islam that still persist.

Art and imagery are given some prominence throughout Buddhism and Islam. Elverskog looks at early statuary and the influence of representations of the Buddha on representations of Muhammad, the exchange of ideas and technologies regarding amulets, and artistic production and visual culture under the Mongols. This is illustrated with thirty odd half-tones.

Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road is a fascinating tour of some of the less travelled areas of religious history.

July 2016

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Related reviews:
- Richard Foltz - Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization
- books about Buddhism + Buddhist history
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about Islam + Islamic history
- books published by University of Pennsylvania Press
%T Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road
%A Elverskog, Johan
%I University of Pennsylvania Press
%D 2010
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780812242379
%P 340pp