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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire

Alexander Berzin, 1996
lightly revised, January 2003, December 2006

Part I: The Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750 CE)

2 Sogdia and Bactria on the Eve of the Umayyad Period

As Sogdia and Bactria were major areas to which the Arabs first spread Islam in Central Asia, let us look more closely at the religious background of their people. This will help us understand their initial response to the Muslim faith.

Zoroastrian Relations with Buddhism

The majority of the inhabitants of Sogdia and Bactria were Zoroastrian, while Buddhists, Manichaeans, Nestorian Christians, and Jews formed significant minorities. Buddhism had spread throughout the region during the Kushan rule from the end of the second century BCE to 226 CE, but it never superseded Zoroastrianism in popularity. Buddhism was naturally the weakest in Sogdia since it lay the furthest away from the Kushan centers of power in Kashmir, Gandhara, Oddiyana, and Kabul.

The Persian Sassanids (226 – 637) ruled Sogdia, Bactria, Kashgar, and parts of Gandhara until the White Huns took over the region at the start of the fifth century, causing them to retreat to Iran. Although the Sassanids were a nationalistic, avidly pro-Zoroastrian dynasty, whose more orthodox rulers severely persecuted any Zoroastrian sects they considered heresies, they were mostly tolerant of other religions. They allowed them to keep their religions, provided each adult male paid a graduated poll tax.

The only major exception to this trend was during the second half of the third century when the Zoroastrian high priest, Kartir, directed the religious policy of the empire. With purist fervor to eliminate all images of deities in the realm and have only the Zoroastrian sacred fire as the focus of devotion, Kartir had ordered several Buddhist monasteries destroyed, especially in Bactria. This was because the statues and wall paintings of Buddha in them incorporated many Zoroastrian elements. For example, Buddhas were often depicted encircled with a halo of flames and an accompanying inscription or graffiti scrawl labeling them as “Buddha-Mazda.” Bactrian Buddhism, then, would have appeared to the high priest as a Zoroastrian heresy. Buddhism revived, however, after Kartir’s persecution.

Zurvanism

Zurvanism was a Zoroastrian sect sometimes favored by certain Sassanid emperors and at other times denounced by more orthodox rulers as a heresy to be eradicated. Although pockets of Zurvanism were found throughout the Sassanid Empire, including even Zoroaster’s birthplace, Balkh, the main area toward which the Zurvanites gravitated was Sogdia. This was perhaps due to its remoteness.

Sogdian Zurvanites were the Zoroastrian group most intolerant toward other religions – far more hostile than their fellow Zurvanites in Bactria. Their aggressive attitude was perhaps due to defensiveness that arose from having been objects of prejudice in Iran, combined with self-confidence that the concentration of their numbers in Sogdia provided. Their prejudice had caused many Buddhist, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian Sogdians to leave their homeland and settle as merchants further east along the Silk Route in the city-states of the Tarim Basin, particularly Turfan. As the Tokharians of Turfan were likewise an immigrant community that had come from the West, the Sogdian refugees probably received a sympathetic reception from them.

White Hun Rule and Its Aftermath in Sogdia

The White Huns who took over Sogdia from the Sassanids were, for the most part, staunch supporters of Buddhism. They ruled not only the former Sassanid holdings of Central Asia, but also parts of northern India, Kashmir and Khotan. As already noted, Faxian reported Buddhism strong in Sogdia when he visited at the beginning of the fifth century. The majority of the people there, however, were still Zurvanites, who probably did not appreciate the Buddhist revival.

In 515, the White Hun king, Mihirakula, instituted a brief, but devastating persecution of Buddhism. His troops are purported to have destroyed fourteen hundred monasteries. The worst damage was in the Gandhari plains, Kashmir, and northwestern India, the centers of his power. Mihirakula did not implement his policy in the more remote areas of his empire, such as Swat. However, it undoubtedly affected some of them to a certain degree. The monasteries of Samarkand, for example, were not destroyed, but were completely emptied of monks.

The local Zurvanites’ antipathy toward Buddhism undoubtedly prevented the reopening of these Sogdian monasteries. Their paranoia was perhaps fanned even more strongly by the stringent reassertion of orthodox Zoroastrianism in Iran and the persecution of heretical sects carried out shortly afterward by the Sassanid emperor, Khosrau I (r. 531 – 578). Thus, the Western Turks found Buddhism weak in Sogdia in 560, and Xuanzang reported in 630 that the monasteries of Samarkand were still closed and the local “Zoroastrian” community was hostile toward Buddhism.

In Iran itself, Xuanzang reported three Buddhist monasteries left in former Parthia in the northeast of the country. According to the eleventh century Muslim historian, al-Biruni, there had previously been a large number all the way to the borders of Syria. The Sassanids had apparently destroyed the rest.

Bactria

Xuanzang found Buddhism thriving in Bactria, especially at Nava Vihara Monastery at Balkh. Although Balkh was the holiest city of Zoroastrianism and the majority of the inhabitants were followers of that faith, including its Zurvanite sect, they were nevertheless tolerant of Buddhism. Perhaps because they had far less Zurvanite refugees from Iran than did Sogdia, they were less defensive of their religion. Living at the spiritual center of the Zoroastrian world, they apparently did not feel threatened by the presence of a Buddhist monastic institute of learning. This atmosphere, plus the fact that the high standard of education and scholarship at Nava Vihara attracted support and applicants for study from Buddhist communities throughout Central Asia, guaranteed its continuing survival and flourishing despite any damage it might have received during Mihirakula’s brief persecution.

Gandhara

Although the first Arabs in Central Asia were unable to reach Gandhara, let us for the sake of completeness analyze the state of Buddhism there as well. Xuanzang reported the Gandhari monasteries to be functioning, but at a very low spiritual level. The Kabul region and the Punjabi plains of Gandhara would have received the brunt of the damage from Mihirakula’s forces. The Buddhists there, especially in Gandhara, lived in a largely Hindu environment that emphasized devotional practice, and which accepted Buddha as a Hindu god. With no great centers of learning, it is no wonder that although the monasteries stayed open, they were focused on the devotional needs of pilgrims and not on the study of Buddhism. In short, the monasteries of Gandhara never fully recovered from Mihirakula’s destruction.

Summary

With this as the background, we could predict that neither the Zurvanite majority nor the Buddhist minority in Sogdia would have been initially receptive to Islam. The Zurvanites had experienced being a small sect despised by the powerful orthodox Zoroastrians in Iran, and the Buddhists of Sogdia had a similar experience at the hands of the Zurvanites. Thus, most of them had no difficulty in accepting what came to them with Arab rule, namely protected (Arab. dhimmi) status as second-class, non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state. Adapting the Sassanid custom in Iran, the Arabs required each adult male to pay a graduated poll tax (Arab. jizya) to maintain his religion. In Bactria, both the Zoroastrians and Buddhists were strong and self-confident in their beliefs. They would continue them as well, despite the cost.