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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 III: The Spread of Islam among and by the Turkic Peoples (840 – 1206 CE)

15 The Qarakhanid Campaign against Khotan

Khotanese Missions to Han China

Khotan, lying to the east of the Qarakhanid stronghold in Kashgar, was a wealthy Buddhist state. Its mines were the main source of jade for all the lands along the Silk Route, especially Han China. Occasionally, its kings had even visited Han China, for instance in 755 to offer military aid in quelling the An Lushan rebellion. However, since the Tibetan reassertion of its rule over Khotan in 790, all contact between the Khotanese and Han Chinese courts had ended. The Khotanese had not sought to reestablish this contact even when they regained independence in 851. The trade route across the southern rim of the Tarim Basin had fallen into disuse for almost a century and a half, and the Tibetan tribes settled along it often raided Khotan.

In 938, however, shortly after Satuq Bughra Khan’s usurpation of the Qarakhanid throne, the Khotanese king sent a tribute and trade mission to Han China via this southern Tarim route. Despite Han China’s weakness in being split into several kingdoms during the prevailing Five Dynasties Period (907 – 960), Khotan felt the pressing need to reestablish relations. The king was motivated to take this step undoubtedly because of feeling threatened by the political unrest to the west in Kashgar.

[ View Map Twenty-six: Central Asia at the Time of the Qarakhanid Invasion of Khotan, Approximately 1000 CE.]

Although Khotan had not been trading directly with Han China during the previous century and a half, it still engaged in a considerable amount of commercial activity with other regions. All trade routes from Khotan, however, either passed through Kashgar to go on to either West Turkistan or the northern Tarim Basin, or they passed through Yarkand on the way to Kashgar to cross the Karakorum Mountains to Kashmir and on to the plains of India. If Kashgar and its environs were politically unstable and unsafe for commercial traffic, it would be difficult for Khotan to survive economically. This was surely one of the primary reasons for initially reopening the southern Tarim branch of the Silk Route to Han China – to reestablish an alternative market for Khotanese jade and other goods.

As the Qarakhanids subsequently pursued an expansionist policy, the Khotanese undoubtedly felt territorially threatened as well. Thus, an additional reason for relations with Han China was the hope for a renewed military alliance as the two countries had frequently enjoyed in the past.

From their reopening of the southern Tarim trade route until 971, the Khotanese sent numerous missions to the Han Chinese courts with presents of jade and seeking protection for their territorial integrity. Aside from trade benefits, it does not appear that they ever received any military aid from their former allies, even after the reunification of Han China in 960 with the founding of the Northern Song Dynasty.

The Northern Song forces were preoccupied with almost constant warfare against the Tanguts to their immediate west. Although travel from Han China to Central Asia could skirt the conflict by passing through the southeastern corner of Tsongka and continuing northward to the Gansu Corridor, the Northern Song was too weak to divert attention from the Tangut conflict and implement direct military intervention in East Turkistan. The Khotanese would have to fend against any possible invasion without Han Chinese help.

The Position of Buddhism in Khotan

The Khotanese tribute and trade missions to Han China were mostly accompanied by Buddhist monks. This was the usual custom in Buddhist countries, since monks were frequently the most highly educated and literate members of society. States often engaged them for diplomatic purposes.

In general, Buddhist activity was very strong in Khotan at this time. The Khotanese king, Visha Shura (r. 967 – 977) sponsored a large number of translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into his language and sent many Buddhist teachers to the Qocho Uighurs. Although the Khotanese had begun to translate Buddhist texts into their language by the mid-sixth century, at about the same time as the Tokharians had begun to do likewise, the greatest efforts in such work were at this time.

The Declaration of a Holy War

According to an Islamic historical account, the natives of Kashgar, not being Turkic people, resisted conversion to the faith at the hands of the Qarakhanids. They were supported by their fellow Buddhists in Khotan, who helped them to temporarily overthrow Turkic Muslim rule in 971 while the Qarakhanid forces were concentrated in a campaign in Sogdia against the Samanids.

Four imams then sent Yusuf Qadr Khan, the brother of the Qarakhanid Qaghan, on a holy war to retake Kashgar. The Khan was not only successful, but pressed further eastward, adding Yarkand to the Qarakhanid Empire and converting its people to Islam. He then laid siege to Khotan for twenty-four years. Despite help the Khotanese received from their former rulers and fellow Buddhists, the Tibetans, the city-state fell in 1006.

Shortly afterward, the Khotanese staged an uprising against Islam and the four imams were martyred. However, Yusuf Qadr Khan returned from battle with the Ghaznavids and quashed the rebellion. Khotan was then absorbed into the Qarakhanid realm and converted once and for all to the Islamic faith.

Analysis of the Kashgari Uprising

This account immediately raises an important question. If the Buddhist natives of Kashgar resisted conversion to Islam at the hands of the Qarakhanids because they were not Turkic people, doesn’t this imply that the reason for their opposition was not their Buddhist religion, but rather their ethnic origin as Indo-Iranians? This account indirectly states that the Buddhist Qarakhanid Turks of Kashgar did not resist conversion. Therefore, it would seem that religion was not the main issue. The native Kashgaris were trying to overthrow Qarakhanid rule, not specifically the Islamic religion of their foreign conquerors.

Even if we accept that the Kashgari uprising was to a certain extent religiously motivated and that religious allegiance was a contributing factor in the Khotanese and Qarakhanid campaigns in East Turkistan, geopolitics and economics undoubtedly also played an important role. An overriding concern that always weighed strongly in the policy decisions of almost all Central Asian rulers was the wish to control or at least to profit from the lucrative Silk Route trade. The Khotanese move against Kashgar and the Qarakhanid counterstep against Khotan must also be evaluated within that context

Evaluation of Using the Model of a Holy War to Describe the Khotanese Action in Kashgar

The pious Islamic histories describe the events as if Khotan led a Buddhist equivalent of a jihad, a holy war against the Muslims of Kashgar to defend the practice there of the pure Buddhist faith. The Qarakhanids, faced with Buddhist oppression of Islam, justifiably responded, in turn, with a jihad of their own, against Khotan. This explanation, however, is not only unidimensional in that it discounts any motivating factors to events other than religion, but also seems to interpolate considerations relevant to an Islamic culture onto a Buddhist one to which they do not pertain.

[See: Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam: The Myth of Shambhala – Full Version.]

The only Buddhist scripture that speaks of religious war is the Kalachakra Tantra. In its millenarian vision of the future, this text predicts an apocalyptic battle in the twenty-fifth century CE when non-Indic forces will try to eliminate all possibility for spiritual practice. Victory over them will herald a new golden age, particularly for Buddhism. Although the text is interpreted as also calling for individual spiritual struggle within each person against the internal forces of darkness and ignorance, it has never been taken as a recommendation for external battle whenever a Buddhist society is threatened.

Even if one were to interpret the Kalachakra Tantra in this way, the non-Indic forces, led by Mahdi, would not have referred to Muslims in general. Although the textual description of the customs of these forces indicates an Islamic affiliation, such as the halal slaughter of cattle and circumcision, the list of their prophets includes eight teachers. Seven comprise the standard Ismaili Shia list, and the additional figure is Mani, indicating, perhaps, an association with the Manichaean and Manichaean Shiite converts to Ismaili Shia. The other Shia sects, as well as Sunni, assert a list of twenty-five prophets and their list does not include Mahdi, which the Ismaili list does.

From the point of view of Western scholarship, the historical references and at least a few other points in the Kalachakra Tantra in all likelihood were first formulated in the Kabul region of eastern Afghanistan and in Oddiyana during the second half of the tenth century. Both areas, at first, were under Hindu Shahi rule and then, in 976, Kabul was taken by the Ghaznavids. The inclusion of the Kabul region as a source of Kalachakra material is suggested by the fact that the symbolic universe (mandala) depicted in the Kalachakra Tantra echoes the Sassanid imperial motifs found in the frescoes of one of the temples of Subahar Monastery rebuilt in Kabul after the 879 Hindu Shahi defeat of the Saffarids. All three have a circle of representations of the planets and signs of the zodiac surrounding a central royal figure considered, as in the Sassanid palace at Taqdis, the “King of Space and Time (Zamin o Zaman).” “ Kalachakra” means literally “Circle of Time,” with “Circle” occasionally interpreted to mean the expanse of the universe.

In 968, the Ismaili kingdom of Multan (northern Sindh) became a vassal state of the Ismaili Fatimid Empire (910 – 1171 CE), founded in North Africa. In 969, the Fatimids conquered Egypt and, with their new capital near Cairo, soon extended their empire as far as western Iran. The messianic Ismaili Fatimids threatened a takeover of the Islamic world before the expected apocalypse and end of the world in the early twelfth century, five hundred years after the Prophet. Those within the Abbasid political sphere, including the Kabul area under the Ghaznavids, feared an invasion from the Fatimids and their allies.

Having been branded as heretics and threats to Abbasid rule, Manichaeans, Manichaean Shiites, and Manichaean converts to Ismaili Shia fled from the Abbasid Empire. It is reasonable to assume that many sought refuge in Multan. Since conversion to Ismaili Shia allowed for initial syncretism, these converts would have been allowed to add Mani to the Ismaili list of prophets. Thus, the Kalachakra warning of an invasion was most likely referring to the Ismailis of Multan, made heretical and even more menacing by the inclusion of Manichaean elements among their beliefs. Afghan Buddhist scholars would undoubtedly have met Manichaean Shiites from the Abbasid court while working in Baghdad in the late eighth century. As a legacy of that time, the Buddhists might have confused all Ismailis with Manichaean Shiite converts.

[See: The Kalachakra Presentation of the Prophets of the Non-Indic Invaders.]

In any case, the Kalachakra Tantra depicts the invaders as the enemies of all spiritual practice. This would include the pure practice of not only Buddhism and Hinduism, but also Islam, as the text calls for followers of all religions to put aside their differences and form a united front to oppose this threat. Under the Hindu Shahis, the Kabul Valley had a mixed population of Buddhists, Hindus, and both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Even if one were to take the Kalachakra Tantra as calling for external battle against all Muslims, not simply its fanatic messianic elements, it would be anachronistic to assert that the Khotanese were inspired by its teachings to declare a Buddhist jihad against the Qarakhanids in Kashgar. The earliest reference indicating the presence of Kalachakra teachings on the Indian subcontinent points to Kashmir at the end of the tenth or beginning of the eleventh century. A Hindu critique of the Kalachakra meditation system in the sixteenth chapter of the Kashmiri Shaivite tantra text Illuminating the Tantras (Skt. Tantraloka), written by the Kashmiri pandit Abhinavagupta. According to some scholars, Abhinavagupta wrote his text between 990 and 1014 and died in 1025. There is no indication, however, that the full Kalachakra system, including teachings about an invasion, was available in Kashmir at that time, or earlier, in 971, when Khotan sent military forces to support the Kashgari uprising. Even if this aspect of the Kalachakra teachings were present in Kashmir at that time, there is no indication that the Kalachakra Tantra ever reached Khotan, despite the geographic proximity of Kashmir and Khotan and the considerable cultural and economic exchange.

Therefore, as Buddhism lacks any custom or tradition of holy wars in the Islamic sense, it is more likely that Khotan was using the Kashgari uprising as a convenient occasion to launch an offensive to overthrow the Qarakhanids. This was in order to secure a more stable political environment for economic trade along the western sector of the Silk Route. Since the Khotanese had no problems with the Islamic market for their goods in West Turkistan, it is unlikely that they felt religiously threatened by Satuq Bughra Khan declaring Islam the state religion of Kashgar.

[See: Holy Wars in Buddhism and Islam: The Myth of Shambala – Full Version.]

Evaluation of the Qarakhanid Action as a Holy War

On the Qarakhanid side, the four imams certainly were historical figures – the tombs of these martyrs were venerated in Khotan even into the twentieth century. Moreover, they may well have called for a jihad, interpreting the Khotanese support of the native Kashgari uprising as a Buddhist holy war. However, it is unlikely that the four Islamic clerics had the power to initiate military missions on their own authority solely for religious causes.

The Qarakhanid qaghans and generals were strong military leaders themselves and, with a strong agenda of expanding their empire at the expense of both Muslim and non-Muslim states, they personally designed and directed their troops’ campaigns. They did not launch a holy war against all their Buddhist neighbors, for instance the Qocho Uighurs, but only Khotan. Let us therefore examine the situation of the nearby kingdoms in order to appreciate the regional considerations that might have shaped the Qaghan’s military decisions.