The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

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)

19 Twelfth-Century Developments in Central Asia

The Establishment of the Jurchen Empire

The Jurchen were a Tungusic Manchu people whose homeland was in northern Manchuria and the adjacent region of southeastern Siberia across the Amur River. They were for­est dwellers whom the Khitans conscripted for their ritual hunts. Buddhist influence reached them from both Northern Song China and Koryo Korea (918 – 1392). ­In 1019, they requested the Northern Song emperor for a copy of the newly printed Buddhist canon and, by 1105, Han Chi­nese monks were performing Buddhist ceremonies at the Jurchen court. The main source of Buddhism, however, was from the Khitans.  

In 1115, the Jurchens declared their Jin Dynasty (Chin) (1115 – 1234) and proceeded to expand their holdings into an empire. After de­feat­ing the Khitans in 1125, they conquered the rest of north­ern Han China during the next year. The Han Chinese capital was moved to the south, thus ending the Northern Song Dynasty and begin­ning the South­ern Song (1126 – 1279). The Jurchens ruled over Manchuria, southeastern Siberia, northern and central Han China, and Inner Mongolia. The Tanguts were to the northwest, while Mongolia itself broke up into many small tribal areas.

[ View Map Twenty-nine: Height of the Qaraqitan and Jurchen Empires, Second Half of the Twelfth Century.]

The Khitan form of Buddhism continued in the Inner Mongolian regions taken over by the Jurchens. In the later years of the Jin, Han Chinese forms took more precedence. This sequence was paral­leled in the development of the Jurchen written language. At first, the Jurchen adapted and modified the Khitan character script, but in later times used a mixture of Han Chinese charac­ters as well.

The early Jurchen empe­rors strongly patroni­zed Bud­dhism. They built many temples in their capi­tal, Beijing, and throughout their domain. By the middle of the twelfth century, there were more than thirty thousand monks in the Jin Empire, with monastics holding a higher position than court offi­cials. The Jurchen court replaced the Northern Song as the main source the Tanguts petitioned for sending them further Han Chinese Buddhist texts.

The Political and Religious Situation in the Tibetan Regions

After a brief civil war in Tsongka at the turn of the twelfth century, Tsongka relations with Northern Song China, their previous trading partner, soured. The Northern Song forces took advantage of the unsettled situation to attack. They captured, lost, and recaptured Tsongka several times, starting in 1102. This caused the former enemies, Tsongka and the Tanguts, not only to make peace, but also to form a military alliance in 1104 against Northern Song China. War continued until the Jurchens overthrew the Northern Song in 1126. The Han Chinese forces withdrew completely from Tsongka, which then became independent once more until conquered by the Jurchens in 1182. The Tanguts allied with the Jurchens and continued the fight against the Southern Song, which was paying annual tribute now to the Tanguts, Jurchen, and the Khitan successors, the Qaraqitans.

Meanwhile, in other Tibetan cultural areas, the focus of Buddhist activity shifted from western to central Tibet by the end of the eleventh century when the line of Ngari kings came to an end. During the first half of the twelfth century, Ngari was ruled by a line of non-Tibetan tribal people, the Khasas, who followed Buddhism to a much less degree. In the middle of the century, the Khasa king, Nagadeva, lost control of the area and, conquering western Nepal, reestablished his rule in that region. Thereafter, western Tibet split into several kingdoms, all of which continued the revival and support of Buddhism, but on a much lower scale than in the previous century.

Central Tibet at this time was also divided into many small, independent regions. They often centered around the new Buddhist monasteries, most of which were built like forts. Unified rule came to the area only in 1247 when central Tibet was reorganized under Mongol suzerainty. Despite the environment of political disunity, however, Buddhism in central Tibet reached new heights during the twelfth century. The Tibetans not only continued with their translation work, primarily from Sanskrit, but also began to compose a large corpus of commentarial literature. Each of the monasteries developed its own specialities and distinctive features. 

The Rise of Tibetan Cultural Influence on the Tanguts

Because of the Tangut’s shift of alliance from the Northern Song to Tsongka, the main influence on Tangut Buddhism in the twelfth century likewise shifted from Han China to Tibet. The Tanguts translated increasingly more texts from the Tibetan language and started to compose their own Buddhist literature, strongly modeled on the Tibetan commentaries. Many Tangut monks traveled to central Tibet to study. One of them, Minyag Gomring (Mi-nyag sGom-rings), became a disciple of Pagmo-drupa (Phag-mo gru-pa, 1110 – 1170), from whom many of the Kagyu sects are traced. In 1157, the Tangut monk founded the monastery that later became the center of the Drigung Kagyu (‘ Bri-gung bKa’-brgyud) tradition, Drigung-til (‘ Bri-gung mthil).

Another Tangut, the master translator Tsami Lotsawa (rTsa-mi Lo-tsa-ba), went on to northern India, also in the mid-twelfth century, became the abbot there of the monastery at Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya) and brought back from Kashmir one of the lineages of the Kalachakra Tantra. Teachers from both Kashmir and Tibet were invited back to Tangut where they became imperial tutors. The mutual exchange grew ever wider.

Despite their incessant military battles with Northern Song China, the Tanguts also continued adopting certain features from Han Chinese society as well – for example, in 1146, a Confucian-style educational system for training bureaucrats. This process of increasing Sinification, despite Tangut efforts to maintain their cultural integrity, was due to the influence of Emperor Renxiao’s (Jen-hsiao) (r. 1139 – 1193) mother, who was an ethnic Han Chinese.

Eventually, the Tanguts became one of the most highly cultured peoples of Central Asia. In 1170, for example, Emperor Renxiao promulgated an extensive legal code that covered both the civil and religious spheres. It divided Tangut Buddhist monasteries into ethnic divisions according to the origins of its monks – Tangut, Tibetan, Han Chinese, or mixed Tangut-Han blood. There was no mention of Uighur or Yellow Yugur monks, perhaps because of Qocho’s submission to the Qaraqitans in 1124. All monks, regardless of origin, were required to study the Tangut, Tibetan, Han Chinese, and Sanskrit languages and literature. In order to assume a monastic administrative post, they needed to pass an examination demonstrating their mastery specifically of several Buddhist texts in their Tibetan translation. This paralleled the civil law, adopted from Han China, requiring candidates for bureaucratic positions in the government to pass stringent examinations on the Confucian classics.

The Qaraqitan Takeover of the Qocho Uighurs and Qarakhanids

In 1124, with the Jurchens attacking from the south, the Khitan ruler, Yelu Dashi, lost control of Mongolia itself and fled with his troops to the Qocho Uighur summer capital at Beshbaliq. He was well received and entertained by the Khitans’ traditional, peaceful, subordinate vassals. Faced with Yelu Dashi’s ambition to carve out new territory for himself, the Uighurs voluntarily submitted themselves to the powerful Khitan refugee’s rule. He declared his dynasty the Qaraqitan or Western Liao (1124-1203) and appropriated control of Dzungaria. Perhaps the Qocho Uighurs submitted so readily because of their fear of the new alliance of Jurchens and Tanguts threatening to their east and sought Khitan protection as in the past.

In 1137, Yelu Dashi conquered the Qarakhanids, incorporating their lands in Kashgar, Khotan, Ferghana, and parts of northern West Turkistan into his empire. In 1141, he defeated the Seljuqs at Samarkand and extended his territory to Sogdia, Bactria, and Khwarazm. The Seljuq state in Iran crumbled with an internal revolt, after which Iran broke into several small states with a succession of many short dynasties until the Mongol conquest in 1220. The main stronghold left to the Seljuqs was Anatolia.

Yelu Dashi followed the traditional Khitan blend of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Tengrism, and shamanism. He was extremely tolerant and protected all religions in his realm, including Islam. Nestorian Christianity flourished with metropolitans in Samarkand and Kashgar, indicating that the various religions in Central Asia had basically coexisted in harmony up until then.

The Spread of Islam among Central Asian Turks by Sufi Masters

The Sufi movement in Islam, emphasizing personal experience of divine reality, arose during the second half of the ninth century through the teachings of Abu’l Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910) in Iraq and Abu Yazid Tayfur al-Bistami (d. 874) in Khorasan, northeastern Iran. Wandering masters started to spread it through Central Asia from the eleventh century, during the Qarakhanid, Ghaznavid, and Seljuk periods. Their Sufi techniques filled a spiritual need left by the suppression of the Shiite and Ismaili sects, particularly after the Seljuq conquest of Baghdad in 1055.

The key figure to bring Sufism to the Turkic nomadic tribes was Ahmad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali al-Yasavi (d. 1166). The popularity of the Yasaviyya order, traced from him, was due to his incorporation of traditional Turkic cultural and, specifically, shamanic elements into Islam. He wore Turkic dress, allowed the religious use of Turkic languages outside of the context of prayer, employed cattle sacrifice in certain rituals, and permitted women to participate in sessions to attain spiritual ecstasy.  The Sufi custom of building spiritual guesthouses (khanaqah) around religious masters, open to all travelers, and with not only individual spiritual seekers wandering from one to another, but even the entire community of such a house, including the master, wandering together on spiritual journeys for months on end, appealed greatly to the Turkic nomad tradition.

Through such means, Islam gained ever-increasing popularity among the Turkic masses. The rapid growth of Islam in Central Asia at this time, then, was not due to conversion by the sword, but by several great masters’ skillful adaptation of the religion to Turkic culture. This expansion of Islam did not occur at the expense of Buddhism and was not met with a hostile Buddhist reaction. In fact, it occurred primarily under a Buddhist rule, that of the Qaraqitans, and received their support.