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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > Historical Sketch of Buddhism and Islam in Afghanistan

Historical Sketch of Buddhism and Islam in Afghanistan

Alexander Berzin
November 2001, revised December 2006

Geography

Various schools of Hinayana Buddhism were present in Afghanistan from the earliest times, along the kingdoms that lay on the trade route to Central Asia. The main kingdoms were Gandhara and Bactria. Gandhara included the areas on both the Pakistani Punjab and Afghani sides of the Khyber Pass. Eventually, the Afghani half, from the Khyber Pass to the Kabul Valley, received the name Nagarahara; while the Punjabi side retained the name Gandhara. Bactria extended from the Kabul Valley northwards and included southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. To its north, in central Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan lay Sogdia. The southern part of Bactria, just north of the Kabul Valley, was Kapisha; while the northern part later received the name Tocharistan.

Early Establishment of Buddhism

According to early Hinayana biographies of the Buddha, such as the Sarvastivada text The Sutra of Extensive Play (Skt. Lalitavistara Sutra), Tapas­su and Bhallika, two merchant broth­ers from Bac­tria, became the first disciples to receive layman’s vows. This occurred eight weeks after Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, traditionally ascribed to 537 BCE. Bhallika later became a monk and built a monas­tery near his home city, Balkh, near present-day Mazar-i-Sharif. He brought with him eight hairs of the Buddha as relics, for which he built a stupa monument. At about this time, Bactria became part of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran.

In 349 BCE, several years after the Second Buddhist Coun­cil, the Mahasanghika tradition of Hinayana split off from the Theravada. Many Mahasanghikas moved to Gandhara. At Hadda, the main city on the Afghan side, near present-day Jalalabad, they eventually founded Nagara Vihara Monastery, bringing with them a skull relic of the Buddha.

A Theravada elder, Sambhuta Sanavasi, soon followed and tried to establish his trad­ition in Kapisha. He was unsuc­cessful, and Maha­sanghika took root as the main Buddhist tradition of Afghanistan.

Eventually, the Mahasanghikas split into five sub-schools. The main one in Afganistan was Lokottaravada, which later established itself in the Bamiyan Valley in the Hindu Kush Mountains. There, some time between the third and fifth centuries CE, its followers built the world’s largest standing Buddha statue, in keeping with their assertion of Buddha as a transcendent, superhuman figure. The Taliban destroyed the colossus in 2001 CE.

In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered most of the Achaemenid Em­pire, including Bactria and Gandhara. He was tolerant of the religious traditions of these regions and seemed in­terested primarily in military conquest. His successors established the Seleucid Dynasty. In 317 BCE, however, the Indian Mauryan Dynasty took Gandhara from the Seleucids and thus the area was only superficially Hellenized during this short period.

The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (ruled 273 – 232 BCE) favored Theravada Buddhism. In the later part of his reign, he sent a Theravadan mission to Gandhara, led by Maharakkhita. As far south as Kandahar, the mission erected “Ashoka pillars” with edicts based on Buddhist principles. Through these missions, Theravada established a minor presence in Afghanistan.

The Sarvastivada School and the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom

Toward the end of Ashoka’s rule, after the Third Buddhist Council, the Sarvastivada School of Hinayana also broke away from the Theravada. After Ashoka’s death, his son Jaloka introduced Sarvastivada to Kashmir.

In 239 BCE, the local Greek nobility of Bactria rebelled against Seleucid rule and gained independence. In the years that followed, they conquered Sogdia and Kashmir, thus establishing the Graeco-Bac­trian king­dom. Kashmiri monks soon spread the Sarvastivada School of Hinayana to Bactria.

In 197 BCE, the Graeco-Bactrians conquered Gandhara from the Mauryans. Subsequently, Sarvastivada came to the southeastern part of Afghanistan as well. From the strong interaction between Greek and Indian cultures that followed, Hellenistic styles strongly influenced Buddhist art, particularly its representation of the human form and the drape of robes.

Although Theravada was never strong in the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, one of its kings, Menan­dros (Pal­i: Mil­in­da, ruled 155 – 130 BCE), was a follower of Theravada due to the influence of the visiting Indian monk Nagasena. The king put many questions to this Indian master and their dialogue became known as The Questions of Milinda (Pali: Mi­linda­pan­ho). Shor­tly afterwards, the Graeco-Bactrian state established relations with Sri Lanka and sent a delegation of monks to the consecration ceremony of the great stupa built there by King Dutthagamani (ruled 101 – 77 BCE). From the cultu­ral contact that ensued, Graeco-Bactrian monks orally transmitted The Questions of Milinda to Sri Lanka. It later be­came an extra-can­on­ical text in the Thera­vada tra­di­tion.

The Kushan Period

Between 177 and 165 BCE, the westward expansion of the Han Empire of China into Gansu and East Turkistan (Chin. Xinjiang) drove many of the native Central Asian nomadic tribes further west. One of these tribes, the Xiongnu, attacked another, the Yuezhi (Wades-Giles: Yüeh-chih), and assimilated a large part of them. The Yuezhi were a Caucasian people who spoke an ancient western Indo-European language and represented the easternmost migration of the Caucasian race. According to some sources, one of the five aristocratic tribes of the Yuezhi, known in Greek sources as the Tocharians, migrated to present-day eastern Kazakhstan, driving south the local nomadic Shakas (Old Iranian: Saka), known to the Greeks as the Scythians. Both the Tocharians and Shakas, however, spoke Iranian languages. Due to this difference in languages, it is disputed whether or not these Tocharians were related to the descendents of the Yuezhi, also known as "Tocharians", who established thriving civilizations in Kucha and Turfan in East Turkistan in the second century CE. It is clear, however, that the Shakas were unrelated to the Shakya clan of central north India into which Shakyamuni Buddha was born.

The Shakas first conquered Sogdia from the Graeco-Bactrians and then, in 139 BCE, during the reign of King Menandros, took Bactria as well. There, the Shakas turned to Buddhism. By 100 BCE, the Tocharians conquored Sogdia and Bactria from the Shakas. Set­tling in these areas, they also assi­milated Bud­dhism. This was the start of the Kushan Dyna­sty, which eventually extended to Kashmir, northern Pakistan, and northwestern India.

The most famous Kushan king was Kanishka (ruled 78 – 102 CE), whose western capital was at Kapisha. He supported the Sarvas­tivada School of Hinayana. Its Vaibhashika subdivision was especially pro­minent in Tocharis­tan. The Tocharian monk Ghoshaka was one of the com­pilers of the Vaibha­shika commentaries on abhidharma (special topics of knowledge) ac­cepted at the Fourth Buddhist Coun­cil held by Kanishka. When Ghoshaka returned to Tocharistan after the council, he founded the Western Vaibhashika (Balhika) School. Nava Vihara, the main monastery at Balkh, soon became the center of higher Buddhist study for all of Central Asia, comparable to Nalanda Monastery in central northern India. It emphasized study primarily of the Vaibhashika abhidharma and admitted only monks who had already composed texts on the topic. Since it housed a tooth relic of the Buddha, it was also one of the main centers of pilgrimage along the Silk Route from China to India.

Balkh had been the birthplace of Zoroaster in about 600 BCE. It was the holy city of Zoroastrianism, the Iranian religion that grew from his teachings and which emphasized the veneration of fire. Kanishka followed the Graeco-Bactrian policy of religious tolerance. Thus, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism peacefully coexisted in Balkh, where they influenced each other’s development. Cave monasteries from this period, for example, had wall paintings of Buddhas with auras of flames and in­scrip­tions calling them “Buddha-Mazda.” This was an amal­gam of Buddha and Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Zoroastrianism.

In 226 CE, the Persian Sassanid Empire overthrew Kushan rule in Afghanistan. Although strong sup­por­ters of Zoroastrianism, the Sassanids tolerated Buddhism and allowed the construction of more Buddhist monasteries. It was during their rule that the Lokot­taravada followers erected the two colossal Buddha statues at Bamiyan.

The only exception to Sassanid tolerance was during the second half of the third century, when the Zoroastrian high priest Kartir dominated the religious policy of the state. He ordered the destruction of several Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan, since the amalgam of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism appeared to him as heresy. Buddhism quickly recovered, however, after his death.

The White Huns and Turki Shahis

At the beginning of the fifth century, the White Huns – known to the Greeks as the Heph­thalites and to the In­dians as the Turu­shkas – took most of the former Kushan territories from the Sassanids, including Afghanistan. At first, the White Huns followed their own religi­on, which resembled Zoroastrianism. Soon, however, they became strong sup­por­ters of Bud­dhism. The Han Chinese pilgrim Faxian (Fa-hsien) traveled through their territory between 399 and 414 CE and reported the flourishing of several Hinayana schools.

The Turki Shahis were a Turkic people descended from the Kushans. After the fall of the Kushan Dynasty to the Sassanids, they took over parts of the former empire that lay in northwestern and northern India. They ruled them until the founding of the Indian Gupta Dyna­sty in the early fourth century, and then fled to Nagarahara. They conquered portions of it from the White Huns and, by the mid-fifth century, extended their rule to the Kabul Valley and Kapisha. Like the Kushans and White Huns before them, the Turki Shahis supported Buddhism in Afghanistan.

In 515, the White Hun king Mihirakula, under the influence of jealous non-Buddhist factions in his court, suppressed Bud­dhism. He destroyed monas­teries and killed many monks throughout northwestern In­dia, Gandhara, and espe­cially in Kash­mir. The persecution was less severe in the portions of Nagarahara that he controlled. His son reversed this policy and built new monaster­ies in all these areas.

The Western Turks

Coming from northern West Turkistan, the Western Turks took over the western portion of the Central Asian Silk Route in 560. Slowly, they expanded into Bactria, driving the Turki Shahis further east in Nagarahara. Many Western Turk leaders adopted Buddhism from the local people and, in 590, they built a new Buddhist monastery in Kapisha. In 622, the Western Turk ruler Tongshihu Qaghan formally adopted Buddhism under the guidance of Prabhakaramitra, a visiting northern Indian monk.

The Han Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) visited the Western Turks in approximately 630 on his way to India. He reported that Buddhism was flourishing in the Bactrian portion of their empire, especially at Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh. He cited the monastic university not only for its scholarship, but also for its beautiful Buddha statues, draped with silk robes and adorned with jewel ornaments, in accordance with local Zoroastrian custom. The monastery had close links at the time with Khotan, a strongly Buddhist kingdom in East Turkistan, and sent many monks there to teach. Xuanzang also described a monastery near Nava Vihara dedicated to advanced Hinayana meditation practice of vipashyana (Pali: vipassana) – the exceptional perception of impermanence and of a person’s lack of independent identity.

Xuanzang found Buddhism in a much worse condition in Nagarahara, under the Turki Shahis. As in the Punjabi side of Gandhara, the area seemed not to have fully recovered from the persecution by King Mihirakula more than a century earlier. Although Nagara Vihara, with its skull relic of the Buddha, was one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist world, he reported that its monks had become degenerate. They were charging pilgrims a gold coin each to view the relic and there were no centers of study in the entire region.

Moreover, although Mahayana had made advances into Afghanistan from Kashmir and Punjabi Gandhara during the fifth and sixth centuries, Xuanzang noted its presence only in Kapisha and in the Hindu Kush regions west of Nagarahara. Sarvasti­vada remained the predominant Buddhist tradition of Nagara­hara and northern Bactria.

The Umayyad Period and the Introduction of Islam

Five years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in 637, the Arabs defeated the Persian Sassanids and founded the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. It ruled over Iran and much of the Middle East. In 663, they attacked Bactria, which the Turki Shahis had taken from the Western Turks by this time. The Umayyad forces captured the area around Balkh, including Nava Vihara Monastery, causing the Turki Shahis to retreat to the Kabul Valley.

The Arabs allowed followers of non-Muslim religions in the lands they conquered to keep their faiths if they submitted peacefully and paid a poll tax (Ar. jizya). Although some Buddhists in Bactria and even an abbot of Nava Vihara converted to Islam, most Buddhists in the region accepted this dhimmi status as loyal non-Muslim protected subjects within an Islamic state. Nava Vihara remained open and functioning. The Han Chinese pilgrim Yijing (I-ching) visited Nava Vihara in the 680s and reported it flourishing as a Sarvastivada center of study.

An Umayyad Iranian author, al-Kermani, wrote a detailed account of Nava Vihara at the beginning of the eighth century, preserved in the tenth-century work Book of Lands (Ar. Kitab al-Buldan) by al-Hamadhani. He described it in terms readily understandable to Muslims by drawing the analogy with the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site of Islam. He explained that the main temple had a stone cube in the center, draped with cloth, and that devotees circumambulated it and made prostration, as is the case with the Kaaba. The stone cube referred to the platform on which a stupa stood, as was the custom in Bactrian temples. The cloth that draped it was in accordance with the Iranian custom for showing veneration, applied equally to Buddha statues as well as to stupas. Al-Kermani’s description indicates an open and respectful attitude by the Umayyad Arabs in trying to understand the non-Muslim religions, such as Buddhism, that they encountered in their newly conquered territories.

The Tibetan Alliance

In 680, Husayn had led an unsuccessful rebellion in Iraq against the Umayyads. This conflict had diverted the focus of the Arab’s attention away from Central Asia and had weakened their control there. Taking advantage of the situation, the Tibetans formed an alliance with the Turki Shahis in 705 and, together, they tried unsuccessfully to drive the Umayyad forces from Bactria. The Tibetans had learned of Buddhism from China and Nepal about sixty years earlier, although at this time they did not yet have any monasteries. In 708, the Turki Shahi prince Nazaktar Khan succeeded in expelling the Umayyads and established a fanatic Buddhist rule in Bactria. He even beheaded the former abbot of Nava Vihara who had converted to Islam.

In 715, the Arab general Qutaiba retook Bactria from the Turki Shahis and their Tibetan allies. He inflicted heavy damage on Nava Vihara as punishment for the previous insurrection. Many monks fled eastward to Khotan and Kashmir, stimulating the growth of Buddhism especially in the latter. Tibet now switched sides and, for political expediency, allied itself with the Umayyad forces they had just been fighting.

Nava Vihara quickly recovered and soon was functioning as before, indicating that the Muslims’ damaging of Buddhist monasteries in Bactria was not a religiously motivated act. Had it been, they would not have allowed their rebuilding. The Umayyads were merely repeating the policy toward Buddhism that they had followed earlier that century when they conquered the Sindh regions of present-day southern Pakistan. They destroyed only select monasteries they suspected of harboring opposition to their takeover, but then allowed them to rebuild and the others to prosper. Their main agenda was economic exploitation and thus they exacted a poll-tax on the Buddhists and a pilgrim tax on visitors to holy shrines.

Despite the general trend of religious tolerance by previous Umayyad caliphs, Umar II (ruled 717 - 720) decreed that all Umayyad allies must adopt Islam. Their acceptance, however, must be voluntary, based on learning its principles. To appease their allies, the Tibetans sent an envoy to the Umayyad court in 717 to invite a Muslim teacher. The Caliph sent al-Hanafi. The fact that this teacher had no recorded success in gaining converts in Tibet demonstrates that the Umayyads were not insistent in their attempt to spread their religion. Furthermore, the cool reception al-Hanafi received was due primarily to the xenophobic atmosphere spread by the opposition faction at the Tibetan court.

During the subsequent decades, political and military alliances changed frequently as the Arabs, Chinese, Tibetans, Turki Shahis, and various other Turkic tribes fought over control of Central Asia. The Turki Shahis retook Kapisha from the Umayyads and, in 739, the Tibetans reestablished their alliance with them by a visit of the Tibetan emperor to Kabul to celebrate a marriage alliance between the Turki Shahis and Khotan. The Umayyads continued to rule northern Bactria.

The Early Abbasid Period

In 750, an Arab faction overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate and founded the Abbasid Dynasty. They maintained control over northern Bactria. Not only did the Abbasids continue the policy of granting dhimmi status to the Buddhists there, they took great interest in foreign culture, particularly that of India. In 762, Caliph al-Mansur (ruled 754 – 775) engaged Indian architects and engineers to design the new Abbasid capital, Baghdad. He took its name from the Sanskrit Bhaga-dada, meaning “Gift of God.” The Caliph also built a House of Knowledge (Ar. Bayt al-Hikmat), with a translation bureau. He invited scholars from various cultures and religions to translate texts into Arabic, particularly concerning logic and scientific topics.

The early Abbasid caliphs were patrons of the Mu’tazila School of Islam that sought to explain the principles of the Quran from the viewpoint of reason. The main focus was on ancient Greek learning, but attention was also paid to Sanskrit traditions. Not only scientific texts were translated, however, at the House of Knowledge. Buddhist scholars translated into Arabic a few Mahayana and Hinayana sutras dealing with devotional and ethical themes.

The next caliph, al-Mahdi (ruled 775 – 785), ordered the Abbasid forces in Sindh to attack Saurashtra to the southeast. In face of a rival claimant in Arabia who also had been declared Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, the invasion was part of the Caliph’s campaign to establish his prestige and supremacy as the leader of the Islamic world. The Abbasid army destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and Jain temples at Valabhi. As was the case with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh, however, they seemed to destroy only the centers suspected of harboring opposition to their rule. Even under Caliph al-Mahdi, the Abbasids left the Buddhist monasteries in the rest of their empire alone, preferring to exploit them as sources of revenue. Furthermore, al-Mahdi continued to expand the translation activities of the House of Knowledge in Baghdad. He was not intent on destroying Indian culture, but on learning from it.

Yahya ibn Barmak, the Muslim grandson of one of the Buddhist administrative heads (Skt. pramukha, Ar. barmak) of Nava Vihara Monastery, was the minister of the next Abbasid caliph, al-Rashid (ruled 786 – 808). Under his influence, the Caliph invited to Baghdad many more scholars and masters from India, especially Buddhists. A catalogue of both Muslim and non-Muslim texts prepared at this time, Kitab al-Fihrist, included a list of Buddhist works. Among them was an Arabic version of the account of Buddha’s previous lives, Book of Buddha (Ar. Kitab al-Budd).

Islam was gaining ground in Bactria at this time among the landowners and upper, educated urban classes by the appeal of its high level of culture and learning. To study Buddhism, one needed to enter a monastery. Nava Vihara, though still functioning during this period, was limited in its capacity and required extensive training before one could enter. Islamic high culture and study, on the other hand, was more readily accessible. Buddhism remained strong primarily among the poorer peasant classes in the countryside, mostly in the form of devotional practice at religious shrines.

Hinduism was also present throughout the region. Visiting in 753, the Han Chinese pilgrim Wukong (Wu-k’ung) reported both Hindu and Buddhist temples especially in the Kabul Valley. As Buddhism declined among the merchant classes, Hinduism also grew stronger.

Rebellions against the Abbasids

The early Abbasids were plagued by rebellions. Caliph al-Rashid died in 808 on his way to put down one in Samarkand, the capital of Sogdia. Before his death, he divided his empire between his two sons. Al-M'amun, who had accompanied his father on the campaign in Sogdia, received the eastern half, including Bactria. Al-Amin, the more powerful of the two, received the more prestigious western half, including Baghdad and Mecca.

To gain popular support to take over al-Amin’s half of the Abbasid Empire, al-Ma'mun distributed land and wealth in Sogdia. He then attacked his brother. During the internecine war that ensued, the Turki Shahis of Kabul, together with their Tibetan allies, joined forces with the anti-Abbasid rebels in Sogdia and Bactria to take advantage of the situation and try to overthrow the Abbasid rule. Al-Ma'mun’s minister and general, al-Fadl, encouraged his ruler to declare a jihad, a holy war against this alliance in order to enhance even further the Caliph’s prestige. Only rulers that uphold the pure faith may declare a jihad to defend against those who commit aggression against Islam.

After vanquishing his brother, al-Ma'mun declared this jihad. In 815, he defeated the Turki Shahi ruler, known as the Kabul Shah, and forced him to convert to Islam. What most offended Muslim beliefs was idol-worship. The pagan Arabian cults that preceded Muhammad worshipped idols and kept statues of them in Mecca at the Kaaba shrine. In establishing Islam, the Prophet destroyed them all. Therefore, as a token of submission, al-Ma'mun made the Shah send a golden Buddha statue to Mecca. Undoubtedly for propaganda purposes to secure his legitimacy, al-Ma'mun kept the statue on public display at the Kaaba for two years, with the notice that Allah had led the King of Tibet to Islam. The Arabs were confusing the King of Tibet with his vassal, the Turki Shah of Kabul. ­In 817, the Abbasids melted down the Buddha statue to mint gold coins.

After their success against the Turki Shahis, the Abbasids attacked the Tibe­tan-controlled region of Gilgit in present-day northern Pakistan and, within a short time, annexed it as well. They sent a captured Tibetan commander in humiliation back to Baghdad.

The Tahirid, Saffarid, and Hindu Shahi Dynasties

At about this time, local military leaders in various parts of the Abbasid Empire began to establish autonomous Islamic states with only nominal allegiance to the caliph in Baghdad. The first region to declare its autonomy was northern Bactria, where General Tahir founded the Tahirid Dynasty in 819.

As the Abbasids withdrew from Kabul and Gilgit, turning their attention to these more pressing matters, the Tibetans and Turki Shahis regained their former holdings. Despite the forced conversions of the leaders of these lands, the Abbasids had not persecuted Buddhism there. In fact, the Arabs maintained trade with the Tibetans throughout this period.

The next Islamic general to declare autonomy under the Abbasids was al-Saffar. In 861, his successor established the Saffarid Dynasty in southeastern Iran. After gaining control of the rest of Iran, the Saffarids invaded the Kabul Valley in 870. In the face of imminent defeat, the last of the Buddhist Turki Shahi rulers was overthrown by his brahman minister, Kallar. Abandoning Kabul and Nagarahara to the Saffarids, Kallar established the Hindu Shahi Dynasty in Punjabi Gandhara.

The Saffarids were especially vindictive conquerors. They plundered the Buddhist monasteries of the Kabul Valley and Bamiyan, and sent statues of “Buddha-idols” from them as war trophies to the caliph. This harsh military occupation was the first serious blow against Buddhism in the Kabul area. The previous defeat and conversion to Islam of the Kabul Shah in 815 had had only minor repercussions on the general state of Buddhism in the region.

The Saffarids continued their campaign of conquest and destruction northward, capturing Bactria from the Tahirids in 873. In 879, however, the Hindu Shahis retook Kabul and Nagarahara. They continued their policy of patronizing both Hinduism and Buddhism among their people, and the Buddhist monasteries of Kabul soon regained their past richness.

The Samanid, Ghaznavid, and Seljuk Dynasties

Ismail bin Ahmad, the Persian governor of Sogdia, declared autonomy next and founded the Samanid Dynasty in 892. He conquered Bactria from the Saffarids in 903. The Samanids promoted a return to traditional Iranian culture, but remained tolerant of Buddhism. During the reign of Nasr II (ruled 913 – 942), for example, carved Buddha images were still made and sold in the Samanid capital, Bukhara. They were not forbidden as “Buddha-idols.”

The Samanids enslaved the Turkic tribesmen in their realm and conscripted them in their armies. If the soldiers converted to Islam, they gave them nominal freedom. The Samanids, however, had difficulty maintaining control over these men. In 962, Alptigin, one such Turkic military chief who had adopted Islam, seized Ghazna (modern-day Ghazni), south of Kabul. There, in 976, his successor, Sabuktigin (ruled 976 – 997), founded the Ghaznavid Empire as a vassal of the Abbasids. Soon, he conquered the Kabul Valley from the Hindu Shahis, driving them back to Gandhara.

Buddhism had flourished in the Kabul Valley under Hindu Shahi rule. Asadi Tusi, in his Garshasp Name written in 1048, described the opulence of its main monastery, Subahar (Su Vihara), when the Ghaznavids overran Kabul. It does not appear as though the Ghaznavids destroyed it.

In 999, the next Ghaznavid ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni (ruled 998 – 1030) overthrew the Samanids, with the help of Turkic slave soldiers in the Samanid service. The Ghaznavid Empire now included Bactria and southern Sogdia. Mahmud Ghazni also conquered most of Iran. He continued the Samanid policy of promoting Persian culture and tolerating non-Muslim religions. Al-Biruni, a Persian scholar and writer in service to the Ghaznavid court, reported that, at the turn of the millennium, the Buddhist monasteries in Bactria, including Nava Vihara, were still functioning.

Mahmud of Ghazni was intolerant, however, of Islamic sects other than the orthodox Sunni one that he supported. His attacks on Multan in northern Sindh in 1005 and again in 1010 were campaigns against the state-supported Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, which the Samanids had also favored. The Ismaili Fatimid Dynasty (910 – 1171), centered in Egypt from 969, was the principal rival of the Sunni Abbasids for supremacy of the Islamic world. Mahmud was also intent on finishing the overthrow of the Hindu Shahis that his father had begun. Thus, he attacked and drove out the Hindu Shahis from Gandhara, and then proceeded from Gandhara to take Multan.

Over the next years, Mahmud expanded his empire by conquering the regions eastward as far as Agra in northern India. His looting and destruction of wealthy Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries on the way were part of his invasion tactic. As in most wars, the invading forces often cause as much destruction as possible in order to convince the local population to surrender, especially if they offer resistance. During his campaigns in the Indian subcontinent, Mahmud Ghazni left the Buddhist monasteries under his rule in Kabul and Bactria alone.

In 1040, the Seljuk Turk vassals of the Ghaznavids in Sogdia rebelled and established the Seljuk Dynasty. Soon, they wrested Bactria and most of Iran from the Ghaznavids, who withdrew to the Kabul Valley. Eventually, the Seljuk Empire extended to Baghdad, Turkey, and Palestine. The Seljuks were the infamous “infidels” against whom Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade in 1096.

The Seljuks were pragmatic in their rule. They established Islamic centers of study (madrasah) in Baghdad and Central Asia to educate a civil bureaucracy to administer the various portions of their empire. They tolerated the presence of non-Islamic religions in their realm, such as Buddhism. Thus, al-Shahrastani (1076 – 1153) published in Baghdad his Kitab al-Milal wa Nihal – a text in Arabic on non-Muslim religions and sects. It contained a simple explanation of the Buddhist tenets and repeated al-Biruni’s firsthand account of a century earlier that Indians accepted Buddha as a prophet.

The many Buddhist references in the Persian literature of the period also provide evidence of this Islamic-Buddhist cultural contact. Persian poetry, for example, often used the simile for palaces that they were “as beautiful as a Nowbahar (Nava Vihara).” Further, at Nava Vihara and Bamiyan, Buddha images, particularly of Maitreya, the future Buddha, had moon discs behind their heads. This led to the poetic depiction of pure beauty as someone having “the moon-shaped face of a Buddha.” Thus, eleventh-century Persian poems, such as Varqe and Golshah by Ayyuqi, use the word bot with a positive connotation for “Buddha,” not with its second, derogatory meaning as “ idol.” It implies the ideal of asexual beauty in both men and women. Such references indicate that either Buddhist monasteries and images were present in these Iranian cultural areas at least through the early Mongol period in the thirteenth century or, at minimum, that a strong Buddhist legacy remained for centuries among the Buddhist converts there to Islam.

The Qaraqitan and Ghurid Dynasties

In 1141, the Qaraqitans, a Mongol-speaking people ruling East Turkistan and northern West Turkistan, defeated the Seljuqs at Samarkand. Their ruler, Yelu Dashi, annexed Sogdia and Bactria into his empire. The Ghaznavids still controlled the area from the Kabul Valley eastward. The Qaraqitans followed a blend of Buddhism,  Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, and shamanism. Yelu Dashi, however, was extremely tolerant and protected all religions in his realm, including Islam.

In 1148, Ala-ud-Din of the nomadic Guzz Turks from the mountains of central Afghanistan conquered Bactria from the Qaraqitans and established the Ghurid Dynasty. In 1161, he went on to take Ghazna and Kabul from the Ghaznavids. He appointed his brother, Muhammad Ghori, governor of Ghazna in 1173 and encouraged him to raid the Indian subcontinent.

Like Mahmud Ghazni before him, Muhammad Ghori first took, in 1178, the Ismaili Multan kingdom in northern Sindh, which had regained independence from Ghaznavid rule. He then proceeded to conquer the entire Punjab region of Pakistan and north India and, after that, the Gangetic Plain, as far as present-day Bihar and West Bengal. During his campaign, he looted and destroyed many large Buddhist monasteries, including Vikramashila and Odantapuri in 1200. The local Sena king had turned them into military garrisons in an attempt to thwart the invasion.

The Ghurid leaders might have incited their troops to fervor in battle with religious indoctrination, much as any nation does with political or patriotic propaganda. Their main objective, however, as that of most conquerors, was to gain territory, wealth, and power. Thus, the Ghurids destroyed only the monasteries that lay in the direct line of their invasion. Nalanda Monastery and Bodh Gaya, for example, were situated off the main route. Thus, when the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa visited them in 1235, he found them damaged and looted, but still functioning with a small number of monks. Jagaddala Monastery in northern Bengal was untouched and flourishing.

Further, the Ghurids did not seek to conquer Kashmir and convert the Buddhists there to Islam. Kashmir was impoverished at the time, and the monasteries had little or no wealth to plunder. Moreover, since the Ghurids did not pay their generals or governors, or provide them supplies, they expected them to support themselves and their troops from local gains. If the governors forcefully converted everyone under their jurisdiction to Islam, they could not exploit large portions of the population for additional taxes. Thus, as in Afghanistan, the Ghurids continued the traditional custom of granting dhimmi status to non-Muslims in India and exacting the jizya poll tax.

The Mongol Period

In 1215, Chinggis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, conquered Afghanistan from the Ghurids. As was his policy elsewhere, Chinggis destroyed those who opposed his takeover and devastated their lands. It is unclear how the vestiges of Buddhism still left in Afghanistan fared at this time. Chinggis was tolerant of all religions, so long as its leaders prayed for his long life and military success. In 1219, for example, he summoned to Afghanistan a renowned Daoist master from China to perform ceremonies for his long life and to prepare for him the elixir of immortality.

After Chinggis’ death in 1227 and the division of his empire among his heirs, his son Chagatai inherited the rule of Sogdia and Afghanistan and established the Chagatai Khaganate. In 1258, Hulegu, a grandson of Chinggis, conquered Iran and overthrew the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. He established the Ilkhanate and soon invited to his court in northwestern Iran Buddhist monks from Tibet, Kashmir, and Ladakh. The Ilkhanate was more powerful than the Chagatai Khaganate and, at first, it dominated its cousins there. Since the Buddhist monks had to pass through Afghanistan on their way to Iran, they undoubtedly received official support on their way.

According to some scholars, the Tibetan monks who came to Iran were most likely from the Drigung (Drikung) Kagyu School and Hulegu’s reason for inviting them may have been political. In 1260, his cousin Khubilai (Kublai) Khan, the Mongol ruler of northern China, declared himself Grand Khan of all the Mongols. Khubilai supported the Sakya Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and gave its leaders nominal suzerainty over Tibet. Prior to this, the Drigung Kagyu leaders had been in political ascendance in Tibet. Khubilai’s main rival was another cousin, Khaidu, who ruled East Turkistan and supported the Drigung Kagyu line. Hulegu may have been wishing to align himself with Khaidu in this power struggle.

Some speculate that the reason for Khubilai and Khaidu’s turning to Tibetan Buddhism was to gain the supernatural backing of Mahakala, the Buddhist protector practiced by both the Sakya and Kagyu traditions. Mahakala had been the protector of the Tanguts, who had ruled the territory between Tibet and Mongolia. After all, their grandfather, Chinggis Khan, had been killed in battle by the Tanguts, who must have received supernatural help. It is unlikely that the Mongol leaders, including Hulegu, chose Tibetan Buddhism because of its deep philosophical teachings.

After the death of Hulegu in 1266, the Chagatai Khaganate became more indepen­dent of the Ilkhans and formed a direct alliance with Khaidu in his struggle against Khubilai Khan. Meanwhile, the line of Hulegu’s successors alternated in their support of Tibetan Buddhism and Islam, apparently also for political expediency. Hulegu’s son Abagha continued his father’s support of Tibetan Buddhism. Abagha’s brother Takudar, however, who succeeded him in 1282, converted to Islam to help gain local support when he invaded and conquered Egypt. Abagha’s son Arghun defeated his uncle and became Ilkhan in 1284. He made Buddhism the state religion of Iran and founded several monasteries there. When Arghun died in 1291, his brother Gaihatu became the Ilkhan. Tibetan monks had given Gaihatu the Tibetan name Rinchen Dorje, but he was a degenerate drunkard and hardly a credit to the Buddhist faith. He introduced paper money to Iran from China, which caused economic disaster.

Gaihatu died in 1295, one year after the death of Khubilai Khan. Arghun’s son Ghazan succeeded to the throne. He reinstated Islam as the official religion of the Ilkhanate and des­troyed the new Buddhist monasteries there. Some scholars assert that Ghazan Khan’s reversal of his father’s religious policy was to distance himself from his uncle’s reforms and beliefs, and to assert his independence from Mongol China.

Despite ordering the destruction of Buddhist monasteries, it seems that the Ghazan Khan did not wish to destroy everything associated with Buddhism. For example, he commissioned Rashid al-Din to write Universal History (Ar. Jami’ al-Tawarikh), with versions both in Persian and Arabic. In its section on the history of the cultures of the people conquered by the Mongols, Rashid al-Din included The Life and Teachings of Buddha. To assist the historian in his research, Ghazan Khan invited to his court Bakshi Kamalashri, a Buddhist monk from Kashmir. Like the earlier work by al-Kermani, Rashid’s work presented Buddhism in terms that Muslims could easily understand, such as calling Buddha a Prophet, the deva gods as angels, and Mara as the Devil.

Rashid al-Din reported that in his day, eleven Buddhist texts in Arabic translation were circulating in Iran. These included Mahayana texts such as The Sutra on the Array of the Pure Land of Bliss (Skt. Sukhavativyuha Sutra, concerning Amitabha’s Pure Land), The Sutra on the Array Like a Woven Basket (Skt. Karandavyuha Sutra, concerning Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion) and An Exposition on Maitreya (Skt. Maitreyavyakarana, concerning Maitreya, the future Buddha and embodiment of love). These texts were undoubtedly among those translated under the patronage of the Abbasid caliphs at the House of Knowledge in Baghdad starting in the eighth century.

Rashid al-Din finished his history in 1305, during the reign of Ghazan’s successor Oljaitu. It seems that Buddhist monks were still present in Iran, however, at least until Oljaitu’s death in 1316, since monks unsuccessfully tried to win the Mongol ruler back to Buddhism. Thus, at least up until then, Buddhist monks still passed back and forth through Afghanistan and thus might still have been welcomed at the Chagatai court.

In 1321, the Chagatai Empire split into two. The Western Chagatai Khaganate included Sogdia and Af­ghanistan. From the start, its khans converted to Islam. The Ilkhanate in Iran fragmented and fell apart in 1336. After this, there is no indication of the continuing presence of Buddhism in Afghanistan. It had lasted there nearly nineteen hundred years. Nevertheless, knowledge of Buddhism did not die out. Timur (Tamerlaine) conquered the Western Chagatai Khaganate in 1364 and the small successor states of the Ilkhanate in 1385. Timur’s son and successor, Shah Rukh, commissioned the historian, Hafiz-i Abru, to write in Persian A Collection of Histories (Ar. Majma’ al-Tawarikh). Completed in 1425 in Shahrukh’s capital, Herat, Afghanistan, the history contained an account of Buddhism modeled after Rashid al-Din’s work a century earlier.

[For a more detailed discussion, see: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire.]