The History of Interaction between Islam and Buddhism
Pre-Islamic Arabia to Medieval Central Asia
This century has been one of the most interesting centuries for religious studies. Christianity, once thought to be dying out during the modern industrial age and facing rival ideologies throughout the West, is now undergoing an enormous revival. Islam, a religion which had not had been given much attention in political studies during most of the 20th Century, is now making an incredible impact in political affairs throughout the world. Comparisons between the two religions are probably unavoidable, and indeed throughout the world a common theme in academia is the comparative study between Islam and Christianity. This is understandable of course, as the most common academic concentrations are in the West and the Middle East, and up until recently, with the exceptions of some fields of study such as anthropology or archeology, the Far East and Africa had been fairly obscure topics for study in the West and Middle East. What is unfortunate is not the fact that these two religions are being compared, rather unavoidable in my opinion, but rather that other religions are not being given as much attention. A notable example is Buddhism, the worlds fourth largest religion and one of the fastest growing religions in the West. Buddhist history is long and complex, and its history of interaction with Islam is equally rich of valuable information as that of Islams with Christianity, or even Judaism, a religion which, although very important, is studied disproportionately to its size, especially in comparison to much larger traditions which are generally neglected in academia as a whole. My aim, therefore, is to extract examples of the history of interaction between Islam and Buddhism (as well as Hinduism, Jainism, Manichaeism, and others) in Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and Persia in order to shine some light on some fascinating areas of research in comparative religion and history.
Unfortunately, with modern prejudices against Islam in much of the West, the Western media has been susceptible to sensationalism and demonization of Islam. This problem spread to the relationships of Islam with other religions, and Buddhism is no exception. The kind of attention given to terrible acts such as the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and monuments in Central Asia, and the killing of monks who refused to convert may give the impression that Islamic interaction with Buddhism has primarily been negative, especially considering the lack of "positive" reporting in much of the major western news outlets.
Historical precedence does, unfortunately, exist for this prejudice, and not only in Western sources. Many Buddhist and Islamic sources attribute the spread or defense of religion as the primary motivator behind historical events. Turkic, Mongol, Mughal, and other invasions were often lumped together as "Islamic" invasions by British historians in the 19th Century. Islamic histories present conflicts in a peaceful light, explaining that Buddhists converted to Islam willingly either because of a perceived superiority of Islam, or as a way to escape "Hindu oppression". Buddhist histories present similar events by describing the violence and conversions occurring because of aggressive Islamic action. Political and economic factors were not ascribed to these events as much as religious issues were .
Peoples of the Book and Unbelievers
The first interactions with Buddhism with Islam were often quite complicated and perhaps, confusing for the Arabs who invaded Central Asia in the 8th Century CE. The Quran mentions early Muslim conflicts with idol-worshippers and states that they were in a state of ignorance, prior to the revelation of the Quran from God. Jaahiliyyah (5:50, and others) , a term when used as an adjective has a negative connotation implying the person or thing being described is ignorant, polytheistic, or pagan, was used to describe the pre-Islamic Arabs. The Quran mentions Christianity and Judaism as corrupted forms of the same message God gives to the Muslims, and describes them as People of the Book or Ahl al-Kitaab, who are to be protected under Islamic law, or Shari a. Thus, Islam provided early Muslims with a guide as to how to perceive and interact with people in the Hedjaz and its vicinity.
Problems began to arise as Muslims expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula and into Persia and Central Asia. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Sassanid Persia, and despite its absence from the text of the Quran, the emerging Islamic empire took in the Zoroastrians as People of the Book and required them to pay jizya. Jizya is a tax on non-Muslims as prescribed in the Quran (9:29) for administering territories where Muslims governed. Zoroastrians were the first group not mentioned in the Quran that was accepted into Muslim society as a protected religion. One could speculate that this was due to the large numbers of Zoroastrians in Persia. Forcing the mass-conversion of an entire nation, which had recently been quite powerful with a large empire and extended historical and cultural tradition such as existed in Persia would have been difficult at best, and most likely would have caused many more problems than it would have solved. Taxing the population, allowing the practice of native religion, and installing Muslim leaders would have been much easier from an administrative point of view.
Yet Zoroastrians, as different from Muslims as they certainly were, were not explicit polytheists or non-theists, and so could be accepted much quicker than the groups Muslims would soon encounter. Islamic armies stormed past Persia into Central Asia and encountered major resistance from local states, many of whom were either Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Manichean, or shamanistic. As David Scott explains,
"The Qur'an, bedrock of Islam, showed awareness and some knowledge of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but nothing further east. Thus, although there was Qur'anic authority for treating Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism in a certain way as 'People of the Book', there was no such setting established for dealing with Buddhism, or indeed Hinduism for that matter. It came to be held that polytheists (mushrikun) were be given the choice of conversion, departure or death."
Initial contact likely produced theological tensions fairly quickly. From a strictly superficial religious perspective, Buddhism and Islam could hardly be more different. Islamic strict monotheism starkly contrasted with Buddhist non-theism (or in some traditions, forms of poly- or pan-theism). Not only this, but Buddhism could easily be perceived by Muslims as idolatry, as Buddhism used vivid and colorful paintings, statues, and figurines for religious purposes. It is not hard to imagine early Muslims comparing Buddhists with the ignorant idolaters of pre-Islamic Mecca. In fact, the similar use of language could indicate serious potential problems in official Islamic histories of pre-Islamic Arab religion, since the use of language describing Buddhism (and also Hinduism) are the same terms used to describe the pre-Islamic Arabs in Mecca, worshipping idols in the Kaaba. One can almost imagine Buddhists in Mecca in the time of Muhammad being described as ignorant and polytheistic idolaters . Obviously, the accuracy problems inherent in the use of these terms must be understood when reading official Islamic histories.
In fact, there is a long if somewhat obscured history of interaction between pre-Islamic Arabs and Buddhists and Hindus. Mecca, for instance, was a trade center where many eastern merchants came to deliver goods to the west. Interestingly enough, there is one Muslim writer, Rashid al-Din, who in the early 14th Century described the idol-worshippers at the Kaaba as Buddhists, who had statues of the Buddha within the holy house. As strange as this may sound, it is not historically-impossible, as Buddhist settlements had been found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region in areas near Lake Van, Alexandria, Syria, and near Baghdad, for example. Indian communities such as the Jat (or Zut, in Arabic) existed in Arabia, especially near Bahrain and near modern Basra. It is also said that the Prophet's wife, Aisha, was treated by a Jat doctor . Berzin refers to "Tarikh-i-Tabari", an Islamic history written in Baghdad by Al-Tabari in the 10th Century which describes Indians living in Arabia called the "Ahmaras" or "Red-Clad People" from Sindh. These people fit the description of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, who reportedly explained Buddhist philosophy to some Arab leaders in the first few years of the Islamic era. So some Arab leaders seemed to have some experience with Buddhism prior to the expansion of Islam beyond Arabia.
Its not impossible that Muhammad, being a merchant in Mecca, a major trading city in the Hedjaz during this time period, had some contact with Buddhists or Hindus. It is interesting to speculate whether the Buddhists in Arabia would have been described with the same terminology as Arabs who subscribed to idol-worship, or if indeed, they were described in the Quran as such. Buddhists may simply have been dismissed as pagans and kafir, or unbeliever/infidel, had they been encountered by early Muslims.
Buddhism by the 7th Century Islamic invasion existed throughout Central Asia, where the native Turkic populations lived. Buddhism was strongest in Bactria, Kashmir, and the Tarim Basin. Zoroastrians, Hindus, Nestorian Christians, Jews, Manicheans, and many others also inhabited the region at the eve of the Islamic arrivals. This kind of diversity had been encountered by Muslims elsewhere, but not on the scale found in 7th and 8th Century Central Asia.
It may be easy to make the assumption that early contact between Buddhists and Muslims was violent, with so many fundamental differences between the two peoples. Yet, although violent interactions took place, political and economic considerations were more important than religious conflicts. Trade along the Silk Road, social cohesion, spiritual practices, and government interactions occurred between Muslims and Buddhists on a large scale in Central Asia. Some military leaders of course, called holy wars upon the other side in order to gain support from the populace, however these were less common than the more typical peace that existed in the region. As Berzin in his unpublished manuscript mentions, "sane and responsible rulers far outnumbered fanatical leaders on both sides in shaping policies and events" . Indeed, conflict seemed to be the exception rather than the rule between Muslims and Buddhists.
In Central Asia, people who accepted Arab rule (those who resisted were killed or forced to convert) could remain in their original religion if they paid a poll tax called "jizya". Many converted peacefully and willingly, at least to avoid the poll tax or gain economic and social advantages from conversion to Islam. A notable fact is that the "dhimmi", or protected non-Muslim merchants, had to pay double duty on all their goods, a not-insignificant circumstance of double taxation.
In Sindh after the conquest by the Arab General bin Qasim in 711, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains had to pay an extra tax to visit their own holy shrines, the two largest of which had been demolished to place mosques in those locations. Although it seems like the Buddhists there (who had been the ruling class) had also taxed shrine visitations by Hindus and Jains as well in other regions such as Gandhara. Nevertheless, there was certainly a strong economic incentive to convert to Islam. Most Buddhists reportedly remained Buddhist and did not convert at that time, and instead paid the jizya tax. In general, the invading Arab armies did not destroy Buddhist or Hindu religious sites, and the few times it occurred seemed politically motivated, due to resistance from the locals. Thus we can safely assume that it was not policy of the Umayyad-s to eliminate any non-Islamic influence in the regions they conquered.
Persecutions were unusual but did occur occasionally in Arab-occupied territories in Central Asia. Prior to the invasion of Bactria, the Umayyad-s, although officially protecting their non-Muslim subjects, could not always remain in control of local abuses of power. Local Arab officials often persecuted non-Muslims, either by forcing them to wear special clothes, being beaten as they paid the jizya, or, possibly most damaging in the long-term, allowing the first convert in a non-Muslim family to be the sole inheritor from his family. Sometimes people were taken as slaves and only released if they converted to Islam, which happened most often with the taking of Turkish slaves, and would later result in the conversion of the Qarakhanid tribes to Islam. These processes in Iran likely contributed to the near disappearance of Zoroastrianism over the course of several centuries, and assumingly had similar results in Central Asia with Buddhists.
It must be noted, however, that although there were many incidents of local abuse of policy, in general the process of Islamization in Central Asia was peaceful and gradual. Many converts, although not particularly pious, had many children who grew up in a nominally Islamic environment. Over time, and over the course of several generations, the majority of the population became more Islamic, and as a result, Islam became slowly but surely more solidly entrenched.
Political considerations often overrode religious differences. The Tibetans, who had recently lost several important trade oases along the Silk Road in East Turkistan, allied with the Arabs in the hopes of regaining their lost territories. The Arabs did not, however, manage to advance to East Turkistan, as the leader of the army died in battle after the Arab conquest of Ferghana. The Umayyad caliph Umar II decreed shortly thereafter that all Arab allies must be Muslim. The Tibetans accepted Al-Hanafi, an imam from the Umayyad-s, as teacher in order to allow the Umayyads to attempt to teach the Tibetans the ways of Islam. Although he was unsuccessful, partially due to Tibetan xenophobia and political wariness of outsiders, the Tibetan acceptance of the emissary is indicative of peaceful and relatively voluntary cooperation between the Islamic Empire and a large Buddhist country. The Buddhist Tibetans were willing to put aside previous differences for political purposes, a theme which has been repeated constantly since.
During the Umayyad Period, Buddhists and Muslims, despite major differences in theology and conflicts of interest generally did not fight each other on the basis of religion. The primary problems during this time periods revolved around Arab expansionism and control of trade routes, not that of religion. Mass conversions did not occur for the most part, and non-Muslims were protected, albeit heavily taxed, under Umayyad governments. Arab concerns for political stability and financial gain far overweighed religious zeal with regards to governing new conquests.
The Abbasids and Increased Interaction
In the early 780s, during a time of major upheaval in the Islamic world, the Muslim rulers in Sindh under nominal control of the new Abbasid Caliphate invaded the state of Surashtra and razed the Buddhist monastery at Valabhi, and many other buildings, both Jain and Buddhist, throughout the town. The Jains wore white, as did other contemporary Abbasid enemies such as the Manichean Shia, the "heretical" Abu Muslim Musalemiyya movement in Persia, and the Oghuz Turks. The invaders killed nearly every person in the enormous temple complex. It is possible that the Abbasid invaders did not know whose temples they were destroying, considering the ease of confusion. This story is often given as an example of early Islamic hostility to other religions, yet the context is also not often explained . It is far too often that people jump to conclusions about situations whose contexts are not clearly delineated.
The Abbasids, however, were very fond of other cultures, especially Indian and Persian. Persian (some say Indian) architects and engineers built the new Abbasid capital for the Caliph al-Mansur in 762, and gave it the name "Gift of God", or "Baghdad" from Persian, which in turn came from the Sanskrit "Bhaga-dada. The Islamic interest in astronomy was sparked by the import of Indian texts from Sindh, then under Abbasid control. India's intellectual strength in the fields of science, mathematics, and medicine was inspirational to the caliph, who proceeded to open the door to science in the new dynasty. A later caliph's minister was a Muslim grandson to a Buddhist administrator at the Nava Vihara Monastery, and under this ruler many Buddhist scholars from India (as well as Hindu and Jain) were invited to Baghdad to create a large center for intellectual progress. In Baghdad, a large collection of literature on Buddhist thought emerged such as "Kitaab al-Budd", "Kitaab Belawar wa Budhasaf", and the large collection "Kitab al-Fihrist". The impact of Buddhist and other Eastern traditions on the Islamic Renaissance can not be understated. The movement of intellectual traditions and knowledge from East to West, undergoing significant improvements at every stop along the way, helped pave the way for the European Renaissance, and eventually, to our modern world.
The process of conversion to Islam in Central Asia during the Abbasid Period increasingly became one of access for the upper and educated urban classes. While Buddhism was rich in intellectualism and tradition, one needed to enter monasteries to access the knowledge, and at this time, there was only one major functioning monastery in Central Asia, Nava Vihara. The nearest Buddhist university was in North India, quite far for most people in Central Asia. New mosques were being built, albeit slowly, in major cities under Abbasid control, but these centers were much closer and accessible than most Buddhist monasteries.
The Abbasids, however, occasionally went to war with their Eastern neighbors. Various generals led jihads against the states of Surashtra and Kabul, which were Buddhist. Yet it must be understood that jihads were often called in order to gather popular support for an otherwise political and/or economic war. In general, the Abbasids were tolerant of Buddhism, and had friendly relations with most Buddhist countries. Buddhists, as a whole, were not forced to convert by the sword.
The first major blow delivered against Buddhist influence in Central Asia occurred in 870, when the Saffarids, an Islamic Bactrian state which declared autonomy from the Abbasids, invaded Kabul and plundered the Buddhist monasteries in the Kabul Valley to finance their war aims. He sent the Buddha statues as war trophies to Baghdad for the Caliph. This violent occupation of Kabul was short-lived however, and the Hindu Shahi people retook Kabul in 879 and patronized Hinduism and Buddhism there, where both religions enjoyed a revival . It seems however, that this first major attack on Buddhist states would not be the last, and not the most destructive.
Muslim military leaders did not usually destroy shrines or temples belonging to locals in the regions they conquered. This was partially due to political considerations, as the locals could rebel, and it was partially due to the economic benefit of receiving pilgrims who, in addition to already adding money to the town by doing business there, could also be charged for visiting the shrines. The aforementioned attack on Kabul is of course, a notable exception.
One fact must be made very explicit in the light of my own arguments about the use of religion by political leaders. Although it is certainly true that religion was a tool for political change and unification, as well as wars, this is not to say that individuals in these societies were either aware of it, or were, as a whole, insincere about conversion. Many, if not most people who converted did so out of a sincere desire to convert to their chosen religion, regardless of the overall political situation which may not have mattered to them much at all. In fact, it is likely that conversions by individuals, rather than the state, were simply influenced rather than forced by rulers or other factors.
Shift of Power, from the Arabs to the Turks, the Rise of the Qarakhanid-s
While the Abbasids enjoyed a long period of prosperity in the western half of the Islamic world, the Turkic tribes to the northeast in Central Asia were gaining power at the expense of the Buddhist states in the region.
Anti-Buddhist sentiment grew among the Turks of Central Asia in the 8th to 9th Centuries as they blamed their defeat at the hands of the Chinese Tang Dynasty on the negative influence of Buddhism among their people. However, the defeat prompted the Turkish minister Tonyuquq to claim that Buddhist non-violence and gentleness robbed the Turks of their martial spirit and heritage. He wished to unite all the Turkic tribes to fight against the Chinese, and used anti-Buddhist rhetoric in order to gain support. The Uighur leaders, on the other hand, did not see it that way and remained Buddhist. As we can see, political and military concerns seemed to precipitate a change in religious tolerances .
Most Turkic tribes converted from shamanism to Buddhism, then to Islam, with changes in between. It was a common feature of new leaders of Turkic tribes to convert to a strong foreign religion in order to break with the previous dynasty of rulers to unify their people under a new ideology, a new order. This occurred with the conversion to Buddhism, as well as the later conversion to Islam. Interestingly, Uighur and Eastern Turkic leaders adopted the title "Bodhisattva" which is a being who is determined to become enlightened, with a Mahayana connotation: a being who remains mortal until all beings become enlightened. The connection of princes being called "Bodhisattva" implies the need to religiously justify abrupt changes in regimes among Turkic tribes in the late First Millennium C.E .
Many of the previously Buddhist Turkic tribes converted to Islam because their new rulers had previously been military slave chiefs under the Abbasids, and won their freedom after conversion. The Qarakhanid Turkic state voluntarily adopted Islam as previous Turkic states converted to Buddhism or Manichaeism in order to gain supernatural support for their new state. Control of the economic trade routes through the Silk Road was a primary concern for establishing national identities in order to unite and wage war effectively. Religion in these cases was a tool for the elites rather than a force in its own right.
The Qarakhanid Turks and the Samanid Persians (who were both new Islamic states challenging the authority of the Abbasids) needed a religion different from their rivals in East Turkistan, who were Buddhists and controlled the Gansu Corridor, through which both the Northern and Southern Silk Roads ran through on the way to China. Both states chose Sunni Islam, in opposition to the Buddhists and other religions in the region. Both states allied to seize the Silk Road from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic states in the region. In 942, Satuq Bughra Khan of the Western Qarakhanid-s failed to conquer the Eastern Qarakhanid-s with Samanid Persian help, he turned on the Samanid-s. They consequently reunified the Turkic tribes in the region, and took Samarqand and Bukhara from the Samanid-s. The Qarakhanid-s took control of the Turkic sacred mountain, Otukan, and continued to push for control of the Silk Road . Conflicts between Muslims actually seem more common during this time period than conflict between Muslims and Buddhists.
A major exception to the appearance of peace between Buddhists and Muslims was the invasion of Kashgar in 971 following a rebellion that overthrew the Turkish rulers there. A brother of the Qaghan (ruler) of the Qarakhanid-s was sent on jihad to retake Kashgar, but instead of stopping there, he pushed eastward to Yarkand and besieged Khotan, a large Buddhist state, for 24 years. Despite reinforcements from Tibet, the Khotanese fell to the Qarakhanid-s in 1006. An uprising was staged shortly thereafter, but the rebellion was violently crushed, and Khotan and Kashgar were converted permanently to Islam. It seems that the rebellion was ethnically motivated, as the reasons given for the initial conflict was that the citizens of Kashgar did not want Qarakhanid Turkish rulers, not that the rulers were Muslims. There is no mention of Buddhist Qarakhanid Turks rebelling in Kashgar, and they apparently did not resist conversion to Islam .
Islamic religious histories use the Kashgar incident as an example of Buddhist-Islamic conflict and blame the Buddhists for launching their own holy war upon the Qarakhanid-s, and justify the response as a sort of counter-jihad. The nature of the Buddhist response and the lack of a holy war concept in Buddhism do not support this belief , and so one must be aware of the political motivating factors and not simply accept the war as a religious conflict. Besides, the Qarakhanid-s did not invade all their Buddhist neighbors, but only Khotan. It is unlikely the war was as politically motivated as it was made out to be .
Berzin makes an excellent point with regard to religious tolerance and misperceptions and assumptions about religious conflict between Islam and Buddhism,
"The strong Buddhist faith of the Tanguts, Tibetans, Qocho Uighur-s, and Han Chinese never seemed to deter the Qarakhanid-s zeal for economic gain. Had their international relations been directed solely by the aim of converting infidels to Islam, they would surely have boycotted the Buddhist trade and attacked the Tanguts, Uighur-s, or Ngari Tibetans when they were in a weakened condition. However, in keeping with the pattern that has appeared over and again in the history of Muslim-Buddhist relations in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, Muslim conquest of territory has been marked by the quick destruction of the institutions of theological religions; while subsequent occupation has been characterized by economic exploitation. The latter always has required a certain degree of religious tolerance and, once established, has taken precedence in shaping political policy."
Beginning of the End for Buddhism in India
Mahmud of Ghazni was an 11th Century Sunni Muslim from Central Asia who was famously intolerant of non-Sunni Muslims. He was militant, and led many expeditions throughout the Muslim world to defeat the Ismaili states, the Fatimid-s of Egypt and Multan, who were both surrounding the Abbasid Caliphate and threatening invasion. He became known as a raider of monasteries, and sacked many Hindu and Buddhist monasteries for money and treasures in the Multan territory. He attacked the Hindu Shahi-s in the Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, and sacked the gigantic treasury at Nagarkot (now Kangra). His goal was the purging of Islam of the Ismaili-s, not the conversion or killing of Buddhists or others, and the sacking of monasteries were in pursuit of economic gain, rather than anti-Buddhist or anti-Hindu/Jain fervor. Indeed, it seems that the Muslim rulers in Central Asia ignored the Buddhists unless there was a major economic benefit to conquest and as time passed, the Buddhists declined, and so did the number of wars.
The Turkish Ghurid Empire from eastern Iran ran on a campaign of conquest throughout northern India during the 12th through 13th Centuries. When they encountered the large walls of the Odantapuri and Vikramashila Monasteries, they were razed to the ground, and on their sites were placed administrative headquarters by the Ghurid military governors. They assumed the monasteries were military forts, and acted as if they were. However the Ghurids did not destroy all the Buddhist institutions in their realm, and did not go out of their way of advance to destroy anything. If resistance was found on the war path, then it was destroyed, if it was not, it was to be ignored. It was actually against the interests of military leaders to destroy anything in conquered regions, as governors were allowed to tax whatever they wished in lieu of financial support from the centralized state. If the biggest revenue bringing buildings such as monasteries were destroyed, the future governors would have no money to rule .
Buddhism's decline in India could be explained only partially by military invasion, as Hinduism and Jainism survived while Buddhism did not. The Buddhists had large temples with walls and fortifications, so razing them became militarily significant. This also indicates that had the Ghurid call for Jihad been the real reason for war, they would have also destroyed Hindu and Jain temples, which they generally did not, and they probably would have wiped out all Buddhist temples, which they also did not generally attempt. Whatever large structure was on the war path was the target, and only if economically worth looting. It can be argued in fact, that the emigration of Buddhists after the Ghurid invasion helped revive Buddhism in Tibet , which was on the decline at that time. Fleeing scholars passed through Nepal, a stalwartly Buddhist state with a strong academic tradition on the way to Tibet. They brought with them knowledge from Nepalese masters to Tibet, along with the saved manuscripts from their razed monasteries back in India. Also, Berzin explains,
"Buddhism was already mixed with many elements of devotional Hinduism. Therefore, when the major monasteries were destroyed, most Buddhists were easily absorbed into Hinduism. They could still focus their devotion on Buddha and be considered good Hindus. Hinduism and Jainism, on the other hand, were more oriented to laypeoples practice in the home and did not require monastic institutions. So Buddhists could blend in with Hindus and survive, while the converse was not necessarily true
Hindus and Jains were useful to the Muslim conquerors. The Hindus had a warrior caste that could be conscripted into service, while the Jains were the major local merchants and sources of tax. The Buddhists, on the other hand, did not have a distinguishing occupation or service as a people as a whole.
Again politics and economics play a bigger role than religion. Conflicts were based primarily on economic concerns, as well as power struggles. Conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims did not occur because of religion, but because of their belonging to different groups with different interests.
Sufis and Buddhists: A Close Partnership
Growth of Islam in Central Asia was undoubtedly very complex; yet one major factor of the conversion of Central Asians was the appeal of Sufism, both in Sunni and Shia forms. Islam was the target of conversion for many people in Central Asia. The esoteric practices and open-mindedness of Sufis brought many people who were already exposed to similar ideas from Buddhism and Hinduism into the fold of Islam, especially once the social and economic benefits for doing so became much more obvious. Sunni Islam at the time was considered very Arab-centric, and Shia Persian-centric and so Shia was generally the more appealing of the two traditions. To be fair, the division may not have been considered so black-and-white to most people, and the schism indeed did not occur officially until around the 11th Century. The counter-balance was given primarily by the large number of Sunni Sufi groups, and the pressures from the Sunni-controlled institutions which governed the Islamic territories in Central Asia.
Sufis and Buddhists interacted a great deal in many fields, including theology, academia, and in social activism. Moral values and activities conducted by both religions can perhaps illuminate the likenesses of the two religions, whereas theology and distant concepts may be better to show differences. When we compare the more mystically-oriented Sufism with Buddhism, we see much more similarity than difference, in sharp contrast to the more obvious differences between Sunni Islamic theology and Buddhism.
There are many themes shared between Sufi concepts and Buddhism. From Idries Shah, the idea that Reality is beyond words so that nothing uttered or imagined by the human mind can accurately describe the Reality of the universe. For Ibn al-Arabi as well as Shah, the world is only as we can perceive through our senses, and is therefore dependent on our mind. The universe, as Abd Al-Karim Jili describes, is being constantly recreated and destroyed. Rumi and al-Ghazali refer often to the interdependence of all things in the world. The word "eren" (heroic saint in Persian) was used to refer to Buddhist and Muslim figures. Ecstasy and trances were shared practices between Sufis and Tantric Buddhists in certain tarika-s, particularly in the Uighur regions where Sufis also began to shave their heads and faces. The idea of enlightenment in Buddhism, the annihilation of the self, is similar to "fana'", or "annihilation (of the ego)". This leads to the Buddhist concept of "anatman", or "no soul". The similarity in terms, ideas, and practices between Sufis and Buddhists are staggering and uncanny.
Cleary as quoted by Scott explains meditation techniques between Sufism and Buddhism, and the similarity in themes is telling of interaction between the two traditions,
"The self is powerless, and does not exist apart from our artificial perceptions of our ego, and "the inevitability of death, the impermanence of all phenomena, the inconceivability of truth. In addition to silent meditation, recitation and incantation-of sacred writ, invocations and litanies, and mnemonic formulae-are very commonly used by Buddhists and Muslims. In the realm of instrumental literature, we find two special techniques-known in mystical Islam as 'scatter' and 'impact'- another shared feature of practical Buddhism and Islam."
Idries Shah, a modern Sufi notes the following similarities between Zen Buddhism and Sufism,
"a resemblance between Sufi thought and practice and the strange allegedly typical Buddhistic cult of Zen as practiced (sic) in Japan is of great interest . . . the similarities between Zen and Sufism, both in terminology, stories and activities of masters are considerable. From the Sufi viewpoint, the practice of Zen, as given in popular literature resembles irresistibly the working of a part of the technique of the 'impact' (zarb) of Sufism."
Going further back, the Buddha, during Seljuk times, was referred to by al-Shahrastani and al-Biruni, both prominent Sufis, as a Prophet. The significance of this kind of praise is hard to underestimate. Sufis since the Abbasid period had been learning from Buddhism, and Buddhism from Sufis, and this exchange of knowledge and tradition heavily impacted Central Asian culture and politics. Growth of Islam after the suppression of the Ismaili-s and Shia in Central Asia was promoted by Sufis who skillfully were able to adapt Islam for the native, semi-nomadic Turkic tribes. The expansion of Islam by Sufis was not opposed by Buddhists. These conversions occurred because of admiration of Sufis by locals, their adaptation of Islam for natives, and not-insignificantly, supported by the Buddhist Qaraqitan rulers . Buddha became a highly respected figure by Muslims in Central Asia and Persia during the Middle Ages. As we can see, the success of Islam in Central Asia can be attributed in no small part to the ability of the Sufis to present Islam in such as way as to appeal to the locals, especially to the Turks.
Al-Shahrastani was a 12th century Sufi scholar who wrote an account about Buddhism that was, on the whole, accurate and positive. His opinion on Buddhism was quite interesting. He mentioned that Buddhist teachings "can be very near to the teachings of the Sufis". Scott's insight on Al-Shahrastanis statement is significant in its implications: "It seems significant, in retrospect that it is with this eminent Sufi that we have the most specific, accurate and quite sympathetic picture drawn of the message of Buddhism
During several centuries (by now, millennia) of contact between any two religions or cultures, there is bound to be mixing of the two over time. Islam and Buddhism share many similar themes in several stories from Central Asia, especially from Sufi sources on the Silk Road. There are several stories coming from Sufi sources that suggest trading influence with Buddhism. Stories such as those of Prince (later Shaykh) Ibrahim bin Adham Al-Balkhi (Balkh was a large center for Buddhist scholarship at the time) from the 8th Century virtually mirror those of the Buddha. In one story, Ibrahim sees a beggar who implores him to leave his life as a prince, to actually begin to understand the world and break free of his chains, spiritual liberation if you will. He leaves the palace and becomes a wanderer, mirroring the story of the Buddha. In stories such as these there are influences that are not emphasized nearly as much as in many Western Islamic Sufi stories, but are quite prominent in eastern strands of Sufism.
It seems that Islamic and Buddhist interaction with one another has resulted in interesting similarities between them. Despite large gaps in the central theologies of both religions, there are areas in which practice and thought coincide and resemble one another, especially in Sufism. Mystical ideas and practices within meditation and contemplative fields are often very similar, as a comparison of Sufi writings and Buddhist texts can show. Emphases placed on social activism and the relatively egalitarian perspectives of both Buddhism and Islam are quite prominent and can be used to illustrate similarities with regards to assistance to the poor. Indeed, interaction between the two groups has perhaps impacted the ideas of Islam quite significantly, especially in Sufi thought, and can be seen rather plainly through observation today.
To conclude, the history between Buddhism and Islam is quite complex, and is not easily boiled-down to religious issues, rather in conflict or in peace, theological or philosophical. Social issues, political conflicts, and economic interests have played a much larger role in shaping the interaction between Buddhism and Islam than religion. This is true for interactions between most groups of people. Rulers especially are much more susceptible to power conflicts, financial problems, and political danger than the majority of the people in society, and as a result, will tend to prioritize these problems over others such as ideology or religion. This is not to say that neither religion nor ideology play a part in peoples choices about how to live, how to interact, or how to think, but that other, much more concrete problems tend to be prioritized over more abstract issues.
It is unfortunate that Islam and Buddhism are not studied in comparison more often. It is justified of course, for many academics in the West to study Christianity and Islam in tandem, yet this should not come as an expense to other, very large and equally relevant traditions throughout the world. It is my hope that in the future we will see an increase of study of non-Western and non-Middle Eastern issues in all fields of academia. Our best hope may be in archeology and anthropology, fields which are currently quite active in non-European and non-Middle Eastern research. I am optimistic that as the Far East becomes a bigger focus for issues outside of academia, perhaps in politics and economics, it will be seen as more worthy of academic research, as happened with regards to the Middle East in the last century.
My final paper for Modern Islam last year, about 26 pages double spaced. It's probably my best essay, and I hope you enjoy it.
hello, I have read this. This is good, but you may want to include some references
I will download this and read this
This is very interesting, I have talks about this with my professor often. What sources did you use for this? I would love to read about it more.
I wish I had my sources still. I wrote this in 2007 when I was living in Turkey. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I haven't been active on this site in quite some time.
Thanks for reading it. I don't expect people to read something this long from a very inactive member. Thanks for the feedback!
Thanks for reading it. I don't expect people to read something this long from a very inactive member. Thanks for the feedback!
Very interesting piece of work. The indentation is appreciated, but spacing the paragraphs would make this a lot easier to read.